Tag Archives: perfectionism

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.

Contribution

When I went through emotional intelligence training, I learned about three basic human needs: Contribution, connection and authenticity. If these primary needs are not adequately met, our lives don’t work well. I’ve written about my wary relationship with my own needs before. As I explored emotional intelligence, I was struck by the simplicity of the three basic needs, the paradoxical complexity of each one, and the unique ways, often unconsciously, we each approach getting these needs met. I also appreciated the way these needs are inextricably woven into each other.

In these first couple of weeks of a new job, it’s necessary to build a new schedule, which felt overwhelming until I remembered the three basic needs. I’m a creature of habit and I quickly stop assessing how I spend my time once I have a workable schedule. I engage with activities I’m accustomed to engage with and that’s that.

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When I trained as a medical transcriptionist and started working from home, I was motivated by the necessity of earning a living and managing my then-teenage sons as a single mother. Medical transcription was a perfect solution. Gradually, without me really noticing, I allowed the job to become a prison. The boys grew up and moved out. I was promoted twice, but I never earned a comfortable living. The job came with intense pressure that triggered my stress and perfectionism. It was isolating. It was difficult physically and keyboarding began to give me overuse injury.

I depended on my inadequate paycheck. It was the only income I had.

I was stuck.

I was aware during the last couple of years I worked as a transcriptionist that the job was no longer meeting any of my needs, aside from the paycheck, but a paycheck is kind of essential. In fact, in my mind it was the essential priority in my life, and I labored away in spite of migraine headaches and increasing pain in my upper extremities and shoulders until the day came when I could no longer keyboard without sobbing and I developed a frozen shoulder. I couldn’t take off my shirt without feeling faint from pain.

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The hardest thing about that job was not the poor pay, but that I felt my contribution didn’t matter. The medical professionals were dictating into a piece of equipment and rarely, if ever, considered the human being trying to transcribe their dictation, unless it was to complain and criticize errors. The company I worked for is a huge global conglomerate on the cutting edge of speech recognition technology and a whole host of other businesses. I was nameless and faceless. All training and in-services were done remotely. Management had a high turnover. Changes happened without notice, like getting transferred to a new book of business. Overtime, when needed, was mandatory. Transcriptionists were expected to work 24/7 and weekend shifts were required.

Many people can type quickly and accurately. It’s mostly a matter of practice. I was a pair of hands and ears racing the clock, along with hundreds of others like me, both here and overseas. The job wanted no authenticity from me or anyone else. It’s a job for robots.

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I am not a robot.

I sought my new job because I want to start earning income again, but this time I promised myself I wouldn’t take a job that didn’t feel meaningful to me, and I knew exactly what I meant by meaningful. A meaningful job is not about the paycheck. Yes, obviously, I need money in today’s world. Not a lot, but some. Enough to justify my time, travel and commitment. The work I do in exchange for a paycheck of any size is only meaningful if it makes a positive difference in the lives of others. I don’t want to be paid for being a robot impersonator. I want to be paid because I contribute something wanted or needed out of my own authenticity.

Working as a member of a team in order to keep people safe, assist patients in rehabilitation and teach swimming feels meaningful and allows me to work from the heart. In my little corner of the world I can be part of something healthy and healing for myself and others.

As an ex-people-pleaser, I endeavored for most of my life to make a positive difference in the lives of my family and immediate connections. I worked as hard as I could at it, and making a meaningful contribution was my top priority. In spite of all my efforts, I failed. In fact, it seemed the harder I tried the more obnoxious I was to those around me. Naturally, I concluded that I was nothing. I had nothing to offer than anyone wanted. It would be better for everyone if I disappeared and relieved them of the burden of my presence.

Two important things I’ve learned from those years are that people pleasing doesn’t work, and some people are determined never to be pleased. I learned to define for myself what a “good” job is. I began to seek paid work I enjoyed as much as volunteer work and kept my focus on the feeling of making a positive contribution.

