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Escaping the Prison of Perfectionism

Escaping the Prison of Perfectionism

I’ve spent most of my life trying to be ‘perfect.’ I thought if I could just figure out how to get it all right, how to live up to everyone else’s expectations, that I could be happy and worry-free. I was wrong.

I spent 25 years trying to force my life to fit underneath the glass ceiling of my family’s expectations. I tried desperately to manipulate and shape my life, my personality, my homes, my dreams, my marriage, my children, and everything I am and want to be into this rigid, narrow view of what was acceptable so that I wouldn’t experience the shame of being unacceptable and ultimately rejected. But my mess was just too much to hide. When it became obvious that my big, messy reality simply would never conform, the ceiling shattered… and as I watched the fragments of those failed relationships and false barriers fall by the wayside, it was the most excruciatingly painful and exquisitely freeing experience I have ever had.

Suddenly, I was free. I didn’t have to conform to anyone else’s definition of acceptable any more. I didn’t have to edit my personality when I was around other people. I didn’t have to worry constantly that my husband or my children would say or do the wrong thing, because I could let them be themselves without worrying that their mess would reflect badly on me. Best of all, I didn’t have to spend my time chasing goals that weren’t mine or trying to be someone I didn’t really even want to be.

I didn’t have to justify myself any more. And THAT was awesome.

However, this sudden freedom wasn’t enough to instantly unravel a lifetime of anxiety, awkwardness and self-doubt. I have spent a long time laboring under the false assumption that if I could just get it right, I’d finally be good enough to let people into my life without fear of what they’d find there. If I could just be a perfect housekeeper, a perfect party planner, a perfect shopper and dresser and mother and homeschooler and writer and everything else… If I could just figure out how to do all of these things perfectly all the time and never ever make a mistake, then maybe I would finally be enough.

But perfection doesn’t happen.

And perfection isn’t a paradise – it’s a prison.

I always thought that if I could just achieve perfection, I’d be free. But that’s not how it works. Perfection requires constant defense, constant vigilance. Perfect people have to be constantly on guard because one flaw, one blemish, one mistake can shatter the illusion of perfection that they have worked so hard to create.

I’ll never be able to keep up with the Joneses. That’s not who I am and it’s not how I was made. No matter how hard I try, I will never be that woman – the one with the perfect house, the perfect family, the perfect clothes, the perfect everything all the time.

And honestly, I doubt that Mrs. Jones is that person either. Nobody can be that put-together all the time. I’m sure that somewhere, Mrs. Jones has a little hidden anxiety and insecurity of her own. I doubt she sees herself as that person – but since other people do, I’m sure she doesn’t want anyone to realize that she can’t live up to their expectations. And as a result, we both avoid each other out of shame and fear that we can’t fulfill each other’s expectations… and we both miss out on the priceless friendships we could’ve had.

The more I think about living a ‘perfect’ life, the less appealing it seems. When I really think about it, perfection sounds boring and difficult and stressful. That’s not the kind of life I want to live.

I want to be free.

I don’t want to be a slave to my mess.

Maybe real living comes from embracing our humanness instead of conquering it. Maybe if I can open up and live boldly in spite of my mess, I can inspire my friends to do the same. And together, maybe we can shatter this lie that other people are always better, more put-together, more worthy and worthwhile than we are. Maybe we can all agree to stop comparing our insides to everyone else’s outsides. And maybe we can rescue ‘perfect’ Mrs. Jones from her pedestal and give her a safe (but possibly messy) place to land when she’s having a hard time, too. Maybe we can show her that we don’t have to be perfect all the time to be okay.

Hmm. Maybe my mess is meaningful after all.

This post was originally published on on February 16, 2015.