"Perfectionism is just fear in good shoes."
~Elizabeth Gilbert, SuperSoul Conversations
We are a family of perfectionists. And while our culture might celebrate perfectionism, my statement is by no means a brag. Perfectionists are in no way perfect. Rather we are uptight, often joyless and frequently unproductive. While others are doing, we're wringing our hands. While others are living, we're hesitating.
In my husband's case, he procrastinates because the idea of taking anything on is paralyzing. Odd jobs take, literally, years because if he's going to do it, he's going to do it perfectly and that takes time. Time he doesn't have. And so he doesn't even begin.
My youngest would rather do nothing than do something she can't be fabulous at. And so she's avoided most extracurriculars. Even things she's good at – and she's quite talented at singing, sewing clothes, art – become a source of stress because she's not good enough. Good enough for whom? I ask. Good enough for myself, she snarls back.
My eldest gets swallowed by shame any time she isn't a superstar. She auditioned for an arts school when she was nine. The morning of auditions, she woke up with a fever of 103F and a throat that felt like razor blades. Not surprisingly, she didn't get accepted, a failure that still haunts her, a decade later.
My son, fortunately, is the anomaly. He takes things in stride, tries a whole lot of things, some of which he succeeds at, others he doesn't. He works hard, has a zillion friends and, no coincidence, enjoys life more than the rest of us put together.
I've done a whole lot of therapy to release the shame I've felt my whole life for being anything less than perfect but I'm a work in progress. Sometimes I think I'm past it but then I'll notice that the critic in my head is loud again, pointing out how much more successful other women – young than I am! – are in their careers. How much happier their marriages seem. How much more confident their children seem. How much...better they are.
So when I was listening to the podcasts I recently downloaded – Oprah's SuperSoul Conversations – and Liz Gilbert remarked that perfectionism is just fear in good shoes, well, it hit me hard.
Because I know it's true.
Fear has ruled my life. Fear has kept me small in many ways. If there is one thing I could change about myself, it is this: To be fearless.
Fear is a common theme on this site. So so many women, who arrive on our rocky shores, battered and bruised from betrayal, are terrified. They're terrified because suddenly the future feels uncertain to them. But they're terrified too for what they think betrayal says about them. So SO many of us are perfectionists. It's sometimes hard to see because perfectionism has somehow become conflated with achievement and with attention to detail. It's not that at all. Perfectionism isn't about working hard or about achievement. Perfectionism is fear in good shoes. It's what keeps us on the sidelines, it's what keeps us paralyzed, it's what keeps us hiding our gifts because what if we show up for our lives, exactly as we are, and we're rejected? What if our best isn't good enough? Good enough for whom? I ask. Good enough for myself.
Which is exactly it, isn't it? We are our worst critics. There's nothing anyone can say to us that's more cruel than what we say to ourselves. And if they try, and we don't already believe it, the words won't sting. Only criticism that we agree with can hurt us. And we agree with so much of it.
Perfectionism becomes our armour. We suit up to face the world. If we're perfect, the distorted thinking goes, then we're beyond criticism. The world will love and admire us. We can hide behind our sparkling kitchen, our flawless makeup, our starved bodies. Don't look in our eyes, where the fear lives. Look over there! At our perfect children, our adoring husband (except when he's not), our big house, our career. God help us if someone pulls back the curtain and finds us, elbow deep in the ice cream tub, belly protruding, face bare, house messy, kids whining, husband cheating. Husband cheating! Because that's what we believe, isn't it? That he wouldn't have cheated if we were perfect enough. We take HIS mistake and hold ourselves accountable for it. We let someone else's bullshit behaviour become about our failings.
Perfectionism robs us of joy. It robs us of authentic lives. It takes our fear of rejection and holds us hostage. It can also be deadly. A recent New Yorker article cites an author's new book, Selfie, and notes that the author's chapter on suicide "blames the horror and shame of failing to meet the sky-high expectations we set for ourselves." Perfection kills, he concludes. At the very least, we're suffering under the delusion that we can somehow create perfect selves and the only thing holding us back is, well, our imperfection.
Well, if betrayal brings with it any gifts – and I believe it can – one of them might be our chance to shake off any notion that being perfect might have spared us this pain. While I remain a work in progress, it was my husband's betrayal that led me closer to a F@#K YOU epiphany, whereby I far more than before refuse to compromise myself to make myself more palatable to other people. Don't like my cooking? F@#K you. Cook your own dinner. Think my house is messy? F@#K you. Let me introduce you to my vacuum cleaner. I'm sure you'll be very happy together.
Perfectionism will fight like hell to continue to ruin your life. It will show up as whispers ("why can't you be as thin as your marathon-running sister?"), it will show up as shouts ("if you were sexier, he wouldn't have cheated"). It will encourage you to spend money you don't have on things you don't need. It will insist that happiness is one more diet, one more fitness program, one less cheesecake away. It will demand that you work harder, work longer, try more. And any failures of your husband, your kids or your family of origin are your fault because, well, you should be different. More easy-going. More confident. Less demanding. Anything but what you are.
And here's the thing perfectionism will never say but it's the truest thing I know: We are fine. We are worthy. We are enough.
I struggle so hard with that but in the deepest part of my soul, I know it's true. I was once asked in a course to write a six-word memoir. I wrote: Nobody could say she didn't try.
You can feel the exhaustion in that statement, can't you? The defeat. Maybe I need to give myself permission to not try so hard. To let myself just be. To find a way to like the same things I've spent a lifetime beating myself up for.
Maybe it's time for you too.
Perfect is the enemy of all of us. Let's conquer it.