Monday, December 03, 2012

Posted by Laurel Garver on 8:51 AM 14 comments
Maybe you're just coming off the high of "winning" NaNo and realize your first draft is, alas, full of flaws.
Maybe you've drawn up a holiday gift-buying list and realize there's no way you can afford all these wonderful gifts you think you must buy for precious family and friends.
Maybe you  have to sing in front of a roomful of people with a pretty serious head cold (that would be me. LOL.)

You're forced to face the fact that you aren't perfect. And if you never bought into the perfection myth, that's no big deal. But if you have, moments like these mean extreme anxiety.

What do I mean by "the perfection myth"? It's an inner script that says:

As long as I do everything just right, I will be safe.

You'll note a few key concepts here. It's very self-focused; it's what I do. It's absolute; I must to everything just right. It's nebulous; "just right" is never defined. It's tied to survival; my very safety depends on it, and the alternative is unthinkably awful.

Last week I heard author Anne Lamott speak (part of a book tour for her latest release, Help, Thanks, Wow), and perfectionism was one of the topics she tackled with wit, honesty and grace. This kind of striving for perfection, especially as I've defined it above, has less to do with being our best selves and more with fear. This kind of perfectionism comes out of the crucible of unpredictable, chaotic environments. Striving to do right is a means of achieving control.

But the fact is, perfectionism promises freedom from fear while creating more anxiety. Because the truth of all of us is that we're broken people. We've been harmed by others and we have weaknesses ourselves. The myth of perfectionism says I'm not safe if I'm not doing everything "just right," therefore, I must cover over all my inadequacies to stay safe.

That, friends, is living a lie. Lamott connected the dots of this to conclude that perfectionism is "the voice of the oppressor," is demonic. By that she means anything that encourages vices--like dishonesty and pride in this case--intends our ultimate ruin and is aligned with all evil.

The divine voice tells us, "You are broken, but you are mine. I love you and will hold and heal you."

Learning to find safety in acceptance by a higher power ("as I understand him," Lamott added, quoting from the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program) involves letting a mess happen and seeing how little it actually effects the people around you. They don't care as much as you think.

The other big antidote to perfectionism is laughter. Lamott called it "carbonated holiness."  Laughter looks at weakness and is not undone by it. Rather, it is thankful for the honesty. Joys in it, in fact.

We stumble, and laugh and know we are frail. We are not the be-all and end-all of the universe. With that attitude, we can love well and create with the kind of honest freedom that brings more light into the world.

Trying to be perfect is a most dangerous game. So laugh when you fall. Your freedom depends on it.

Do you struggle with perfectionism? Do Lamott's observations speak to you?

14 comments:

  1. It's the lack of perfection in our characters that enable us to write compelling stories. We embrace flaws in our characters (we demand them, actually), why can't we be any different?


    Anne's talk sounds amazing!

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    1. Great observation, Stina. It is the flaws that make a character interesting, and the same should be true of us.

      She covered so many topics in the 2+ hours, it would be hard to summarize them all. But this point in particular spoke to me.

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  2. I suffered from perfectionism anxiety for years. After an accident (which I never fully recoverd from) I decided I just can't do it anymore. The accident was my wake-up call. Now, instead of giving everything 1000%, if I can get to 99% I feel pretty good. No, everything can't be perfect, but I can get to "good enough".

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    1. I know serious health issues sure can be a wake up call about our vulnerability--great point. I really grappled with that after surgery earlier this year. Still, it's a habit of mind that dies hard. I came from a chaotic environment, so that sense of needing to be safe is hard to relinquish. It's where life and beliefs collide for me every day.

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  3. Fear of the unknown is a natural barrier to the outside world. I sometimes feel like it's the world's way of stabilizing us; yet, if we can't stand back, evaluate that fear and what it's trying to teach us, we stall - no growth.

    I know I'm guilty of allowing such fear to push me into perfectionism and end up getting nowhere because I think I'll fail. This is a struggle I'm still working to get a handle on.

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    1. Our fears certainly do teach us a lot--especially what we think the anchors of our life really are. Personally, I find perfectionism fades when I don't try to get a handle on it, but simply relax and enjoy and laugh.

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  4. Sort of. LOL! I know, that's not very specific, but there are some things I struggle w/perfectionism on and others I'm more relaxed about. When it comes to dealing with other people, I tend to be more relaxed. When it's my stuff, I'm very prefectionist. But these are super, super points! The only way I can get past it is to remind myself what's important and focus on the "the world won't end" if--fill in the blank. :o) <3

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    1. Yeah, I don't get that hung up about certain areas of life either, unless I know a certain audience will judge me harshly about that one thing (housework would be an example here!). Getting to the point of not pinning my safety on doing some things just right--that's a matter of remembering I'm loved no matter what.

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  5. Yes and yes. I grab all her books about faith and grace as soon as they hit the shelves.

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    1. She doesn't come to the East Coast that often. I hope you get a chance to hear her sometime though. She's a very engaging speaker.

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  6. I love Stina's comment. The more I write, the more I am just floored how we think we are exempt from the messes we force our characters to go through, and how much our own lives parallel the character arcs we love (but in ourselves, scary).

    Perfectionism is basically just being a control freak. So freeing rather to admit we are flawed and proceed anyway!

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    1. It is all about control though, isn't it? We are the gods of our fictional worlds. We can work out our own messes through characters without admitting openly "hey, I have she same struggles and weaknesses."

      But as long as we hang on tightly to a need to be in control, we can't work freely. We get tense and creatively clogged.

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  7. Oh wow, did I need this!! Thank you! It's only been recently that I've realized I have this issue. And yes, it is about trying to control the uncontrollable. Especially when you look, really look at the world. Nothing is perfect. No one is perfect. We're all struggling along, strapped together with duct tape. e

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  8. That's a great post. As for me, I know I'm not perfect and I know that perfection is an impossible goal. However, I constantly strive to be the best that I can be. The problem with that, is that I'm afraid that I won't realize when I've reached that point, and will continue to try to be better. The effort can be exhausting and the fear is mind numbing. So I'm teaching myself to be okay with myself. To accept what I am. To recognize my achievements for what they are. And to stop driving myself crazy.

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