Last night was nice. The girls were in good spirits before bed. We read books and did our thing and when they were all tucked in, Husband and I ate very spicy Indian takeout while watching Sunday's Mad Men. Truth be told, this is my absolute favorite way to spend the evening - at home, in comfy clothes, eating something yummy, watching something yummy, next to my guy. We called it a night early too and climbed into bed with our respective books. He is reading Dan Brown's latest novel. I am still finishing up Brene Brown's Daring Greatly. I made some not-so-funny joke about how we were both reading books by Browns. And then I thought about how different the books we were reading were; his, a fast-paced, plot-driven work of fiction and mine, a very real and enlightening exploration of vulnerability and shame.
Anyway, we lay there, side by side, in our big purple bed and we read. And there was something quite magical about this, about the fact that we were together but not talking, about the fact that we were both reading words, flipping pages. And the pages I read were so powerful. I got to Brown's section on Perfectionism and something in me lit up. It was like I was back in a Philosophy seminar at Yale and the professor had just said something absolutely fascinating. I felt that little light bulb thing when I read the following words:
Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving for excellence. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is a defensive move. It's the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around, thinking it will protect us, when in fact it's the thing that's really preventing us from being seen.
-Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, page 129
Oh my. Yes.
Here's the thing: I've long identified myself as a member of the Perfectionist Species. I know that I have exceedingly high expectations for myself and my life. I am guilty of trying to do things perfectly and look perfect so as to make my life better. I am the writer who has re-written the first chapter of her next novel about fifty times (no exaggeration) because no version seems quite right. I could go on. And on.
But here's the other thing, the real discovery: I've always been secretly proud of my Perfectionism, convinced somehow that it has been the catalyst for many of the good things in my life. I've believed (until now), and I think on a pretty subconscious level (I've long insisted that Perfection is boring) that wearing the "perfect-sized jeans" and writing the "perfect blog post" or "perfect book" or having the "perfect haircut" or "perfect teeth" would translate into the coveted "perfect life."
How foolish. I am realizing now, like literally now as I sit near my Coffee Bean window looking out on the world of West 86th Street, that aiming for perfection, however conscious or unconscious, has been a bad thing. There's nothing wrong with having ambition, with dreaming dreams, with wanting and expecting good things and great things, but, as Brown states so eloquently above, this is very different than Perfectionism.
I believe with all my heart that I've been lugging that "twenty-ton shield" for the better part of 34 years. And I will be the first to admit that I've carried it well at times, that my existential muscles have grown strong and sturdy from all the lugging, but the thought of putting it down once and for all? It is beyond tempting. It's downright inspiring.
But how? How do we Perfectionists (I know so many of you reading are among us) just stop it? How do we literally lose the shield? How do we continue to fashion good goals and enjoy healthy progress and challenging expectations for ourselves without slipping into those old, subversive beliefs about being perfect? I don't pretend to know, but Brown offers a suggestion, a suggestion that makes me smile. You'll see why.
To combat Perfectionism, we must appreciate the beauty of cracks.
This makes me smile because, at bottom, I think that this is what this whole blog (which I've been writing for four years) is all about. In many ways, this place is an Ode to Cracks, to the beautiful imperfections in Self, Other, Life, World. In many ways, it is a cozy place to come and to breathe and to say I am trying and hard and that is more than enough. I think - no, I know - that I started this blog to combat my own Perfectionist tendencies, tendencies that were probably even worse four years back.
But. Yes, I am still a Perfectionist. Is this part of my essence, of who I am? Will I always have these leanings? Perhaps. Actually, I imagine so. But it is very empowering to be able to see ourselves for who we are, to identify a source of our struggles and I think, for me, Perfectionism is it. I think my struggles with Anxiety and Alcohol have been rooted in my deep Perfectionism. I think my compulsion to come here and blog every day and not just blog, but blog thoughtfully and provocatively, is rooted in my deep Perfectionism. I think there is a great deal to unpack here and I plan to do this unpacking both publicly and privately.
Anyway, maybe this isn't as earth-shattering for you as it is for me, this Perfectionism Realization. Maybe you struggle more with different shields (Foreboding Joy and Numbing are two other biggies, per Brown). But I genuinely suspect that many of you out there, many of you reading this, are perhaps unwitting members of this Perfectionist Camp. And maybe, just maybe, the thought of switching things up, of putting down that heavy and harrowing shield, appeals to you too?
I'm so glad I wrote this post. And I am thankful, over-the-top thankful, that Brene Brown took the time to research and write about these ineffable and very real things that affect so many of us. It is wildly encouraging to plunge into another person's story (literal and metaphorical) and to feel the boom-boom-boom of the dots connecting in your own.
1035 words later and the shield already feels lighter.
Thank you, Brene. And thanks to all of you for your thoughts on yesterday's post which certainly got me thinking about the Perfection Thing.
Are you now or were you ever a Perfectionist?
How has Perfectionism affected you or those you love?
Do you think Perfectionism is something we can overcome and change in ourselves?
Have you read a book recently that helped you connect some dots in your Self and Life?
Are you good at appreciating the Beauty of Cracks?
If not Perfectionism, what do you see as the source of some of your struggles?
Do you agree that Parenthood and Perfectionism are a particularly deadly combo (fodder for another post!)?
Do you read before bed? Do you and your partner read different kinds of books?
What is your ideal way to spend a night?