"To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself - means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight- and never stop fighting.” --E.E. Cummings
I had a recovery week this past week, and due to a certain sweet little 4-year-old who felt rotten and slept even rotten-er, I had to do my long run solo on Saturday. This led me with lots of time to think. I've had a post brewing about this for a while, but I'm not sure it's going to come out right. I'm going to give it my best shot.
I just recently finished "The Gifts of Imperfection" by Brene Brown. For anyone who, like me, is a "recovering perfectionist and aspiring good-enoughist," I highly recommend it. I found myself nodding pretty much at least once a page, like, yep, yep, I do that, uh-huh, um, are you HERE WATCHING ME?
“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it's often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.” --Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
One thing I struggle with--daily--is how to be the best person I can be but for God's sake, cut myself a little slack. Slack, but persistence. Go easy, but push hard. Is it any wonder why I'm drawn to endurance athletics? It's basically my brain wearing a race number, going through one big metaphor.
My insistence upon perfection started early. I felt it during swimming, but seeing as I was rarely the fastest person in the pool, I think it was more of a good lesson for me in how to lose humbly. I kept pushing, but I knew I couldn’t be the best. And a little bit of me hated myself for knowing that and surrendering that. Thus began the internal struggle of Good Enough vs. Best Ever.
Honestly, how many of us can be the Best Ever? Ever?
And how much stress are we wasting trying? The Best Dieter. The Best Parent. The Best Worker.
It’s kind of dangerous, because many of us (read: ME) don’t want to admit or realize that it’s just not healthy to live that way. And it’s taking its toll in the form of anxiety, stress, and just general un-pleasantness sometimes.
I’ve been working on this lots the past few years, because it was getting to the point where something had to change, or I was going to literally make myself sick.
There has to be a way to push yourself to be the best without pushing yourself to the brink of destruction.
The thing is, that I don’t remember always being such a worrier or as fearful as I can be now. Certainly I do remember being a little anxious or worried back in the day, especially when I had a recital coming up, a big solo in the concert, tryouts for a team, pitching in that big rivalry game. The normal stuff where butterflies are to be expected, right? But I’ve spoken before about being rewired after I had Bug. It was like instantly, all at once, I held him and my needs were distant. His were first. And making mistakes no longer affected just me. It affected him, too. And my love for him made me want to be the best person I could and make no mistakes, which is, of course, impossible. It’s a good thing for Bug to know I’m not invincible. I get that, yet it doesn’t make it any easier to let him see my faults and my fears.
“To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn’t come with guarantees – these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain. But, I’m learning that recognizing and leaning into the discomfort of vulnerability teaches us how to live with joy, gratitude and grace.” --Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
Has it always been this way?
I have been blessed to have my fair share of successes in my life, but I do remember the times I’ve failed just as much. Most notably, that day last October. Where I still find myself asking, how can I call that a failure? It wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination. A huge breakthrough with a tiny dash of disappointment is probably the more accurate term. And it shouldn’t even be that, but it was. I’m just being honest.
But it has made me a hungrier person. I’ve attacked this training with a sense of purpose like I’ve never done before, and I think it’s because I know now that, without a doubt, what I thought was impossible a few years ago is going to happen. And I want it to happen now.
One of my most vivid memories of my perfectionism balanced with good-enough-ism comes from Solo and Ensemble Contest during (I think?) my senior year of high school. I can’t remember the year, but I remember the moment right down to what I was wearing.
I began playing piano at age 8, and let’s face it, piano is a skill that requires a good amount of perfection. I mean, no one wants to hear someone slaughter a piece, right? So it fed into this tendency I had and usually served me well.
Until the time that I attempted a Brahms rhapsody that was so hard that virtually no 17-year-old had any business attacking said piece. I can’t remember which piece it was, only that the entire thing was almost black from the notes and that my teacher told me it was “very difficult.” It was a Class A solo—which meant, Really Freaking Hard.
Of course! Let’s do it. Because, yes.
Because, that’s just what I do.
I wish I could go back and tell 17-year-old me that there’s a better piece out there, there’s one that will allow me to showcase my talent—musicality—without driving me to the point of insanity. Now that I am a parent, I really want to tell her that.
(But I don’t think she’d listen. She’s pretty fearless. WAY more fearless than me.)
I remember lying in bed at night, hearing the melody, moving my fingers on my comforter.
I put so much into that piece.
And I remember the cold, neon-lit room that I played the piece in, and I remember knowing I did not play it perfectly. But I played it the best that I could, and I threw my heart and soul into it.
A score of “I” was the best. Every year, and almost every solo I ever did, whether flute or piano, I received a score of “I.” Because, yes. Of course I did.
I walked out, hands still shaking, knowing I would not get a I. And I was strangely okay with that. I had attempted Mount Everest, and I had gotten to the top with a few stumbles. Even 17-year-old me knew enough to respect that.
So when I walked into that gross cafeteria with the nasty carpeting (seriously, who ever thinks carpeting in any high school rooms is okay?) to see the scores published on the wall with everyone’s name and school and everything and saw this:
“Sara Arcaro, Piano, Class A: IV”
I literally felt my jaw hit the ground.
Four is what they give you when you shouldn’t have even shown up. Did they even GIVE fours at this thing? I mean, seriously.
Four is EMBARRASSING.
I remember searching the entire list, thinking there must be a mistake. I saw one other kid who got a 4…some trumpet solo or something.
I think I might have cried a little, just because I was shocked. It was literally impossible to believe, that I could have been that bad. My piano teacher was livid. We both knew it was not a one, but neither one of us were prepared for a four on that wall.
The thing was, I had another Class A flute solo coming up in like 23 minutes, and I needed to pull myself together to do it. But I remember my hands shaking from anger and disappointment and disbelief and I have to go play the flute now? In front of a room full of strangers?
I felt like everyone in that entire room must know I failed, like I had a Scarlet IV on my chest or something. I thought of all the hours I spent practicing for my…four. I felt like I had been punched in the gut.
And then, I decided that wasn’t going to be how this story ended. So I got my flute, went into another room, said a little prayer and then also said, “screw it, I’m going to play my damn heart out,” and did. And got my final “I.”
What I remember most about that day is how strong I was to say, eff this, I’m writing my own ending here, and I don’t care what anyone who sees that list thinks about me. I’m not a four.
I don’t think 36 year old me would have that kind of courage. I wish I did.
So many of my friends (and ME!) seem to struggle with this pursuit of perfection, and who can blame them (us)? In this Pinterest-worthy world, the pressure is on not just to have a party but to have a PARTY! With EVERYTHING PERFECT! and to have a perfectly coordinated home and well-behaved children with beautiful, handmade clothing and a fulfilling job and meals that are Instagrammable (side note: why is taking pictures of your food a thing? I still don’t really get that).
I’ve made a conscious effort over the past few weeks to shut out anything that might make me feel less true to myself. I’ve limited social media to just “hopping on to see what that message says” and changed my morning radio routine to a Spotify playlist, instead of hearing the latest horrible news in Syria, Ukraine, and here. Me. A Social Studies teacher. This is probably against the Social Studies Teacher Handbook, but I’ve done it.
I’ve tuned out to everyone else, and tuned into me.
I’m trying to really accept me for me, and realize that regardless of what happens in Athens on April 13th, I am still not a four. I showed up. I put my shoes on. I Dared Greatly. I set myself up for leaning over a cliff grasping at a star, and if I fall, I fall hard.
Because 17-year old me in that cafeteria knows, that that is how you live.
She was not afraid.
And I need to take a lesson from her.