“I’m like a recovering perfectionist. For me it’s one day at a time.” ~ Brene Brown.
When one of my kids was in kindergarten or first grade, he got super frustrated doing his homework. It appeared to be something simple – he was to draw a picture of a dinosaur. But he was in tears, he was looking at a picture of the dinosaur and trying to copy it, and his effort, he knew, looked nothing like the illustration. There was nothing I could do as his mother to reassure him that he wasn’t supposed to be able to reproduce the dinosaur perfectly.
I often throw the word ‘perfect’ into the mix when introducing myself to a new group of students: ‘I am perfect in every way; I don’t make mistakes’. This is a marvelous device, managing to make anything that goes wrong somebody else’s fault. It may have gotten me a few enemies. I have heard more than one person mutter back at me, ‘oh yes, that’s right, you’re perfect’. And of course, I am puzzled, (I get it from my father) for how on earth could you believe that I believe that. But one of the problems with having a sense of humor that demands that you say things with a straight face is that people then believe you.
Over my vacation I had a mini meltdown followed by a mini revelation. We went on a road trip with vague stops and destinations in mind, in a planned/unplanned type of way. I have done this before, in fact I used to do it in the days before the internet, when you set off to parts unknown, stopped at a ‘welcome center’ along the way and picked up magazines with ads for discounted hotels and motels. Then you found a reasonably priced hotel on your route, called ahead and reserved a room. Did we call from a pay phone? I wonder if this was even before mobile phones? Anyway, for the most part the accommodation was adequate, even though we didn’t have the benefit of 36 photos to evaluate it.
In the 21st century, we have a plethora of sites to choose from, websites that compare even more websites, with the photos and reviews to back them up. And of course Airbnb is another option. I have now had three experiences with Airbnb. All were satisfactory. One was a little scary as the homeowner (it seemed to be his regular residence) had a requirement that shoes be removed at the door. Since all of his furnishings were in white, you could understand his concern.
But choices can be an intimidating thing. How do you know that you are not making the wrong choice? Whether it was choice of overnight accommodation, choice of a point of interest, which particular section of New Orleans, which restaurant, what kind of entertainment, after a while I felt that this was all too much pressure. How could I be sure I was picking out the best experience? Was there something more interesting we could be doing? Why did I have to make all the decisions? It took me a while to realize that I was traveling with a partner who was perfectly happy with whatever choice I made, who was not criticizing or second guessing me. I was the one who was critiquing myself, I had set myself up to impossibly high standards, that of making perfect choices, as if there is any such thing.
It is very humbling to admit to the weakest of your imperfections. It requires deep introspection and a letting go of expectations, of yearning after certain outcomes. And when you consider yourself to be ‘evolved’, ‘enlightened’, it is a very good reminder that these words are not nouns, they are verbs – we are all works in progress, ever evolving, ever needing those reminders that we have not arrived.
It is my friend who has struggled with addiction who often says that for the addict, the only time you can truly begin to change your behavior is when you hit bottom; and no matter how bad things get, if they are not bad enough to force you to the acknowledgment that you have to change, then you are not at the bottom. So long as we can lie to ourselves, we are not ready to do those uncomfortable things that are necessary to get us out of the bottomless pit.
For children of addicts, or those who grow up around addicts, there is a term for the disorder they develop: Codependency. It is a complicated disorder, with features such as striving for perfection, to keep things as perfect as possible so as not to set off an unpredictable adult. The child grows up to be a people pleaser, the one who is always ready to fix things, to fix other people. They say that people who have codependent tendencies make great nurses – they love taking care of other people while ignoring their own needs. But it is unhealthy. You cannot take care of others if you yourself are scarred, unhealthy, wounded. I often recognize the trait in students (having first acknowledged it in myself), and try to teach them the importance of self-care, and self-forgiveness. They will have totally unreasonable expectations of themselves, they must not, cannot mess up. But they will mess up, because we are human.
My road trip immediately improved when I remembered that the trick is to let go, to allow every experience to be the best it could be, instead of thinking I was missing something somewhere else. Although plans are good to make sure you get to where you need to be within the confines of a working life, there is plenty of room for flexibility. And like my friend’s father told me almost 50 years ago: “It’s a bit like beating your head up against a brick wall: it does feel good when you stop.” So often the person we are trying to prove something to is ourselves.
This Friday morning, I hope you are able to laugh at yourself, at your imperfections and your continued need for growth. If we can laugh while we are learning, we are releasing endorphins and chasing away those anxiety hormones that make us sick and interfere with our ability to learn. And if we do find ourselves at rock bottom, we have an amazing opportunity to reinvent ourselves as we climb up. Have a great weekend, and may your weekend be full of self-forgiveness, adventure and laughter!