I used to believe that perfectionism could protect me. I sometimes still do. The parts of my life where this has reared its ugly head are many.
In grade school, it was my report card.
In college, it was my body.
In relationships, it was the avoidance of conflict and vulnerability.
In my faith, it was how many consecutive Sundays I showed up in the pews and prayed for friends and how many good deeds I could put a gold star by in the name of Jesus.
In work, it was staying late, never calling out sick even when I was, and going above and beyond while quietly resenting every second of it.
And in my journey in mental health, it was pretending to always be okay all of the time and never, ever asking for help or telling anyone about what life really felt like when you peeled back the curtains for a behind-the-scenes tour.
Perfectionism remains one thing I have yet to let go of in my life. It has a voice and an opinion and way of seducing me into believing it will correct my flaws if I act as it tells me to and stop settling for second-best when I should strive for excellence. And only when that excellence is achieved will I have reached the nirvana of 20-something happiness.
Perfectionism is the voice that says “what you did yesterday doesn’t matter anymore, you can find your worth and value now by being perfect.”
Ate too many Oreos last night? Just be “good” today and eat clean and restrict calories and you’ll be absolved of your sins.
Skipped the gym four days in a row? Go today and work-out for two hours and get in “x” amount of miles on the treadmill and you’ll be restored to the athletic legend you so desperately want to be.
Doctor diagnosed you with an ailment that you did not foresee or suspect and that nobody could ever possibly accept you for having? Deny it and keep quiet and mask the symptoms with whatever facade looks pretty and makes you feel most in control.
No matter what befalls you, just be perfect in this way or that and you’ll be okay and nobody will see your blemishes and bruises. And be sure to cover them up with the prettiest veneer to distract anyone who may grow suspicious.
This is a voice I am no stranger to. It is the voice of an oppressor and a bully that I let poke, prod, and shame me into submission to achieve the flawlessness I think is required to be whole and happy. It is a merciless punisher and a relentless liar. Yet we live in a culture that glorifies and exalts this voice and its false promises, and offers advice for how to achieve it in matters as vain as jean size and skin tone, to those as serious as love, faith, and mental wellness.
Even when I first started working with a therapist, the “committee of critics” in my head as I like to call it, laughed and reassured me that my therapist was wrong. Or that she was exaggerating.
No way, I don’t have that. She’s full of it.
Even if she’s right, I can’t tell anyone about this. I can’t admit it because it will fill me with horrible shame.
The chatter in my head took control in order to try and protect me, but it only exacerbated things and made me feel worse. I couldn’t measure up or meet its standards and the fight to try had depleted me of every tear and ounce of faith I had in myself. Later that night I told my husband about the diagnosis. I cried, I was ashamed, guilt pitched its tent in the belly of my soul, and I felt terrible. Just like perfectionism predicted I would. The demons of self-pity and resentment possessed me during that first week of coping with the idea of now being somehow anything other than perfect, and successfully convinced me I was no better than the damage done to me in my childhood. I felt like a failure that had been forever excluded from the club of cool kids who had had good and happy upbringings and was damned to a lifetime of dysfunction. There was no way to go back in time and perfect my childhood and exert control over what had been done to me. And that made me angry. And hell-bent on the idea that if I couldn’t be perfect “mentally,” than I could compensate by being perfect in other ways.
It’s sad that I still sometimes think this way — believing that if I attain the holy grail of perfection, all of my problems will be tumble over like dominoes and no longer matter or be there for scrutiny when you peel back the curtains.
I have lived in bondage to this sort of thinking for a long time. And it became an enemy of me telling my story. It enslaved me to the belief that if I talked about my trauma, I would be judged and forever branded as crazy. It told me that by admitting a weakness I could never pretend to be perfect again. And it perpetuated a poisonous cycle that kept me in a toxic relationship with myself where I was always running away, terrified of facing my own humanity.
But it is time to surrender and let it go.
What exactly does that look like? I still have to figure it out. But maybe this is where it starts.
It starts with self-love. And under that umbrella — the acceptance of failure and of yourself regardless of how worthy or unworthy you believe yourself to be. Only when these things have been achieved will perfectionism be appropriately dethroned and stripped of its power.
So let this be both an admission and a resolution. An admission of buying into the cheap lies of perfectionism, and a resolution to let go of those lies and love myself for who you are, right here and right now.
Because life is not supposed to be perfect. Problems aren’t supposed to have glamorous, Hollywood-esque endings. And the love offered to us from the hands of the success that perfection promises is conditional, fleeting, and fake. Self-love, however, in its honest and enduring form, is unconditional. Self-love allows us to make peace with ourselves and our weaknesses and the inevitable ways we can never be perfect. Whether it be in our professional work, creative pursuits, diet and exercise habits, or mental health — a big part in getting over the perfectionism problem is understanding that as much as we want to be the perfect, 2.0-version of ourselves, we need to stay within the realm of the possible. This takes guts. And vulnerability — vulnerability put on the line as a spiritual and physical sacrifice. Because if we desire to live and love with our whole being and engage in the world from a place of worthiness, our first step is practicing the bravery it takes to own our imperfections and the stories that tell the truth about who we are. The messy, marvelous, maddening, and mystifying truths that are often found when we come out from behind the curtain and let go of the expectation that we have to perform or behave in any other way that is not true to who we are.
Few things are as brave and as beautiful as a life lived like that.
Imperfections and all.