When I look back at photos of myself as a child, one image comes to mind – an “American Girl” doll. Ironically, I was never much of a doll enthusiast. I preferred my unruly collection of stuffed animals; yet, I epitomized a life-sized, hybrid model of the popular characters. To put it into perspective, I had a drawer full of custom-made bows on rotation that I wore on top of my head like a crown, which exquisitely matched my collection of dresses for every formal and informal occasion. My outfits were further decorated by ruffled socks and ballet flats in a variety of colors, and Sunday nights were usually spent sitting cross-legged on the floor while my mother ceremoniously rolled my thick brunette locks into pink, spongy rollers. On Monday mornings, liberated from its constraints and doused with extra-hold spray, my hair became a voluminous mane of curls that endured for the remainder of the week’s activities. Superficial appearance aside, I was a busy girl. Notwithstanding a rigorous academic curriculum, my resume of extracurriculars ran the performing arts gamut: nightly dance class, orchestra, choir, and all their respective rehearsals and recitals.
I acknowledge my privilege as I share this image of my past self, which has evolved into a modern-day version that is very much alive and well in me today. The depiction is not boastful, nor is it sarcastic. While I get a good laugh and feel occasional mortification looking back at old photos, I am not ungrateful for my mother’s principal hand in designing that life. I know without a doubt she was nurturing me with the best of intentions. I am merely observing the probable source of my conditioned perfectionist mindset from a more developed consciousness and the smidge of wisdom I’ve gained in my 37 years. I’ve realized that attempting or even fooling myself that perfection is achievable is my kryptonite: irresistible yet repeatedly interfering with the possibility of any true emotional freedom. And who am I – who are any of us – if we aren’t free? While I can hold appreciation and sentience in the same emotional space, “perfect” has a steep price that I have paid for as long as I can remember. I used to roll my eyes at my grandmother who would predictably plump the pillows behind me and my cousins on our visits to her home the minute we stood up from her sofa. Now, that is me. I caught myself in the act just last weekend. Admittedly, I crave flawlessness in my surroundings, my appearance, my resume…every domain of my life. It deceivingly gives me a sense of peace, control, and worthiness. Yet, regardless of the girth of my pillows, the suppleness of my hair, or the amplitude of my wardrobe, I am still a human being that experiences the entire emotional spectrum including but not limited to grief, anxiety and insecurity.
Nobody actually has the ability to do what most of us mere mortals are constantly attempting both consciously and subconsciously, which is to bypass those existential challenges and difficult feelings. If that were even achievable, arguably, we would be denying the human experience altogether. That said, we are adaptive beings and society provides multitudes of avenues and rewards for hiding our flaws behind masks of beauty and order. My own pattern of succumbing to the perfection trap was illuminated for me recently through a new, romantic relationship. After multiple years of singledom, a man unexpectedly walked into my life and made me believe in the possibility of love again. My empowered self recognizes that I generated that belief…but I digress. It was a sweet reminder that I am indeed capable of feeling those feelings, after all. I had a fleeting sense that my inner work over the last few years had finally tuned me to the right frequency. Nevertheless, after a few months of dating, he suddenly ceased all communication with me. I was “ghosted,” which seems like something you hear about after a one-night rendezvous, or with 20-something’s as they taste the flavors of the dating rainbow. Oh, how naïve of me. I asked myself, how could this happen? I am the total package! Deep down, I admit that I may not entirely believe that about myself, nor was I necessarily convinced that this man was the one. Nonetheless, I yearned for the relationship’s unfolding to be…well, perfect.
Perhaps, that’s where I had it all wrong. While unlikely I will ever know what led to this abrupt disappearing act, it aroused discomfort and insecurity in me which, after some distance from the event, I now choose to see as a teacher. At some level, throughout our time together I felt myself endeavoring to demonstrate that I could be the perfect partner to this man. I didn’t even flinch when his beloved dog created a crime scene out of one of my favorite pairs of heels. How could someone walk away from this cool, composed chick? While I don’t purport to believe in perfection at an intellectual level, my programming has undeniably laid the foundation for me to pretend that state is attainable. But at what cost? Conceivably, this guy was keen enough to detect the façade. We relate to messy, we empathize with chaos, and we crave reminders that we aren’t alone in our turbulent journeys. We all want to feel accompanied and held in that humanity. While I can only conjecture as to the reasons for his behavior, and although there were definitely kinder and more mature ways to end the relationship (cough…have a conversation), I appreciate that the experience has helped me know myself a little better, or rather, know my heart better. Not coincidently, as I’ve been reading the latest book entitled Living Untethered by one of my favorite authors, Michael Singer, the following quote stood out: “Very few people understand their heart. Many intellectuals just want to keep it suppressed because it is much too sensitive and reactive. They would rather live in the mind because they have more control there…You’re simply directing your awareness to your mind, so you don’t have to feel the difficult emotions emanating from your heart. The mind becomes a place the soul goes to hide from the heart.”
This humbling experience as I perceive it served as a beautiful illustration that perfection is the mind suppressing the heart. And it is also lonely, boring, and fundamentally inhuman. It’s not approachable or relatable; it is like being a child in a museum of lovely things that you can’t touch. I contend that perfection is often just a ruse for our intrinsic and very normal beliefs of inadequacy. While looking attractive, having all the academic and/or professional accolades, and curating an orderly environment may lead to a short-term reward, if I learned anything from my mother’s awful disease and unfairly premature departure from this human plane (not to mention all the other atrocities we see on a daily basis) it’s this: life is flawed and rarely seems fair. No amount of contrived magnificence allows us to bypass the ugliness. Sure, maybe things feel easier at the outset because of how people treat you if you look the part. But ultimately, we are all in the same club projecting our fears and yearning to feel whole, worthy and included. Instead, I propose that we start a new club where the price of entry is unabashed authenticity, and the hot chicks that skip the line are replaced by those who are a bit more of a hot mess – hairspray optional.