On the first day of this year, I woke up long before the sunrise, seized with anxiety. The same thoughts were spinning circles through me again, doubting my abilities as a mother and educator, doubting my work here, doubting whether I’m good enough at any of it. Overwhelmed, I laid there staring at the lines of street lamp light crossing our bedroom walls, my husband sleeping deeply beside me. Why do I have such a hard time doing the same? Why do I run myself through an analysis, looking for fault and unfinished work instead of simply celebrating all that has been accomplished? Why is it so hard for me to do my best and let go?
I quietly slipped out from my sheets and began to write. I wrote to release the tightness in my chest. I wrote to find the woman buried in my thoughts and soul, the one who I am always comparing myself to and yet never measuring up with somehow. I needed to meet her. I began with these two lines.
I am deeply perfectionistic. I say this not with pride but with a tinged face of embarrassment, a confession that I’m hoping to release a bit more even if simply by writing it out.
Perfectionism. Damn. This was about perfectionism. I’ve always known I’m a perfectionist. Always. I have handfuls of childhood stories in how I learned to walk or ride a bike, form my letters or even save/spend money. Honestly, I’ve always thought of this part of myself without much weight, much like handedness or style preference. If the topic ever came up in a conversation, I might have even felt a sense of pride. Yet when I wrote those first two lines, I noticed something deeper for the first time: embarrassment and an inferred shame about this part of myself. Somewhere deep within me I know perfection is illusory and unrealistic. Embarrassment arises by my striving for it anyway. Shame reminds me I’m never measuring up.
I wrote for an hour that morning, describing the woman in my head among other things. I wrote her out as honestly as possible, every standard that I hold myself to in parenting, marriage, writing, self-image, wellness, and so on. At times, I laughed at myself, recognizing the absurdity of my expectations. At times, I cried, recognizing the burden of my ideals. With every line, every word something in me began to release. Sometimes writing out my thoughts can be the most tangible way to recognize the lies, the expectations, the disappointments, the standards.
Motherhood touches every part of us, even the parts we didn’t know yet existed. I’ve often heard people say having children is like having your soul/heart forever walking outside of your body. While often used as a sentimental line used to demonstrate the amount of love we carry for our children, I will also note it is true about our insecurities, too. Motherhood releases a deep capacity for love. It also reveals our deepest fears and failures. Motherhood and marriage have been the most vulnerable journeys for me. They require me to bare my heart again and again in the best possible way, even when its ugly. And sometimes, it is ugly.
Since the first day of this year, my heart has continued to unfold. I have never felt so undone, so seen. I won’t discuss all of it here, because I’m not sure this is the place for that, although I imagine bits will trickle through my writing in various ways anyhow. But I can say this: I’m am seeing–I mean really seeing–parts of my heart for the first time, and it’s so good. It’s hard. But it’s good. The kids and I are talking about our own interactions in a new way. We’re having more conversations about shame, about hurt feelings, about conflict. I want them to have tools as they grow into adult years. I know I’ve mentioned it umpteen times here and on Instagram, to friends and family alike. Go and get yourself a copy of Rising Strong. I began reading it not far into the new year, and it is wrecking me in the best possible way. It should have been on my parenting list, although I would retitle it as a parenting book, “how to deal with you sh$t, so your kids know how to deal with theirs.”
At the end of last year I read Big Magic, a nicely dove-tailed book to Rising Strong, concerning fear and the creative process. But Elizabeth Gilbert notes this, words I have returned to again and again the last few months:
I think perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, “I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.”
Perfectionism is a particularly evil lure for women, who, I believe, hold themselves to an even higher standard of performance than do men. Holding back their ideas, holding back their contributions, holding back their leadership and their talents. Too many women still seem to believe that they are not allowed to put themselves forward at all, until both they and their work are perfect and beyond criticism.
The truth is perfectionism–whether in my mothering or home or marriage or work–distances me from others. It secretly whispers that I am never measuring up. It keeps me tucked away from other people’s stories and experience, from realizing I’m not alone. Through sharing experience with one another, through writing out or discussing (or in the hardest times, crying) about these fears or burdensome areas where we don’t measure up, we leave a place for truth. We leave room for light and connection and encouragement with one another. Ultimately, vulnerability with people we trust, even the most uncomfortable bits, leaves space for healing.