“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
I have never considered myself a perfectionist in the typical sense. A perfectionist is defined as someone who “refuses to accept any standard short of perfection” and in my outward life, this is not me.
I am always a bit flustered, there are always clothes strewn across the chair in my bedroom (much to my grandmother’s horror) and my fridge looks like a very complex game of Tetris. I hoard pretty much everything that has any fragment of sentimental affiliation and there are boxes of paper EVERYWHERE in my home. Papers from first year drama courses, poems from school going days, letters from old friends and just general bits of paper that I keep telling myself I will one day need, but that I have never used. So away they go into one of those ever-so-slightly-falling-apart boxes that have since become their home.
So outwardly, I am not a perfectionist and anyone who has the formidable misfortune of driving in my car with me will see that. From ancient funny moneys, numerous hair bands and an intricately decorated hot pink box that once housed two of the most delicious chocolate éclair’s that I have ever eaten, there is a lot of sh*t in my car. And my boot? Well that is just an extension of my wardrobe. Handy when I end up on an adventure and need a pair of leopard print wellies, but also a little unnecessary.
However, aesthetics and outward life aside, when it comes to the pressure that I put on myself in terms of career and academics and general self, I am a perfectionist to the most detrimental degree. This perfectionism often hinders creativity, causes extreme anxiety and is forever telling me that I am not good enough and will never be able to achieve what it is I set out to do.
This sense of anxiety around the need to be ‘perfect’ came to a particularly ugly head two years ago, when I had to do a big Politics presentation in front of my Masters class. This presentation also happened to coincide with the most horrendous point in my emotional life. An epic heartbreak I assumed I would never recover from, a dire lack of self esteem and to top it off, a new Masters degree with a bunch of genius students when I had never done politics before. I was fragile to say the least and for some reason all that fragility was illuminated during this particular presentation.
Having done numerous presentations and having never really felt any anxiety when it came to public speaking, my world suddenly changed. As I began to speak I became extremely aware of myself and could feel the thuds of my heart beat, my heavy breaths and my sweaty palms. It was as if I was out of my body and looking down on myself, acutely aware of every flinch and rumble of my body. I was suddenly terrified and so scared I would do or say something stupid that I mumbled for the first two minutes about how nervous I was to this sea of brilliant faces – who in my mind – had all nailed their presentations and were judging me harshly.
I managed to get through the entire presentation as flushed as I was, but afterwards I felt such extreme humiliation and despair. I felt like a failure. I had worked so hard and for what? A fumbling presentation, sweaty hands, red cheeks and tears in my eyes? That was two years ago and to this day I am now terrified of doing presentations. Strangely, I was able to quite confidently do a speech at my best friend’s wedding and, with the help of a beta blocker managed another academic presentation, but this experience totally got under my skin and traumatised me. Why? Because it wasn’t ‘perfect’, whatever that might mean.
I did not once stop to congratulate myself for actually getting through the darn thing despite the fear. I didn’t say to myself “Hey Char, you have had a shitty year and a half, go you for starting a Masters in a new field and showing up”. All I did was berate myself for a good year and a half and concentrate on how crap it had been. On how crap I was…
This self judgement amplified a relatively minor situation and has created a monster in my mind. The Presentation Monster, who sometimes pops out during interviews and all situations where I am supposed to showcase my “best self.” But all of this monster’s power is in my own negative self thought and criticism. I feed this monster every single day and in a sense, have become my own worst enemy. No one laughed at me that day. No one said anything mean and surprisingly, I got a good mark for the presentation. But I was so focused on what a failure I was because the reality did not meet my perfectionist ideal, that I forgot to celebrate the fact that I got through this really scary thing.
It’s funny how we can so freely accept and even celebrate and love a lack of perfection in others. If anything, it’s the quirky, not so perfect bits we often fall in love with…but when it comes to ourselves we are the most cruel and unforgiving.
Zahra, the eleven year old I aupair recently auditioned for the school musical. ‘Seussical the Musical’, which is an ode to all things Dr. Seuss (Can we get a moment to appreciate how bloody awesome this is?) We practiced her lines and her chosen song (Fight Song by Rachel Platten – pretty fitting?!) for a few days and she was really getting into her role of Mrs Mayor. However, audition day arrived and she was terrified. (And I have to admit, so was I).
“I am so nervous Char. My tummy feels all weird” she told me. Secretly feeling equally as nervous for her, I put on a brave face.
“You will be amazing hun. You have worked so hard for this and you will have so much fun!” I offered. Hoping I was convincing her, but mostly myself.
“But, but… what if I make a mistake?” She pondered.
“Mistakes are all part of life. It’s totally okay to make a mistake and all they want to see is your enthusiasm and passion. No one is going to be perfect on their first audition and that is totally okay. All that matters is that you do the best you can in the moment.”
As I said these words, I felt a little guilty because I had never offered myself that same advice or kindness.
How, when it came to someone else could I so easily love their effort? but when it comes to me, I berate everything that is not my idea of ‘perfect’.
And that is the point isn’t it? Perfect isn’t even a thing. It’s some made up idea, void of actual substance and definition. We have an idea of what perfect means, but we cannot exactly quantify how perfect something is, because it’s not real.
So, my goal for this year, as challenging as it is going to be, is to stop striving for perfection because firstly, it doesn’t exist, and secondly it hinders creativity, joy and just giving things a go.
There have been so many times whilst writing my thesis that I have been too scared to start a chapter because it might be “bad”, so instead of just writing and letting my brain juices flow, I become inert and do… SWEET NOTHING…. when I could have had a chapter down.
So this year I am going to take a small leap and give things a go. I could always be better prepared, more knowledgeable, more versed in my subject, but if I don’t show up, and appreciate all the not so perfect bits that make me, me… then I am always going to be living in the limbo of ‘What If’ and I aint never gonna get a damn thing done! When I was little and scared of something (like climbing a high jungle gym, or walking across one of those water pipes that cross over a bridge) my amazing step-mum Elizabeth used to say to me… “I may be a little bit scared…. but I can do it..” This was a mantra I grew up with and one I need to remember.
So this year, I commit to showing up, no matter how messy, or complicated or flustered or terrified I may be…. because even if I am all of those things, I can give it my best shot.
Dr, Seuss himself offers a few insights on embracing that which makes us unique,