Tag Archives: needs

Perfectionism

I’ve developed a practice of jotting down a list of events, conversations and observations at the end of every day, not only as a repository of creative prompts but also to identify patterns in my experience. During the last few weeks, perfectionism has appeared repeatedly in my daily lists, my own pursuit of it as well as my observation of it at work in others.

The first blog I ever wrote was about people pleasing . As I draw word maps and play around with the idea of perfectionism, it’s impossible to separate it from people pleasing. They seem to be shackled together. When I think about that duality, it occurs to me that perfectionism, like people pleasing, is a total abdication of power.

Trying to please others is always about someone else’s needs, and it’s always attached to a particular outcome that I have no control over. Perfectionism feels the same way to me. It’s not about me. It’s not centered in my integrity or intention. I don’t even get to define what perfect is. It’s always about striving to meet the demands of others in order to obtain something I think I need from them.

Perfectionism is an old habit for me. I clearly remember trying to make beds perfectly, trying to sort laundry perfectly, trying to take care of my younger brother perfectly and trying to learn to tie my shoes perfectly. In fact, the entirety of my earliest memories are of struggling to be perfect in order to stay safe.

It didn’t work.

The problem with the concept of perfection is that it’s a chimera, something desperately hoped or wished for but impossible to achieve. Perfection is not static. It’s as elusive as a dust mote dancing in a shaft of light. The second we try to capture, control or define it, it vanishes.

When I imagine a perfect lover, a perfect friend, a perfect house or a perfect day, what I’ve done is pin the butterfly of perfection into a velvet-lined case. In the effort to preserve it, I’ve killed it. To describe perfection as always winning, unchanging, uncomplicated or in any other terms is to limit it, and, diminished, it crumbles into dust.

Photo by Austin Ban on Unsplash

My best view of perfection is always over my shoulder. Perfection defies my expectation and agenda, but I glimpse it clearly as it passes by me and dances away in the distance. Whatever has been; that was perfect. Whatever is now is perfect. All the nows of my life, strung together like pearls on a silk thread, rippling behind me in the current of my passage, are perfect, including, and maybe especially, the knotted repairs, the frayed silk, and the variations in colors, shapes and sizes of the nows.

Perfection is nothing more than a frame. If perfection means without flaw, what is a flaw, exactly? That’s subjective, too. A flaw is just another frame. Either perfection or flaw can frame a moment, a day, a life.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

I’m the only one with the power to define what perfect means in my life. I don’t have to buy in to anyone else’s interpretation. A perfect score, a perfect grade, a perfect 10, a perfect record, a perfect job, a perfect gift and all the rest are powered by competition and outcomes. Even if I win or achieve the outcome I desire most, that moment of perfection is fleeting, a brief second of shimmering wings, and then the butterfly of perfection has once again flown and the current of my life sweeps me into new territory.

Perfectionism, for me, is a compulsion and an addiction. It seduces me with promises of feeling valued and loved, but it never delivers. Practicing perfectionism is practicing self-hatred and fueling my internal critic until I’m paralyzed and beaten. Perfectionism renders me anxious and powerless. I still find myself in its grip occasionally, but I recognize the taste of it now. It’s the taste of futility, of exhaustion and unending effort. It’s empty and barren.

Those who hold us to their standards of perfection are not loving us. They’re controlling us, and people who control others do so because they cannot control themselves. Their expectations of perfection are about them, not us. There is no love there, no success, no safe harbor. Requiring perfection from ourselves murders our ability to live authentically, freely and fully.

My youngest son, wise beyond his years, used to say to me, “Mom, perfection is not a goal.” In those days, the pursuit of perfection still had me by the scruff of the neck and pleasing people was the only hope I had for earning love.

Now I’m older and feistier and I don’t want the pretense of love I have to earn. Perfection doesn’t interest me. I can do much more than achieve perfection. It’s not deep enough, not wide enough and not juicy enough. The false promise of perfection contains nothing I want or need. I want clouds of goldenrod and fields of butterflies and the long streamer of nows I collect, string and knot into place, one perfect pearl at a time.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Don’t Be Where the Blow Lands

My partner has trained in Aikido, and he relates hearing the above advice years ago from his teacher. Ever since he repeated it to me, I’ve been turning it over in my mind.

We lately found a Tai Chi teacher and joined a class. I’ve wanted to do Tai Chi for a long time, and it’s every bit as much fun as I always imagined it would be. I practice it every day, and part of my practice is meditating on that wonderful piece of subtle Eastern wisdom: Don’t be where the blow lands.

Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash

Tai Chi  is a Chinese martial art focusing on energy manipulation, practiced for defense and health. Many of the people in the class we joined are there to address balance and strength. I’m happy to support both my balance and my strength, but I’m learning Tai Chi primarily as a grounding and centering tool.

