A Perfect Distraction: How Perfectionism Helped Me Cope

“It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be interesting,” he said with little affect. I’m not really sure if his comment was born out of indifference or concern. I think it was meant as a slight insult that was also meant to be instructional. I have always been one to get stuck in the minutia and miss the big picture, forgetting the forest for the trees. For me, the details are everything.

I think that as a child, this trait helped me survive. I could control the neatness of my handwriting, the cleanliness of my play room, the amount of food I ingested. I could do this even if my mom was losing her mind or screaming at the sales clerk. If I kept my head down and focused on my own details, I was relatively safe. I grew to love the sense of control this gave me as well as the possibility of achieving excellence. Maybe I could find a perfect “method” for everything!

Perfectionism served me really well up to a point. I worked hard and excelled at school and almost everything I tried. I did as people told me to do and I put the highest standards on myself, too. I worked hard. The struggle came when working hard didn’t “work.” My body would break down and I was often faced with my own hard limits. Worse than my body breaking down was seeing others, who weren’t as rigid or hard on themselves, freely and joyfully take up space in life. I started to realize that other people had healthier ways of achieving their goals. There were other, more enjoyable, ways to succeed. There was a different way to be.

I’ve reflected throughout the years on the idea of perfection. Although I was unable to truly understand his words of wisdom at the time, I am starting to agree that it (life, love, art) really doesn’t need to be perfect. What is “perfect,” anyway? I am learning to aim for excellence and beauty while releasing the idea that any of it will every be perfect – not the feeling, the process, the result, or the aesthetic. And that’s okay. Life is still worth living and art is still worth creating. It’s all more enjoyable when the expectation of perfection is off the table.

Focusing on creating some sort of ideal life or utopia and the obsessive focus on perfectionism does not deliver. It’s also not very interesting. I know what he means now. How can one create a beautiful life while relatively paralyzed by the pursuit of perfection? What meaningful things are missed along the way?

I used to think that the idea of “learning to love what you have” or “choosing to love” or even “accepting” was another form of settling, and maybe at times it is. Alternatively, maybe it’s the way we learn how to truly love, through accepting the inevitable imperfections and embracing the interesting, imperfect reality of it all.

How do you cope with perfectionism? Send me your tips! 🙂

With love and joy,

Saying Goodbye to the Life I Wasn’t Meant To Live: Thoughts from a Mid-life Crisis

There’s a version of my life that I created as a teen. It’s not the life I have now, but it’s the life I imagined I’d have. It involves so many of the things that actually happened in my life but without the trials, the missteps, & the failures. I LOVE this version of my life, and the person I get to be in this fantasy story. I am the person I wanted to be. I’m proud of my accomplishments and the attitude I had while achieving them. I learn lessons when it’s not too late to apply them in order to get where I’m going.

Some would say that nobody gets the exact life they envision as a teen (if they envisioned one at all), or the one they see in Disney princess movies or rom-coms. Instagram would tell us otherwise, but I’m starting to believe that maybe everyone has a story, an unfulfilled dream, a hidden sorrow. Maybe we really are “in this together” in some ways, as the CoVid slogan goes. Or maybe only a chosen few get the storybook life.

The other day I read this quote by Francis Chan: “Our greatest fear should not be of failure… but of succeeding in life in things that really don’t matter.” It really struck me. My greatest fear has been failure. I’ve spent a lot of time bemoaning things that did not go according to my plans, and things that could have gone much better in my ideal world. As I learn and grow, I feel like my ideas of how much better things could have gone has expanded. Thoughts of “why didn’t I think of that!” and “why didn’t I try that approach” have crowded my mind. And yet… maybe these things I’ve wanted, and these failures I speak of, have mostly been ego-driven to begin with. The truth is, for as many “better versions” of my life I can conjure up, I can also think of many worse versions. When I choose to look at it from a soul perspective rather than an ego perspective, I think i’ve actually come a long way. Do I wish I had learned faster? Of course. But, what if it’s not too late? What if there is still a chance to succeed in the things that do really matter?

I’ve also been wondering: what happens to those who get every single thing they want, or at least all of the ego-driven desires? Are they truly happier? If I’d gotten everything I ever wanted and looked exactly how I wanted, would I be humble and thankful or self-righteous and haughty? I am sure it could go either way, and I’d like to think I’d just be happy, giving and joyous – but who knows? Maybe our hurts and unfulfilled desires are exactly what we need to serve our unique purpose in the world.

I love this verse:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen

It took me a lot of failure and pain to learn that self-hatred is not the way to self-actualization, and that a “please fix me” attitude does not allow for clear self-expression and flow. And now, after grieving bygone moments and missed opportunities, I realize there is still time. There is still time to incorporate the lessons life’s taught me. There is time to express in a different medium. There is time to love my family and friends, and time to help others.

For a while, I was stuck with questions of “why?” Why didn’t I know better? Why wasn’t I more confident? Why did I make such naive mistakes? I’ve been working on accepting that I just didn’t know better in certain areas, and, as Maya Angelou says, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Letting go of what wasn’t meant to be and accepting that not everyone is able or fortunate to achieve exactly what they hope for has been enormously helpful to me. We cannot completely create our own reality. God often has different plans for us than we have for ourselves, and we are working within the constructs we’ve been given.

Have you grieved the way that the dreams of your youth didn’t work out as you expected? How can you succeed, now, in the things that truly matter to you?