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I see and hear a lot of discussion about the increasing problems of loneliness and depression, and I suspect many of those affected feel unable to make a meaningful, authentic contribution in their families and/or communities. Somewhere along the way we decided a paycheck is more important than the quality of our contribution, but ultimately, as human beings, no paycheck is an adequate substitute for feeling our contribution matters. Our culture does not necessarily reward authentic contribution. We like our infallible robots and good soldiers, those who do and say exactly what they’re programmed to do and say. Loose cannons like me are a problem nobody wants in the classroom or the boardroom.

I’m sorry I believed for so long I had nothing to contribute. It made me miserable and was the root of many destructive choices. My belief now is that we all have a great deal to offer, and someone out there needs exactly what we can contribute. What would the world be like if every man, woman and child truly felt they had something unique to give that made a positive difference in just one other life? What if contributing and receiving contributions were not tied to money? What if we all woke up in the morning knowing the world is a better place because of our presence?

What would it take to make that a reality for everyone?

I’m fortunate to have found a way to make an authentic, meaningful contribution combined with a paycheck. Not everyone is able to do that. But everyone is able to do something. Plant a tree. Walk dogs living in animal shelters. Visit hospital patients. Assist in schools, day care facilities or retirement homes. Volunteer to answer a hotline. Buy a cup of coffee for a homeless person. Teach literacy.

Someone out there needs what we can give. Someone is waiting for us. All we have to do is go find them.

Making a meaningful contribution. My daily crime.

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All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Behind the Shield

Four years ago someone said to me “women and children should be behind the shield.” The impact of that statement was like a kick in the gut. I was shocked by the way the words made me feel; a tidal wave of fury, grief and despair. It was so overwhelming I didn’t poke at it right away, but ever since then I’ve been playing around with the idea of shields, my version of circling around a potentially dangerous object with twitching tail and ears pricked, curious but wary.

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A shield is a piece of personal armor used to actively intercept specific attacks. Traditionally, shields varied in size, shape and thickness and were made of wood, animal hide, woven reeds or wicker. Shields have probably been around as long as we have.

A shield implies protection.

I think my initial reaction to the phrase “behind the shield” was painful because of my fierce, primitive longing for the kind of protection and safety that image implies to me. I’ve always been hypervigilant and concerned with identifying safe places. I know where the exits are, physical and emotional. I maintain bolt holes, if-the-sky-falls plans and a high degree of independence and self-sufficiency.

Because my own anxiety and fear have been such sources of private and mostly hidden anguish, I’m extremely sensitive to others who suffer in the same ways, either specifically or generally. In the days when I was doing volunteer fire and rescue work, I frequently took the role of lying on the highway in the glass, spilled gas and ruins of a vehicle calming and reassuring a trapped victim, monitoring a pulse if I could get to a pulse point, explaining what was happening as we tried to extricate, establishing responsiveness and orientation and taking a history while the fire department deconstructed the car around us and the EMTs and paramedics passed me pressure bandages, a blanket or anything else that was needed and we had room to use.

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In short, I give others, animals and human, the kind of calm reassurance and protection I’ve always craved myself.

It might be this longing is buried within all of us, a kind of deep and primitive desire to return to the ultimate safety of the womb or a longing for the in-arms experience every baby needs and has a right to receive. Except that the womb is not always safe, and many of us do not get sufficient in-arms experience as babies. It might be that I’m uniquely broken in this, but I doubt it. I suspect much of our irrational and destructive behavior has to do with trying to feel safe, sheltered and loved, including sexual and behavioral acting out and addiction.

In any event, my desperation to be shielded motivated me to become a willing shield for others. This adaptation was greatly assisted by being female and then further strengthened when I became a mother.

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I never thought of myself as a shield. It never occurred to me such a role was a choice. I defined myself as a protector, a nurterer, a figure of maternal and female strength, a life-giver and a peace maker. I thought of myself as a good woman. I automatically placed myself between the inconvenient, frustrating, dangerous, tedious and harsh edges of the world and those I loved. I protected my husbands and partners from the necessity to deal with anyone else’s needs (including my own) and threats to their egos (including me). I protected my sons from the immaturity and selfishness of my husbands and partners. I tried to protect people from their mental and physical pain, from the consequences of their choices, from their own feelings and from any other irritation, hurt or harm.

Shields were originally made to protect from specific kinds of attack, but I tried to shield others from all kinds of danger: blade, arrow, blunt weapon, words, pain, consequences, inconvenience, feelings and worry. I was determined to be a perfect shield for all my loved ones.

