I’ve never considered myself a perfectionist.
I didn’t think it was a gene my messy, fun-loving family possessed.
While growing up, B-average grades were regularly praised.
Our home answering machine message was a secondary rhyming “family rap” in which we all wrote a line and ended with an exuberant “oh yeah!” No one found this embarrassing.
Outfits for family pictures were coordinated with a request to wear any shade of “purple pastel.” Naturally, interpretations varied.
My mother’s artwork including an oil painting of the ocean depicted by a cascading chocolate-colored wave hung in places of prominence in our “formal living room.” It was unclear to many why the wave was brown but mom confidently stood by her artistic choice.
It wasn’t that the bar for success wasn’t set high, just that attaining that bar wasn’t a primary focus. Instead a full tank of optimism, resilience, and creativity, as fuel for hurdling toward any goal, was most highly praised in the Blackwell household.
Taking cue, I’ve pursued a career enjoying my journey as a writer and dancer. These are certainly not pursuits with high prestige (or money making potential), but my family has never questioned my choices. In fact, when my artist sister decided to study laboratory sciences in college we were all incredulous that she wasn’t an art major. “Are you sure?” we asked repeatedly. “But you love to draw!??” I digress.
Somewhere on my path, I unlearned the free-spirited, express-without-fear teachings of my youth and began an affair with scrutiny.
Maybe this started while working in the deadline-driven, perfection-imposing magazine world, or perhaps even earlier, during rounds of 6:00 a.m. cheerleading practice synchronizing the staccato of our calls. More than likely though this creeping pressure to “get it right” is the result of some internal default that’s petrified others will see how wrong, imperfect, foolish, uneducated and incorrect I am. How truly terrifying.
I have willingly edited my thoughts and words into oblivion, deemed my pursuits unworthy and hidden them from curious eyes, let “friends” critique my being asunder – all this, I now believe, is the result of the slow vine of perfectionism surreptitiously wrapping around until I was unknowingly consumed.
Given my inability to identify perfectionism as a personal challenge, I didn’t realize its crippling effects until I encountered its opposite: My 2-year-old niece.
Last week, I traveled to Salt Lake City for a weeklong celebration of her birthday.
During this time, cupcakes were consumed for breakfast on most days.
Stairs were climbed, descended and climbed again.
“No!” (declared with a direct certainty) became a favorite word
Spontaneous somersaults happened in the kitchen, on the bed and (almost) in the elevator.
As my niece delighted in her 2nd year in this world, I marveled at all she’s learned in such a short period of time, and all that I’ve forgotten in my 34 years.
Her exuberance for exploring, trying and doing was not diminished by the occasional redirect, tumble or bump on the head. She continued on without concern about doing it right, worrying if she was a bad person, or what someone might think of her decision to paint the counter in delicious blue frosting and toss the boring cake part on the floor. I imagine she was driven by feeling rather than thinking, and that feeling was Wheeee!
In contrast, I saw just how my inner Wheeee! Has been choked by a fear of not being the best, or liked, or looking stupid, etc.
Here are just a few of the ways:
- A long list of “what ifs” have kept me from submitting a column to an online journal that has expressed interest in my writing and would actually pay.
- I long to do a headstand in the middle of the room during yoga, but I’m scared.
- My attempt at cat eyes looked more raccoon than sex kitten. I have not picked up the eyeliner since.
- What would it be like to dance freely in just a sport’s bra during Shimmy Pop class? I don’t know because my stomach is not “flat enough” for the spotlight.
- My spotify playlists include a file named “choreo,” which are songs I’d like to choreograph and teach. Has this happened? Noooope.
I don’t think I’m the only one with a list like this, and when you look at it all written down, it’s kinda sad. I can’t help but ask, for what reason do I hold myself back? Why have I become so afraid?
In her tumbling, independence-seeking glory, my niece reminded me that the key to success in any pursuit is a willingness to accept the 3 big Fs: Failure, Falling Down, Looking like Fool – all with an air of detached nonchalance.
So without further ado, a tummy-bearing headstand with cat eyes:
It was scary. I fell down several times. And then, I laughed.
I guess this is what it is to be alive.