Grad School · Mental Health · My Creative Writing · Personal · Recovery

Acting for the Right Reasons

Much of my growth as an adult has related to growing less afraid of being imperfect and, instead, more willing to let go of perfectionism – the shield that we use to keep others away from seeing our deepest shames and fears. At some point, I’m going to write a whole post about Brené Brown, I swear. Her books, especially those relating to her research about perfectionism and its choking out of joy, have changed my life forever and for the better.

Over the past five years, by hook and by crook, I have learned to let go of the idea that I’d ever be able to convince people I’m perfect and they should love me because of it. I’ve had to – my chronic illnesses have made it so that I don’t have the time or capacity to do everything it would take to keep such a shiny, glittery veneer going like I used to when I was younger and trying to impress everyone all the time.

That doesn’t mean I sometimes don’t try to be perfect. I miss its perceived benefits: walking into a room like you own it. Knowing that you worked 20 hours longer on the presentation than anyone else did and that you will wow your professor and make your classmates realize their work doesn’t have the same kind of sheen as yours. Being the kind of friend who has so many close friends that they can barely keep a reasonable calendar because you’re just there for everybody, regardless of the cost to yourself, and that’s just who you are: you’re on every committee because people know you bring a lot to the table and you never say no to a challenge – or to anything that could advance you toward your dreams and others’ benefit. You’re at every opportunity, soaking it up and making yourself stand out.

It’s all about competing. Proving yourself to others and, most importantly, to yourself.

Perfectionism isn’t about working hard and achieving amazing milestones because you worked hard and made your outcomes far above average, maybe even as close to perfect as possible. Perfectionism isn’t productive; it’s insidious. It’s based on shamed and roots itself into your soul with wrigglingly deep power.

Tragically, the outcome of perfectionism is this: being far more aware than the average person that perfection isn’t attainable, and yet being more determined that you’ll be the exception to the rule. Others’ failures to achieve it don’t define your own chances. You need it. You need others to see you have it. You need to have it.

And, tragically, in your heart, you’ll never be good enough. You’ll never work hard enough. You’ll never have enough friends or enough of anything that it is you long for. You’ll never be enough.

I’ve largely stepped away from this painful way of thinking and behaving because I now realize just how toxic it is and because I refuse to spend any of my precious energy holding up a mask to my face and never letting others’ love in. I’m willing to be messy, complicated, and afraid, and show up anyways, as courageous people do.

But recently, I had my first of five ordination exams. I started a theology class where, on certain days, I was the only woman present.

And all of a sudden, the perfectionism came shooting back. My hard work was no longer founded on the joy of learning and moving forward in my path; it was about proving myself to others and myself. To show that I was worthy of moving a step closer to the title of “Reverend.” To show that women can do theology, a subject that has long been dominated by white men. I was walking into my studying with the weight of fears of failure and feeling like I had to carry 3.65 billion women on my back. I felt burned out. Exhausted. Miserable. And I didn’t realize why until I heard in my head, “You’ll show them.”

No.

That’s not what I’m here for.

I’m not here to prove a point or to prove my worth.

I know my values and my purpose, and they lead me on. I’m here to live those out with joy and integrity. I’m here to love and be loved, not shrink from love because I think I’m not good enough to be loved, not to be stingy with my love because I want to beat others to show myself that I have worth.

I’m getting closer to remembering that the beat of my heart matches this quote by Erica Cook more than it matches proving myself: “I’m not interested in competing with anyone. I hope we all make it.”

Learn from my mistakes. Do things because you find joy in them. Because they matter to you. Because they need to get done, and sometimes, done is better than good.

Show up anyway. Here’s my poetic encouragement to you about how to do that.

I am neither 
a damsel in distress
nor perfectly fine,
but what I do know
is that I’m divine;
a human being who
has decided to do
the hardest thing
on this planet:

I will show up
to each and every day
with a full body and mind
regardless of its quality.

I will show up 
in good times, in bad,
in times that barely merit
a descriptor at all;

I will show up
when things are sad,
when things are stagnant,
when things are moving
too quickly to even
mark a speed. 

I will show up
kicking and screaming
if necessary, dragged
by sheer force of will
and the lure of a smile,
because to not would be 
to deny my unique
and irreplaceable role
in a world full of others
struggling with the same
fears in different forms.

I will show up
because I’m ready to face
my fears and laugh
at how small they look
close-up; the fears that
have kept me numbing
myself will crumble
with a dramatic crash.
As they fall, I will rise. 

I will show up
no matter what.

e. a., “Goodbye Apathy”
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