We’re learning a series of specific slow, repetitive movements that flow into one another. Each movement is called a form, and each form has its own, often poetic name: The bow, the crane, windmills, the lute. Tai Chi emphasizes locating and moving from one’s center, and it’s interesting how difficult I find that.

Learning the forms and stringing them together is no problem for me. It takes a lot of repetition to get arms and legs coordinated and figure out proper positioning, but I like repetition and want to practice. What I notice, though, is how easily I lose my center. I reach or step too far. I find myself up on one toe or another when I’m not supposed to be. I put one foot directly in front of another, like a model on a catwalk, instead of maintaining a more stable, wider-based stance. My ankles are weak and unsteady. If I’m doing one form at a time in isolation, I can tighten my core and be solid, but Tai Chi is flowing movement, albeit slow, and after a few different forms my center is gone.

Losing my balance in this way is a perfect metaphor for the way I’ve lived my life until recently. My energy and attention were always directed outward. I had very little ability to support myself; I relied on external support and I didn’t distinguish toxic inputs from healthy ones. I was too hungry and had too many unmet needs; I took a lot of poisoned bait. Not only did I stand where blows landed and bullets sped, I made a camp there and called it home. I believed I needed those blows and bullets, that they meant love, that it was my responsibility to endure them, and that I deserved them.

We can’t avoid life. Harsh words, verbal attacks, physical violence and unexpected events like fire, flood, riots and sudden public violence are going to happen. Even so, there are ways in which to meet life’s blows with all the grace and elegance of Tai Chi, and as I practice the forms and movements, I think about the skills that allow me to absorb the blow, to flow with it, and to step away from where it landed before it can be repeated.

I’m a big proponent of self-defense and I always carry a knife. I’m not afraid to fight. One day soon I’m going to learn to shoot and buy myself a gun, which I will carry. That kind of self-defense is a separate thing from my practice of Tai Chi. Tai Chi is not about any kind of an aggressor lurking in an alley or a parking lot; it’s about emotional and energetic safety.

Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash

Tai Chi, along with swimming, dancing, ritual work, walking and writing, is a way to call myself home, back to the center, back to my bones and the source of myself. Maintaining my center absolutely requires my undivided presence. I can’t center properly if I refuse to know all of who I am. I can’t maintain balance if I refuse to love all of who I am. The minute I try to amputate bits and pieces of myself, deny my thoughts and feelings or start tearing myself down in any way, I’m standing (again) where blows are guaranteed to land. When I catch myself justifying; pleading; waiting for external validation; trying to please; choice-making out of fear, denial and self-doubt, I know that I’m standing on the shooting range with a target pasted over my heart and head.

I’ve spent too much of my life staggering under loads of other people’s shit, carrying vampires and dragging chains. Confusion, fear, perfectionism, disempowerment and constipated unacknowledged feelings have all kept me standing where the blows land. Arguing with what is has cemented me in the path of bullets. Clarity, self-confidence, making friends with my feelings and reclaiming my power allow me to deflect, block or better absorb the blows that come my way.

I’m intentional about living with the wisdom of choosing not to be where the blow lands. Reclaiming my center and moving mindfully from danger, not only physically but creatively and emotionally, all but eliminates my fear and anxiety. Concentrating on grounding leaves no room for anything but strength and rootedness. The meaning of my life is not out there, in the noise and chaos of what others think, say and do. The meaning of my life is in here, centered within the container of my body, expressed by what I think, say and do.

Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go see if I can remember the windmills and the lute from yesterday’s class.

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Make Yourself Small

I’m getting ready to turn over the manuscript of my first book to a developmental editor. Getting ready means I’m doing one final read through and combing out overused words and phrases using the search (and destroy) feature in my word processor. Over the months and years I’ve been working with my book and mastering the mechanics of writing, I’ve learned a lot about language and my own personal tics and patterns. The biggest problem I’ve found in my writing is unconsciously using passive voice.

On the face of it, the process of cleaning up a manuscript is straightforward and occasionally mind-numbingly tedious. Looking at 4000 plus occurrences of the word ‘was’ throughout 1000 plus pages is not filled with giggles and takes a long time. I entertain myself with battleship noises every time I eliminate ‘was’, ‘were’, ‘had’, or ‘have’. I also come up with amusing similes for the process. My favorite is that editing is like combing nits out of a child’s hair.

On the plus side, this practice opens up a lot of time in which to notice my unconscious language patterns and think about how my word choice reflects my choices in every other aspect of life. Editing word by word in this way is also a great habit breaker. When I write ‘had’ or ‘have’ now I notice it and I stamp on it immediately.

