Striving for perfection separated me from myself.
Anne Lamott offers some really powerful thinking about the effects of perfectionism on the self:
“It will keep you very scared and restless your entire life if you do not awaken, and fight back, and if you’re an artist, it will destroy you.”
“Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid?”
I remember what it was like to be scared and restless. It can destroy you in any area of your life.
I feared being found out. I feared everyone would discover my imperfection and reject me. I feared that actually, at my core, I just wasn’t as good as I thought I should be.
I was restless because nothing was ever enough. Because the distance between my core self and the self I was trying to project to the world was growing so immense, I could no longer bridge the gap, so I just took up residence in that in-between space. It felt like I was standing outside my body, watching this girl go through the motions of living and critiquing her every move. I had wholly rejected myself. I wanted to erase her from existence.
It’s in this space of striving and rejection that self-loathing finds its power. It’s the ideal environment to harvest deep, rich self-hatred. It easily breeds, multiplies, and grows. The more immense the space between real self and perfect self, the more immense the space for gross antipathy, hostility, and disgust. Endlessly disappointing myself, feeling disappointed, then chastising myself for feeling disappointed, then chastising myself for chastising myself. A neverending loop of gut-wrenching pain.
It’s easy now to see why my last therapist thought this was unsustainable.
I’m lucky that I did have the realization that I was going to wake up one day and regret everything. I realized that I was living in an in-between space, that it was unsustainable, and that some day I was going to wish my entire life had been different.
I have been “strung out on perfection and people-pleasing” to the point where I forgot myself.
It’s when I admitted to myself that I would be totally and completely imperfect every day for the rest of my life that my shoulders slackened and my jaw unclenched just a little bit, just enough to remember to breathe deeply and look around.
It’s when I admitted to myself that people can take care of themselves without me attending to their every need that I remembered to listen to the voice inside me–that that voice existed at all. People can withstand the disappointment of my “no.”
I don’t have to be shining and graceful every moment of every day. People aren’t watching my every move, keeping a log of my failures or misfires, or tracking how much rest and down time I need. I can be still, I can build pockets of margin into my day, and I can put my ear to my soul, finding richness and fulfillment within.
I’m good just as I am without a million accomplishments and an endless stream of recognition. In fact, I am better than I ever thought I could be.
My friends like me even if I show up to the party with a bottle of wine that cost $4.99.
I like myself even if you can’t trace the outlines of my triceps. I don’t feel rushed to go to the gym when the Internet tells me it’s “tank top season” and I better get serious if I dare to be seen in public for the next five months.
I’m still a worthy grad student even if I miss a soft deadline. Life happens, and I work slowly, and sometimes the answers don’t come when my schedule says they should.
If I’m not The Best, I’m still Good Enough.
The world will keep spinning if I’m just too tired on a Thursday and need to order out instead of making the healthy vegan noodle bowl I’d been planning on whipping up all week.
I still love myself even if this morning I looked at the to-do list I’d made for today and decided, “Nope. Not all of this will happen today.” It will get done. Just not today. And that is really okay. I am not worth any less for it.
No one is going to remember any of this crap anyway. They will remember that I tried to be kind and generous. They will remember that I always saw the best in everyone, even through the years when I saw only the worst in myself.
Some things I’m still wrestling with:
I’m not ready for the gray hairs I see sneaking in among my blonde and brown strands.
I don’t feel happy about my current wardrobe. I can’t update it for another six months because of my spending freeze, but it feels caught in between the person I was in my 20s and the person I see myself becoming in my 30s. It’s a loose end I can’t tie up for a while.
I’m not sure if I was as good a teacher as I could have been this semester. I really relaxed and let my students take the reins, but letting go of control has been difficult. Did they feel disappointed?
Does my boyfriend resent when I make a dinner that consists of pasta drenched in lemon zest-infused heavy cream? There’s no meat or potatoes, but that’s what we eat on weekends when he cooks. On weeknights, when I cook, I want to eat meals that are simple or vegetable-focused.
Patience. I have so many big visions for my life, and I try to feel the joy of being in the process, moment to moment, watching my life unfold one small choice at a time.
Tell me, friends, do you have anything you’re wrestling with? Have you ever been “strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing”? How do you bridge the distance and come face to face with your wonderfully imperfect self?
2 thoughts on “Wonderfully imperfect”
I love this post- it essentially summarizes the last 10 years of my life. I took the motivating tools from swimming competitively and applied them to all aspects of my life. I figured “if it makes me happy in the pool, then it’ll work everywhere.” Not so. Everything was always climbing towards an unattainable idea off in the distance. When I gave up the pursuit of perfection, I threw the baby out with the bath water (training and competing). I’m struggling terribly to keep balance my internal needs with my external commitments. I can acknowledge that everything is technically “okay,” but I’m having a hard time accepting “okay” as a good thing.
I feel like I’ve rambled, but I appreciate your writing and the thoughts it’s sparked in my own head 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks for reading and commenting, Mannfred. This was a difficult post to write as it dredged up a lot of sadness from my past. But it’s been true for me that giving up my pursuit of perfection has let me be much happier in my day-to-day life. Of course I still strive to reach goals, but there’s much more ease and patience and self-compassion and less disappointment and criticism.