Predictably, I failed, and nobody likes a shield that fails. I regularly heard about my inadequacy.

No one ever suggested to me that I protect myself, and no one invited me behind their shield, even for a rest. I approached every relationship with a craving to be taken care of, to be held, to be loved. I believed in romance and part of romance certainly included being taken behind the shield of some kind, competent man. If you’re thinking this was needy and dangerous behavior, you’re right. Somehow, I always ended up with one more person in my life I needed to shield, instead of the other way around.

The inability to trust and the craving to be protected and cared for can tear a woman apart. I’m certain there have been people in my life over the years who wanted to give me safety and security, but I refused to let anyone get that close. I don’t want to rely on anyone. I’ll go to great lengths to avoid asking for help. At the same time, I’ve spent much of my life working happily with children, animals, in hospice and as a first responder.

For a long time I thought if I could get a good enough job and earn or save enough money I’d be safe, but I was wrong about that. We live well below the poverty line, but I feel safer now than during any other time in my life. I’m also less concerned about money than I’ve ever been before. Money is not safety. I also thought if I could just find the right home I’d be safe. I found the right home and discovered that wasn’t the solution, either. Wrong again.

Since I came to Maine, everything has changed. Now I live in a situation that does not require constant emotional labor. I live with an adult who does not need or expect me to protect him. I have found reciprocal relationships.

This morning, as I went about my daily breakfast routine, it occurred to me that I’m no longer looking for a shield to crawl behind. The need for safety doesn’t drive me now. I’m not even sure I know what I mean by safety. What is the threat I’m trying to protect myself from? Aging? Poverty? Being unloved? Abuse? Getting my feelings hurt? A blow to my pride? Abandonment? Betrayal? Internet trolls? Loneliness? Crazy people with guns? Illness? Death?

Yes. All these and more. And most of these have already happened, some more than once, or are happening right now.

In spite of that, I’m okay. I’m better than okay. I’m great. I’m resilient. I believe in my ability to survive and thrive. I don’t mind aging and I’m not afraid of death. I’m emotionally intelligent and I understand power dynamics. I’m as safe as anyone, and a lot safer than millions.

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I have my own shield now. I made it (without knowing what I was doing) out of dragonfly wings, cobwebs, stardust and the sound of bats flitting around my head in the dusky barn on their way out to hunt. I made it out of integrity, passion, dance, laughter, creativity, ritual and spirit. There’s room behind my shield for others to rest, breathe and make shields for themselves, but I’m not spending my days searching for those in need of such a shelter. I can’t make a shield for you or even my most beloved to carry. I can’t keep everyone or anyone safe. I can’t shelter the world.

The only person in charge of my safety is me. The only person I have a responsibility to keep safe is me.

I am not a shield. I don’t have to take the blows or go to war. I don’t have to buffer, neutralize or ameliorate the experience of life for others. I don’t have to prostitute and beg in order to be dragged behind someone else’s shield. I made exactly what I need for myself, and no one can take it away from me.

Knowing I have what I need, I’m no longer approaching interactions with others from such desperation to be cared for. I still don’t like to ask for help, but I’m practicing doing it anyway. I’m much better at taking care of myself and no longer put the needs of others before my own. I’ve developed useful coping mechanisms that help me feel safe.

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We all construct shields emotionally, intellectually, behaviorally and with our choices. None of them really protect us from our fears or the experience of life. There is no way to shield against generalized fear and anxiety. It’s counterintuitive, but the best path I’ve found to feeling safer and more secure is to drop my armor and open my arms to my fears. I don’t know why that works, but it does. Monsters are ten times larger when I’m running away from them. When I run toward them they shrink before my eyes, and sometimes they even run away from me. That’s why I build my shield from things like iridescent hummingbird feathers and milkweed fluff. It won’t stop a harsh word or a bullet, but I carry with me joy, wonder, awe, mystery and beauty. My shield is a story of love and a story about what makes life worth living. It reminds me to stand tall and unafraid, looking life in the eye, confident in my ability to endure, heal, laugh and learn.

From behind the shield: My daily crime.

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All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted