Tag Archives: perfectionism

Success

In the last 24 hours I’ve had an Aha! moment that represents one of the biggest breakthroughs of my life.

I have always defined myself as a failure. This morning, before 7:00 a.m., I became a success. Just like that, in one blinding moment of epiphany. I lay there giggling to myself like an idiot. I’ve been doing that all day, in fact.

Standing in the shower, I had another staggering revelation. I suddenly realized when and why I created the identity of being a failure in the first place. It happened when I was very young, before I had the language or ability to understand or explain what I was up to. All I had at that age was my heart, intuition and empathy.

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We had a troubled family system. Bad and scary things were happening that I could not understand. My reasoning was that failing to please was Bad. Pleasing was Good. If I chose failing to please, if I flaunted it, if I accepted it, I would be Bad and others could be Good, and therefore loved and safe.

Of course, I didn’t think of it in any kind of logical or adult sense. What I did have, however, was a great ability to love that even then was unconditional, deep and tender. I loved, do you understand? Only that. Just love and the willingness to do whatever it took to protect my loved ones.

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In those dim years of childhood I embraced being a failure and forged the bars that were to keep me in that prison for 50 years. Failing to please was Bad and terribly painful, but I was comforted by the abilities of others to please and therefore be loved. I believed becoming a lightning rod for displeasure shielded them.

As an adult, I had two children of my own and made exactly the same choice. I endeavored to shield and protect them from physical and psychological harm, no matter what it took. They could not understand, and I could not explain my choices to onlookers because I was protecting so many different people on different levels. I could not tell the truth. There was too much at risk and the truth was too damaging to all of us. I was afraid of the repercussions on those I was trying to shield.

My sense of failure was reinforced at every turn. I was told in words how disappointing and inadequate I was, but far more powerfully, I understood it from nonverbal communication and from the choices of those around me. Once again, I comforted myself with the knowledge that I was doing the best thing for those I loved with my whole heart. I didn’t much care what happened to me if my loved ones could only be protected and happy. One day they would understand not only my choices, but the depth of my love.

The years rolled by. The children grew up and suddenly were adults. They expressed confusion and a sense of loss because of some of my parenting choices. I explained, confident of their understanding.

I realize now my explanations sounded ridiculous, but not because I failed.

I had a lifelong reputation for being dramatic and hypersensitive, which effectively erased my credibility within the family. I had no intention of burdening my sons with old family dynamics and problems that existed long before they were born. I didn’t want to hurt or betray anyone. I didn’t want the boys to have torn loyalties or make them feel they had to choose sides.

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Anything I could say, calmly, neutrally and without emotion, wasn’t even loud enough to get their attention. Trying to convey the authentic truth of my experience would have sounded (I imagined) hysterical and unhinged or, even worse, made them feel they had to take care of me. Come what may, I was never going to ask my children to parent me.

They could intellectually understand my explanation about the choices I made as a parent, but they couldn’t emotionally understand, exactly the outcome I worked for all those years! To them, it just sounded like Mom, talking too much, being embarrassingly emotional and making a big deal about nothing. (She does that.)

Do you see the exquisite irony? My explanations sounded ridiculous because I had succeeded in shielding them so well they had no idea what I was talking about. That was the flip. I didn’t fail at all. I succeeded.

Can you hear the Gods laughing? I can.

When I realized the unintended consequences of my maternal protection, it certainly caught my attention, along with changing my relationship with my kids in deeply painful (for all of us), and, I fear, permanent ways. I have never known such grief, but privately I chalked it all up to another failure of mine and a grief I deserved.

My failure label stayed firmly in place, as solid a part of my identity as my blue eyes or wild hair. It never occurred to me that I could take it off.

Until yesterday. Yesterday, another loved one I have protected made it clear to me how successful I’ve been in protecting him as well. My stoicism, my unrelenting commitment to healing and understanding, my fierce independence, and most of all my love and unwillingness to be disloyal or reveal unwelcome truths that might upset others have been so successful that the truth of my experience sounds like hysterical, made-up, unkind, exaggerated nonsense.

It was the kids all over again.

This time, though, I finally got it. I finally understood that I have succeeded, not failed, in everything I wanted to do out of love for others. Every single thing! I have failed to please, yes. I’ve failed the expectations of others. I’ve failed to be perfect. I’ve failed to keep the family glued together. I’ve failed in trying to force others to be happy and healthy. I’ve failed, most miserably of all, at protecting others from themselves. But none of those failures are real. None of those things were my job or within my power in the first place. They were impossibilities, not failures.

On the other hand, I have succeeded at failing! I did manage to attract negative attention so that others were at less risk. I did carry and sometimes express the emotional burdens of those around me who couldn’t deal with their emotions. The role I chose as a scapegoat did, in a fucked-up kind of way, help keep the family functional enough that we all survived. My “failures” made others look more successful by contrast. My willingness to be the problem child, the dramatic one, helped keep my loved ones out of the line of fire, at least a little bit.

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As a parent, I succeeded. I raised two sons. They are not perfect. I made mistakes. They have baggage to unpack like all the rest of us. Their wounds, however, are different than mine. They were not hurt in the same ways I was. I successfully shielded them from the bombs and grenades that shattered me. I believe they know they are loved and worthy, and that I am proud of them.

What I’m most proud of is my success at loving. Just that. Loving myself and loving others. Nowhere along the way have I lost my ability and willingness to love, absolutely, completely and unconditionally. I love my family of origin. I love my children.  I see now we don’t always get it back, the unconditional love, respect and loyalty we lavish on others. That’s okay. Invisible love, refused love, unrecognized love and unreciprocated love is still love. It’s The Right Thing To Do. It’s the only thing to do. It’s the best I have to give.

As for myself, I feel reborn. I am not a failure. I have never been a failure. I have succeeded in loving and doing my best against all odds. I accept that others may not understand my actions and choices or believe in my love, but that’s their failure, not mine.

This day has revealed to me that every ten minutes or so I call myself a failure, no matter what I’m doing. For the first time in my life, I’ve paused to examine all those so-called failures and discovered .  . . nothing. My identity as a failure is nothing more than a mindless habit. It’s my automatic apologetic response when I cook the bacon too long, don’t properly anticipate my partner’s wishes, want to go to bed early, am standing in the way (nobody ever stands in my way—it’s always me that’s in the wrong place!) or blow off doing an hour of exercise.

I have successfully mastered the art of failure. Bored now. I’m going to go be successful.

My daily crime.

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Life In Suspension

This week I’m contemplating The Hanged Man, a Major Arcana card in the Tarot deck. The traditional meaning of the card is “life in suspension.” Not coincidentally, The Hanged Man is the title of my first book.

The Hanged Man

The Tarot illustrates archetypes, and archetypes, like stories, have many rich facets and shades. The meaning of such symbols is never cut and dried, and archetypes can always be understood in layers and intuitive connections.

For many years I’ve worked with Tarot cards every six weeks, and at least half the time I pull The Hanged Man out of a deck of 78 cards, thoroughly shuffled and cut, for a 10-card spread. It’s obvious this particular card carries an important message for me.

Life in suspension. What does that mean?

First, I have to decide what “life” means.

Life: Doing, having, being.

For 50 years, I believed I had to make up for the fact of my being by doing and having. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to support and appreciate my need and desire to just be. Gradually, I’m changing my focus and attention from having and doing to being.

Thinking or talking about just being–feeling, playing, expressing, being in my body, following my interests and desires–seems either ridiculously shallow or criminal, I’m not sure which. Maybe both together.

On the other hand, having and doing can certainly be shallow in the long run, and provide only a brief period of comfort and pleasure, at best.

Life in suspension. Being in suspension? As in I’m too busy doing and having to be?

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That doesn’t sound good.

In my world, doing doesn’t count unless the doing is perfectly done. As perfection is a goal I never achieve, spending most of my time and energy doing seems like a bad investment.

As I explore and adopt minimalism, having is less and less important.

That brings us back to being.

Life in suspension describes those times during which we feel stuck. We might be in a job that doesn’t challenge us, a relationship that’s not healthy, or an addiction. We might feel trapped in indecision, fear, grief or financial struggles. We can spend years, decades, lifetimes with pieces of our lives in suspension while we wrestle with our demons.

The entirety of our lives is generally not in suspension at the same time. We might be very pleased to have healed a health problem, yet still have struggles with money. We might be happy at work but stuck in our personal relationships, or vice versa. We might function for years with a hidden addiction, or wrestle chronically with our weight.

The thing about being stuck is that it doesn’t feel competent, attractive, effective or like success.

It feels like failure.

On the heels of failure are the hounds of guilt, shame and isolation.

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But during those messy periods when our lives are in suspension and our feelings painful, what sort of invisible, underground growth and change is happening? What is hidden in that suspended interval that is regenerative, creative and fertile?

The Hanged Man wears an enigmatic smile in many Tarot decks. He’s hanging from one leg from the branch of a tree. Why does he smile? Why isn’t he thrashing and cursing, trying to get loose? Why is he peaceful? How did he get there, and how long must he hang? What will happen to him after he’s unfettered? Who hung him there in the first place, and why?

Life in suspension sounds like nothing is happening. Everything has stopped. Yet one of the things we can say about life with complete confidence is that it’s always changing.

I realize now my book, The Hanged Man, is at heart an examination of lives in suspension, or at least partly so. What happens to a mother who has murdered her children? That’s a life not so much in suspension as shattered, but what of her grief, her shame and her pain? How does one continue after such an event? What happens to a man who flees his home, his parents and his young wife, and is not able to stop running? What happens after we die? What’s happening while we’re waiting for spring, or for the baby to be born, or for a death?

Times of despair, illness, injury, grief, exile and failure can make us feel that we are stuck. We can’t seem to fix, change or get away from the tree in which we’re hanging upside down. Nothing seems to be happening and our discomfort goes on and on. Others fear us, or are repelled or uncomfortable because of our trouble. Failure of any sort is contagious. Nobody wants to be infected.

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Yet suspended intervals are common to us all. We might pretend they’re not happening and hide them from others, but who hasn’t been through a time of failure, either one catastrophic event or many smaller ones? Who hasn’t spent time mired in grief, rage, addiction or indecision? Who hasn’t lost themselves in confusion or been paralyzed by fear?

That’s why The Hanged Man is such a powerful archetype.

The suspended interval doesn’t seem like rich ground for stories at first glance, but I’ve always been more attracted to the less popular and less prized side of life. I like the blood, the sweat and the wet spot. I like the harsh realities of bone and ash.

Years ago I started creatively exploring lives in suspension without ever thinking about it in those terms. It was a careless kind of play, inspired by my storytelling material. What happened to the characters from the beautiful old traditional tales I was telling after—or even before—the story I knew? When Rapunzel escaped the tower, where did she go? What did she do? What became of the prince the little mermaid loved?

Why is that rascally hanged man smiling?

In the suspended interval, decades long, of hiding my writing because I felt it was a shameful, unproductive waste of time and it earned no money, I accidentally started writing a book. Or, I should say, a series of books.

It didn’t seem like much was happening while I was living those years, though. I was just hanging on, living my life.

Now that life I was experiencing while nothing much was happening has become nearly two thousand pages of creative work.

Exploring life in suspension. My daily crime.

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Not So Perfect

May was a tough month. I had a heavy work schedule and a certification and training class over 2 subsequent weekends that entailed classroom work as well as long, cold hours in a YMCA pool. My schedule left me with little time to write and no time to relax and catch up to myself.

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I successfully passed the class and am now recertified to teach Red Cross swimming lessons, and I earned a couple of very helpful paychecks, but I’m exhausted and dissatisfied because I haven’t been writing much.

Work is an excellent distraction from my life. It always has been. I like to work. I like having concrete and specific expectations in a work setting. I like making a contribution to others. I like the social aspect of work, and I love being part of a team.

I also like the paychecks.

I could increase my hours to full time and enjoy the benefits and increased income. I could continue adding to my education and certifications and take on teaching more classes and aquatic programs. I’d enjoy it and I’m confident I’d do well.

I tell myself that’s what a normal, responsible, adult person would do.

I tell myself I should be grateful for work opportunities and take full advantage of them.

I tell myself I need the money.

But all the while there’s a voice in my head saying, “But what about writing?”

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What about the blog, the books, that query letter I need to write and that submission process I promised myself I would tackle this year? What about that activity that guarantees no income, demands all my passion and creativity, requires long stretches of quiet solitude and combines my greatest joy with my most vivid hopes and fears?

Oh. That.

It’s time to fish or cut bait, shit or get off the pot. It’s time to reassess my time, energy and priorities and make conscious choices. It’s time for recommitment.

All my life I’ve worn efficiency and effectiveness like a suit of armor. People remark on my poise, my strength, my confidence and competence. All my life I’ve felt like a fraud and an imposter.

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I’m not motivated by the desire to compete or win applause. All I’m trying to do is stay safe. I hide my vulnerability behind my ability to be organized and willingness to take on responsibility.

A job is something I can do well and the world calls me successful.

A writer is something I am, and I must define my own success.

A job is a description, a list of competencies met and skills demonstrated, a time card, a schedule, policies and procedures.

Writing is intuitive, illogical, timeless, messy, infuriating, captivating and uncertain. It’s risky and vulnerable.

My job requires professionalism.

Writing requires absolute authenticity, sloppy, smelly and sticky.

I master a job.

Writing masters me.

I’d like to make an easy black-and-white decision here—live like a normal working person or find an old cabin in the woods and do nothing but write, but that’s ridiculous. Life consists of many threads woven together: Family, friends, home, our own self-care, community and work.

I can work and write too. I can’t take advantage of every opportunity at work, have a perfectly organized private life and be a perfect friend, family member and partner, all the while crouching behind my projections of competence, control and strength, and step into my full power as a writer.

Perfectionism will smother my life if I allow it to.

I may need to settle for being good enough, or even (God help us) average at work, at home and in my relationships. Maybe I don’t need to take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way, whether at work or in the course of daily life. Maybe staying safe is not such a life-or-death matter as I’ve always thought.

In the midst of all this rumination, Memorial Day weekend arrived. Saturday was the day we cleared out my storage unit after it flooded over the winter. We recruited some generous friends with a truck and trailer and made a date. At breakfast I wrote a short list of what to take. Then, instead of loading up the car, checking the list several times and getting ready hours in advance, I sat down and wrote a query letter and subscribed to an online site for locating publishers and agents who are currently accepting submissions.

Delighted and satisfied with my morning, my partner and I got in the car at the appointed time and headed to the storage facility.

I forgot to take the key to the padlock on the unit door. I also forgot the broom and the tape measure. I hadn’t taken time to check my list as we left.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

I left my partner there to wait for our friends and came back home.

For the first five minutes of the 20-minute drive I berated myself. Wasting gas, mileage and time. Worse—wasting my friends’ time! Rude, tardy, irresponsible, disorganized, incompetent …

Wait, I said to myself, hang on.

Isn’t this the choice I made, to settle for being less perfect in favor of writing? I failed to be properly organized in order to empty the storage unit, but I wrote a query letter, a project that’s been pending for seven months!

I had to smile at myself.

I slowed down and started enjoying the spring day. I stopped yelling at myself. I had been imperfect in front of God and everybody. My cover was blown and I felt uncomfortably exposed. I didn’t like it.

(My partner, as he reads this for the first time, informs me nobody else noticed or cared.)

So be it. The writing requires my unconditional best. The rest of my life can have whatever is left.

Normal, perfectionism and maybe even safety are overrated.

We got the storage unit emptied out and swept.

Then I came home and wrote this post.

My daily crime.

(See poem below)

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“Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don’t patch the cup.
Don’t patch anything. Don’t mend. Buy safety pins.
Don’t even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don’t keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll’s tiny shoes in pairs, don’t worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic-decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don’t even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don’t sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we’re all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don’t answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in through the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don’t read it, don’t read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.”

Louise Erdich.