I finished two books today, which is unusual in my divorced mom life. "The Gifts of Imperfection" by Brené Brown moved and shifted a part of me. I have failed so many times lately in terms of “perfect”.
I also finished Eloisa James' newest book, "Say No to the Duke." Eloise brings Betsy, her heroine, to release her view of perfection in favor of happiness. Fiction met Brené's research and provided me with a strong pointed message. If it takes 10,000 hours to become a master; I am an expert in stopping myself with the negatives in Guidepost #2 – Letting Go of Perfectionism.
Brené's research leads her to state “Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance… ‘What will they think?’”
My perfection phrase almost always includes the word “Should”. Much like both Brené and Betsy, I have a great many should phrases. In fact, for as long as I can really remember “should” has been a part of my vocabulary. “I should do this because otherwise what will they think?” is what I think on a regular basis, and ruins my authenticity.
Some “should” phrases are relevant, such as I “should do the laundry so there are clean clothes to wear.” I have four children thus laundry has become an almost daily event when it is my custody time. I recognize that the clothes need to be washed; the "should" part of the laundry, though, also includes neatly folded clothes and matching socks. With two teenagers and two younger children, I recognize they do not care about the unwrinkled state of their clothing as they cram their clean clothes into their drawers, and three of the four don’t worry about matching socks.
It has taken me years to realize that my rules of clean, non-wrinkled clothes really fall into the need for approval and acceptance from other mothers. I do not enjoy the "tsk" at my perceived lack of competence. It likely is an external belief from generations ago that each of us has carried down based on upper classes having maids to press clothing, and laboring class did not have that luxury. The advantage of permanent-press clothing taken out of the drier while still warm allowing wrinkles to fall out may have altered the conscious perceptions, yet the subconscious awareness remains hidden in the background.
I "should" weed my flower beds isn’t quite as relevant to me. Some are lovely flowers and the bees and hummingbirds seem to like them. Also, I am discovering some of them would actually be good for me to use in salads, since I don’t use weed killer or pesticides in my yard, much to the chagrin of my landscape architect sibling. I also wisely chose to live where there are not strict yard codes because I know my natural look flowerbeds would not be welcome in certain neighborhoods.
In both the above cases, the “should” examples create a feeling of shame because of perceived societal rules. I know I am vulnerable to others’ judgments. Brene's discussion of life-paralysis is a perfect fit for me. She describes it as “all of the opportunities we miss because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect. It’s also all of the dreams that we don’t follow because of our deep fear of failing.”
If I look back at my life, my life-paralysis perfectionism consistently holds me back. Instead of following the passion and the plan I had for my life back when I was a sophomore at Capital University, I allowed my life-paralysis to stop me both personally and professionally.
For 20-some years, I allowed what everyone else thought I should do, what I should focus on, and what should matter to me to push my life forward. I didn’t steer my own course for fear of being vulnerable, and fear of failing is a big portion. “Perfection is addictive because when we invariably do experience shame, judgment and blame, we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough.” In anger, back as a 13-year-old, I yelled at my mother that I wasn’t a perfect daughter - and to stop expecting me to be as perfect as her.
In reading Betsy’s romance story, she is attempting to be the perfect model debutante. When Betsy was a 14-year-old, another girl pointed out how her mother was so imperfect that Betsy was going to be the same. Betsy’s response was to become the most model debutante – her self-imposed perfection need. Today my fiction reading met my reality and Brené's research.
The last three years have allowed me to spend time to dig deep into myself and realize that my happiness depends on my definition of needs, wants, and desires, much like Brené’s research gave her and Betsy learns via a very wise aunt. I am getting better with being imperfect and the “should” is slowly disappearing from my vocabulary. It is a habit that I am still correcting, and at the same time model for my children.
I hope that when I fail at making brownies again that become ice cream topping, they smile and have learned that life's imperfection can make life more delicious.
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Theresa Destrebecq is the primary author, with additional contributions from book circle members.
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