In an age of constant media messages and so-called expert advice telling us to be richer, thinner, smarter, and faster, we’re all dogged with worry and self-doubt. In her warm and inimitable way, author M.J. Ryan guides us to look at our lives from a different perspective in Trusting Yourself (Conari Press, 2015). This excerpt, which discusses the unrealistic expectation of perfectionism and how to embrace all of life’s imperfections, is from Chapter 2, “The Gifts of Trusting Yourself.”
To find more books that pique our interest,
visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.
The Bonds of Perfectionism Are Loosened With Self-Trust
I have a friend, let’s call her Allison. Her house is always impeccable, even if you drop in unexpectedly. She is always tastefully dressed and coiffed, even to go to the park with her children. Her husband is an extremely successful businessman. She has an interesting part-time career as a freelance writer.
Sounds like a wonderful life, right? Yet Allison is miserable most of the time. In her eyes, her house is never clean enough, her accomplishments never good enough. She is perpetually fearful of making a mistake and constantly anxious that she is not measuring up to some standard that she can’t even articulate.
Does Allison sound familiar? Do you freak out if your child leaves a dirty sock on the floor? Do you hyperventilate if your layer cake is lopsided? Are you afraid to try something new because you are not good at it already? If so, you more than likely are caught by the demon of perfectionism. Inside that demon is the great fear that we are not enough in and of ourselves. If we slip up, it will be proof that we are worthless. So we try to control our fear by being perfect: perfect looks (hence all the cosmetic surgery), perfect parents (hence all the anxiety over whether our preschooler will get into Harvard in fifteen years), perfect spouses (hence all the articles telling us how to be hot in bed), perfect leaders at work (with the list of twenty or so leadership competencies that we are evaluated on yearly).
Perfection is impossible. Each of us will stumble over and over; each of us will not measure up against the hypothetical yardstick of the quintessential parent, spouse, worker. Yet so many of us continue to try—and beat ourselves up relentlessly when we fall short.
Perfectionism carries a huge price—in the ways we treat ourselves, our spouses, and kids. As Kathy Cordova, author of Let Go, Let Miracles Happen, puts it: “Perfectionism makes the strong tyrants and the weak passive. It either drives you to bully yourself and others with your demands or to retreat to your comfort zone, afraid of taking the risk of failure.”
Perfectionism keeps our world small because it doesn’t allow us to learn and therefore grow. We agonize over decisions in advance because we are so afraid of doing it wrong. We hold others to impossible standards. We’re fearful we’ll be discovered to be an impostor. We actually do less than other people because we’re so concerned with doing the task perfectly that we do hardly anything at all. We get no pleasure from our successes because all we can see is how we could have done better.
When we trust ourselves, we know that we are good enough as we are—with our gifts and strengths, with our foibles and failings. We are not fearful of making a mistake because we know we’ll survive, maybe even grow from the experience. We believe that what we have to offer—our essence—is what is being called for. Not the perfect chocolate flambé at the potluck or the perfect presentation at work.
After struggling with my desire for sainthood the first half of my life, I’ve come to truly believe that all that is being asked of each of us is to be as real as we can be. To become fully ourselves and to offer that fullness to the rest of the world. That’s no small task; indeed, it is the ongoing work of our lifetime. But it certainly is much easier—on us and others—than striving for perfection. It frees up so much time, energy, and joy—and can’t we use a whole lot more of those three qualities in our stressed-out lives?
This particular gift has come none too soon in my life. I am currently experiencing, to put it nicely, the short-term memory problems that often accompany menopause. Today I left my ATM card at the bank, spent fifteen minutes searching unsuccessfully for my computer glasses, and still can’t find the folder with all my notes on perfectionism that I’ve been collecting for the past two years. In other words, I’m having a human day. I know I’ll survive. And dealing with my screwups is so much easier without the added burden of being perfect. Care to join me in being perfectly imperfect?
We Live More Happily with Life’s Messiness
If insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results, what is thinking the same thing over and over despite evidence to the contrary? I refer to my chronic illusion that someday everything is going to calm down in my life and I will Get Everything Under Control.
In my mind, it’s soon, just not now: after I sell my business, after my husband gets a new job, after I write this book. It’s such a part of my thinking that the only reason I noticed it is that I caught myself in a conversation with my friend Barb, saying the exact same thing I had told her last year and the year before: “I’m crazy busy now, but after this year, things should calm down.” Barb was gracious enough not to say, “Yeah, right,” but I could sure hear her thinking it.
I’m not alone. It seems as though most of us believe in that mythic place of peace and prosperity, when we will finally have all our papers sorted, our e-mails answered, and our towels perfectly rolled in the linen closet. All we have to do is (take your pick) read a book on time management, finally get organized, wait until our toddler is out of the pulling-everything-out-of-the-closets phase. Then we do those things and something else pops up as the fly in the ointment. Or we don’t because we’re too darn busy with the forty other issues that came out of nowhere in the meantime.
We’re operating under this illusion because we’ve been sold a bill of goods from a wide variety of so-called experts that we can nail everything down and have a house that looks like something out of Martha Stewart Living. That we can control our destiny through attitude alone—but what does that say about the millions of us who have serious illnesses, that our diseases are our fault? We are told we’re the masters of our fate—but what does that say about us when we get caught in a corporate downsizing that is part of sweeping global economic changes? We believe it is somehow our fault if our lives are messy and complex.
In reality, we can never get our lives totally under control because so many factors that influence them are not under our command. According to authors John Briggs and F. David Peat in Seven Life Lessons of Chaos, “Chaos theory demonstrates why such a dream [of control] is an illusion. Chaotic systems lie beyond all our attempts to predict, manipulate, and control them.” And the more we accept that, the more we will stop fighting the way things are.
Most likely we will never get to the end of our to-do lists. The more we give up our illusion that “someday” we will have it all together, the more we can relax into the reality of our lives as they are—with all their chipped teeth, blown schedules, and jam on the walls. Trusting ourselves helps us do that.
Trust in ourselves is not about feeling invincible, infallible, or in complete control of our lives. Rather, it’s knowing that the messiness of life is not our fault. It’s just the nature of life itself—unpredictable and uncontrollable. With self-trust, we understand that power and peace is found in “response-ability,” our capacity to meet life as it comes at us. When we believe in our ability to respond, we don’t fight against the wildness of life because we know we’ll handle what comes our way when it arrives.
It also helps to remember that life’s unpredictability brings us joy, too—the fact that things happen out of the blue: a call from a friend you haven’t heard from in twenty years; a job opportunity that falls out of the sky; a great conversation with your child because your oven broke and you had to go out to dinner. I know someone whose sister canceled her wedding at the last minute because she met the love of her life. Messy? You bet, but what happiness she found.
When I trust myself, I can see what happens as a dance between me and life. Sometimes I’m leading, sometimes I’m following, but the beauty and grace comes from responding to my partner rather than insisting that it must be my way. I’m constantly being asked to learn new steps, and somehow I figure out how to do them. And if that means the twenty-two-inch-high pile of files has to stay on top of my filing cabinet for another three years, so be it.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Trusting Yourself, by M.J. Ryan, and published by Conari Press, 2015.