Beyond the burden of perfection
Shedding the myth of achieving worthiness & making space to be real instead
My dear friend Danae stopped me in my tracks this week.
I had left her a voice note in which I struggled to articulate a reflection regarding something she’d shared. Danae and I leave a voice message for each other almost daily. With 1800 miles between us this is how we cheer each other on in the wild ride of being human in 2022. In the more than seven years that we’ve been friends we’ve walked each other through many difficult times, benefited greatly from each other’s intuition and insight, and grown to trust each other deeply. We have a spoken understanding that input is always welcome because it comes from love, is usually right-on, and proves very valuable.
But even with this depth of trust and spoken understanding, when the occasion arose I struggled to say something. Meaning, I worked very hard to say it well. I deleted my message and recorded it again in an attempt to say it more clearly and more gracefully. Then I deleted that one and tried again. I worked so hard to say this well that when Danae replied she told me, with great and tender kindness, that my message was actually painful for her to receive. Not because of what I said, but because of how hard I was working to say it “right.”
She told me that what I shared was 100% accurate, gave her useful insight, and she felt loved knowing that I have her back—but it pained her to hear how hard I was working to say it. For her it was painful that I was struggling to use my voice, painful that I was re-recording my messages, painful that I didn’t trust myself and her enough to just come out and say the thing.
Our culture tells us perfectionism is virtuous. It’s not.
We think we’re striving to be perfect to benefit others. It doesn’t.
With compassion, Danae acknowledged that perfectionism is driven by wounding and then she lovingly invited me to step beyond it and join her in a game instead. She said, “This is me you’re talking to. I love you and I trust you. Let me be the safe space where you try on something different. I invite you into a game and in this game it’s your job to be messy. See if you can shoot from the hip and just say the thing, no matter how messy.”
Hearing the pain and love in her voice is what stopped me in my well-worn tracks. Suddenly, I saw how the struggle I thought was for her, wasn’t. It was a burden I was putting on her. A burden she was lovingly asking me to stop carrying.
Our culture tells us perfectionism is virtuous. It’s not. We think we’re striving to be perfect to benefit others. It doesn’t. Perfectionism is a survival strategy. We try to achieve doing and being “good enough” in order to be accepted, be loved, belong. It’s something we do in order to receive what we need because we’re taught that our existence depends on our performance.
I find life takes us not so much forward in a line as around in spiral cycles. This painful-beautiful encounter with Danae is not my first rodeo in the perfectionism circuit. I’ve made several laps on this thing.
In high school I realized I had perfectionistic tendencies that were not necessarily great for me and I needed to loosen up. So I let my handwriting get faster, looser, and imperfect. And I practiced putting a pile of clothes on my bedroom floor and leaving them there so I could build up a tolerance to a level of messiness that I anticipated might be part of dorm life. 😊
In college I took things to the next level and embraced the occasional “B” as part of the educational adventure of taking rigorous courses. I sometimes referred to myself as a “recovering perfectionist” but mostly I thought I was doing a decent job of letting it go. I had no idea that my “recovery” from perfectionism was largely surface level and in many ways a perfectionistic self-improvement project of its own.
In my twenties I ventured beyond the voices of perfectionism (which often take the form of self doubt and imposter syndrome) and launched my first business. Based on the revolutionary understanding that what mattered was that I actually helped people succeed, I worked as a freelance book editor & writing coach even though I didn’t have the perfect resume and proper degrees behind my name.
In my thirties I emerged from the wild tornado of a deeply destructive marriage to spend years grappling with the wreckage. At this point my life was far too messy for me to cling to any ideas of being perfect. I figured I was finally cured.
But in my forties I’m cycling around again, this time getting down to the depths, being with the childhood trauma and social conditioning that drives the perfectionistic tendencies that I always thought of as a “me problem,” but are in fact a cultural problem, one that affects us all to some degree.
And that’s the thing that hit so hard this week in conversation with Danae. The burden of perfectionism isn’t something I carry alone, it affects others. The timing of this recognition is a gift because the voices of perfectionism are up right now as a result of having just launched The New Story last week. 🎉 I’m now sitting with the honor and wonder of having subscribers. There are a bunch of amazing people that have signed up to hear what I have to say! It’s inspiring. Joyful. And an opportunity for perfectionism to pipe up and derail what’s trying to emerge.
But here’s what I know. When we’re busy trying to be perfect what we miss
is being is real. And that’s what the world needs from us.
What benefits others is not us achieving perfection in some way, but us showing up and being present. Even if it’s messy. And that’s what I’m committed to doing here.
We don’t love people because they’re perfect. We don’t follow someone on social media because they’re perfect. If anything we tend to feel turned off by images of perfection and avoid people who seem to “have it all together.” Why? Because the appearance of perfection gives us the feeling it’s not okay to be ourselves.
But it is.
That’s exactly who we need to be. Our gloriously real and sometimes messy selves. So let’s do this. Let’s make it a game if we need to. Let’s hold space for each other to show up and give life our best, even if it doesn’t sound smooth or look how we think it’s supposed to look. Let’s go the opposite direction of society’s myth of perfection as a necessity and a virtue and instead look for ways to remind each other that we’re already worthy and our existence isn’t a performance, it’s a gift.
Somehow I have two subscribe buttons here and can’t figure out how to delete the extra one. How perfect!
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