In the past, I’ve also overused ‘gently’, ‘lightly’, ‘quietly’, ‘a little’, ‘went’ (that’s a common one), and ‘softly’. As these patterns become visible to me, I ask myself with some annoyance, why not ‘fiercely’, ‘loudly’, ‘a LOT’ or ‘strode, galloped or dashed’?

I’ll tell you why not. Because I’m female and my culture has successfully taught me to make myself small. That lesson is so central and ubiquitous that I’ve only recently been able to identify it and begin to organize resistance. The message is impossible to see until you see it, and then you can’t unsee it.

Do you know the old French fairy tale of Bluebeard? A serial wife killer instructs his latest victim to refrain from opening a door in his castle, the door a particular little key opens. Then he leaves her alone with his keys (of course). In his absence, Bluebeard’s young wife and her sisters explore the castle, opening every door, and (naturally) the wife is persuaded there’s no harm in just peeking behind that last forbidden locked door. In the room they discover a row of headless bodies and a pile of heads belonging to Bluebeard’s previous wives. They exit the room (as you might imagine) and conspire to pretend they never unlocked the door. The only problem is the little key that unlocked the door begins to weep drops of blood and nothing they can do makes it stop. Bluebeard returns, discovers the infraction, and … I won’t tell you what happens, because different versions of the story end differently. This fairy tale is embedded in my own book, The Hanged Man, as well. The point is, once some things are understood and seen, they can’t be unseen. There is no going back.

The Roaming Gypsy Angel

So, consider this commandment with me: Make Yourself Small.

  • Adhere to the arbitrary cultural ideal of acceptable attractiveness. If you can’t, hate your body, torture it, starve it, distort it, color it, shave it and beat it into compliance. Make yourself conform.
  • Let the media, social media, experts, professionals, your favorite news channel or radio host, your religious leader or the men in your life tell you what to believe and what to think. Don’t you bother your pretty little head trying to understand anything.
  • Make your sexuality, passion and lust small. In fact, make them invisible (you slut).
  • Make your intelligence nonthreatening.
  • Tame your creativity.
  • Don’t ask questions. Don’t search for clarity and truth. Don’t do your own research. Restrain your curiosity.
  • If you must have needs, make them as infinitesimal as possible. Your needs are dust in the wind compared to the convenience, habits and preferences of others.
  • Be silent! You are disqualified from having an opinion. Don’t tell your truth. Others are speaking. Censor your voice.
  • Capture, restrain, cage, shackle, chain and abandon your dreams. Who do you think you are?
  • Deny, belittle, smother and minimize your feelings. Control yourself!
  • Shame on you! Cringe, cower, hide your head! You’re bad and wrong!
  • Be self-contained. Be self-sufficient. Don’t take up too much space. Move lightly. Don’t spend too much money. Don’t be too dramatic. Don’t be too sensitive. Don’t order dessert. Don’t attract attention. Don’t breathe too much air. MAKE YOURSELF SMALL!

You get the idea, I’m sure. This list goes on and on. The message is everywhere, and we’re all affected. It cuts across social, racial, economic, political and gender divides. Failure to toe the line, whatever that line is, results in harsh social and professional consequences, up to and including death. Show me a headline and I’ll pick out this theme. I trip over it a dozen times a day in my own life. Spend five minutes on Facebook reading any thread on any subject and you’ll find this underlying message.

The surrounding cultural mandate to make ourselves small is toxic, but it’s not the heart of the problem. The heart of the problem is that we internalize the mandate before we’re even aware of it, and then it becomes so woven into the fabric of our experience we no longer discern it.

Ironically, stubbornly pursuing my passion for writing and my determination to be bigger is what reveals to me the outlines of my self-sabotage. My habit of making myself small has trickled all the way down to the words I choose. Editing my manuscript has become editing my thoughts and choices, and noticing the words I write and think in has helped me notice my feelings.

My feelings contain a lot of fury and a lot of rebellion, far more than I was aware of when I created this blog last summer. Minor friction with my partner about planning a day or how we utilize counter space taps into a deep vein of lifelong rage and pain about allowing and participating in my own repression and oppression. I have systematically colluded in my own erasure. I’ve agreed to make myself small. I’ve agreed to abdicate my power.

No more. I opened Bluebeard’s chamber, and saw what it contained. The key that unlocked the door was writing, and I’m deleting all the blood-stained words that make my art small. If I fail as a writer, I’m not going to do it softly, gently, lightly or a little. I’m going to do it thunderously, monumentally and profoundly.

Original art by David Wyatt

It’s time to make myself big.

All content on this site ©2017
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted