Powering Down Perfectionism

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It almost goes without saying that the days of yesteryear seemed so much less stressful and rude and judgmental and on steroids than the days of now. Pressures certainly existed back then and likely did their best to trip up even the most laid-back of folks. Rude and judging have always been around; but maybe we took heed to follow elderly advice “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all.”

Not so much these days

Quite frankly, I’m tired of it all. But at least I remember a normal that included propriety, respect, decorum and regular (the regular where everyone didn’t need to be Best.) And I wonder what normal looks like for my kids.

Recently, one of my girls let the truth surface.

My heart literally ached the other night as I stood in her tiny bathroom that she shares with her sister. I had walked by on my way to bed when I heard crying – a soft cry – you know, the slow leak kind. I didn’t know if she was missing someone she loves who recently lost a battle to cancer or if her heart had been hurt by one of the many varieties of fitting in (social media, inclusion, attire, size … fill in the blank) that line her walk in life.

“What’s wrong, honey?” I ask, quietly praying that she’ll talk. You never know with a teenager (with me either.) Her response? “Nothing.”

I gently push. Quiet tears aren’t like drama tears. They’re real and deep. I really wanted to nab whatever had grabbed her thoughts and was holding her captive.

Finally, she sighs. The floodgates open and “I can’t do this” bursts from her lips. This – not to be dramatic – signifies everything in her world. Regular has been crowded out by all things AP/social-standing/GPA/friend-group/filled-calendar/athletics/fitness/volunteering/… (fill in the blank) that when molded together create a persona, a product almost, to be placed on a life track. What you do and where you fall determines who you are.

The pressures for them to be are heavy and incessant, almost without borders. Mid sob, she releases the horrible admission that threatened to be true if spoken aloud: “I can’t be perfect.”

Apparently normal looks like perfection.

The idea of life being played out as if on a stage has jumped from the place William Shakespeare put it in As You Like It, to the always on, photo-ready/shopped reality – any time, anywhere, even when alone. Because the audience is watching. And the bar is set at elusive perfection that moves, stays just out of reach, then steals the show – ruthlessly taking down all in it’s path.

Interesting. Because oddly enough, the only thing that gives life to Perfection is – the idea of it. Because, Perfection isn’t real. So, how can it be worth all the time we give it?

Is it time to ask: IS anyone or anything perfect?

Siri’s answer is a lame “Interesting question, Master.” (Which leads me to wonder which one of my kids told Siri to call me Master.) Google’s best answer: “it depends on what your definition of perfect is.” Because in all cases, other than objective quantifiable cases like a multiple choice exam, perfect is subjective – a far cry from achievable aspirations.

The tempting lure and the pressures to reach it have the highest of stakes. Because, Perfection rarely travels alone. It brings with it an entourage that acts more like thieves than companions. They threaten to steal precious time, bogging it down with worries and fears and pressures that cloud any ability to truly relish the moments and/or the people walking alongside.

A friend and I were recently chatting with Shauna Niequist about the topic. It’s a topic she has deeply explored and contemplated over the past year, compiling her assessment in the best-selling Present over Perfect:

I think we can never overestimate how strong the cultural messaging toward perfectionism is… culture is screaming that message in a loud, one-note way.

So how to deal.

In as much as the problem is aimed at people, people are a large part of the answer – as in healthy relationship with the people around us and with ourselves. “You don’t have to wake up every morning and perform in order to be loved,” Shauana shared. But that’s hard for a lot of us to believe. So much of belonging and acceptance appears tied to positive performance. That’s a dangerous treadmill that leads to nowhere – except to frustration at best, self-harm at worst.

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… even yourself.

Another part of the answer lies in our belief:

Do I believe that every day when I wake up I have to hustle and perform for my worth? Or, do I believe that my worth and value on this planet has already been decided – therefore I get to live with the freedom, the grace and the hope that comes with that.

So – believe it. We’re going to believe something – why not Truth. And talk to the people in your life about it so that they’re your companions on the journey. Walk together instead of against each other. Remember along the way that people are not a product. And, life isn’t a stage.

Thanks for walking the road with me.

-Kay

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4 Comments

  1. People aren’t a product. And life isn’t a stage. If there’s anything I can impress upon my impressionable teens right now, it’s this. And it’s something that we all — even my 46-year-old self — will do well to remember. Thank you for these words. I always love your writing, but this one hit me hard today. I needed to hear it.

  2. I really needed to read (and hear) all of these words (yesterday, today, tomorrow, ALWAYS), so thank you for putting them down on paper and sharing them. I feel exactly the same way, and I am also so tired of it all. It can be hard to find the balance between being responsible/”doing your job” and The Horrible Awful Perfect, as I call it. I keep a group of inspirational quotes and emails in my inbox to remind me daily/hourly to dial it back, have and show some grace, and remind everyone around me that we are all enough. My inbox is getting really full. Thanks for the words and the thoughts. They meant a lot to me.

  3. “Because, Perfection rarely travels alone.”

    What a mouthful. This post/blog may be on parenting adolescents, but there is much to be learned on both sides of the relationship: Lessons for the parent and teen.

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