on being imperfect and not taking things personally

June 28, 2012

Over the last number of years I have been through quite a bit. Some of it has been good and some of it has been devastating. But I remain with the process of what it is to grow up and become an adult and learn to live gently in a violent world. I fail a lot, but as my wise husband says: failure is not an option – it’s an inevitability. In my joys and sorrows I have seen a lot of growth and change in myself, and a lot of letting go. And it’s not over yet.

If I had to reflect on what have been the most valuable life lessons learned thus far (and here I mean separate to the theological lessons, which have also been important, but deserving of a post of their  own), I would settle on two short rules which are easy to write and difficult to implement. Practicing their implementation year on year however has led to an eminently more peaceful me, and I hope this will only increase. Maybe you will be able to relate.

1. You can choose perfectionism, or happiness, but not both. 

This has been a hard lesson, learned the hard way. Naturally, I have an “all or nothing” mindset. I am not a lukewarm or half-hearted person. I am in or I am out. I find vagueness difficult to navigate and I either throw myself into things with gusto or refrain altogether. As a child, I never coloured outside the lines and considered those who did to be idiots. This all or nothing attitude has many negatives. They include self-loathing and an overwhelming sense of unhappiness and failure when my best attempts come to nothing, or an unwillingness to attempt something new in case I prove terrible at it. It also allows you to be judgemental of those who do not hold perfectionism as a high value, and therefore you quietly deride them for their txtspeak text messages, their unformatted emails, their half-clean homes or their pathetic and inexplicable satisfaction with not being the best at anything. Another negative is the crying over grades that are Bs instead of As, and the absolute lethargy that sets in when faced with a large task. It’s a monumentally paralysing and exhausting attitude, in equal measure. It was linked, and worked well, with my eating disorders, as I was either in the gym seven days a week and allowing myself 800 calories a day or on a complete reckless bender of junk food, alcohol and misery on the couch. What do you see in the midst of all this? Dissatisfaction. Self-dislike. Other-dislike. And striving, always striving, for some unnattainable goal where I could be acceptable to myself.

Letting go of perfectionism is challenging. It means not needing to control things. It means being okay with that song you wrote not being a masterpiece, and learning just to like it because it is a little shadow of your personality and talent. It means not saying harsh things to the person in the mirror and not tolerating harsh words in your own mind about others. It means being okay with the house falling to shit because you are busy with other, more important things. It means being all right with eating well most days but occasionally lacking in good nourishment. It means being okay with seeing a B grade (or even a C or dare I say it…a fail grade) or not being everyone’s favourite person. It means being okay with not being liked by everyone and not being the one whose work is always outstanding. It means being in a good enough relationship with yourself that when you do receive praise, you are able to accept it with a flush of pleasure that in itself is a little reward for your achievement, rather than the driving force for it. It means being okay with being just an intermittent blogger of medium quality rather than a proficient one of high. It means not being hard on your husband if when he cleans the bathroom (you yourself not having done so for many weeks), you do not complain because it is done, in your opinion, imperfectly. It means letting go of frustration when others fail or let you down. It means working with what you’ve got and accepting how things are. It means being free to make small changes, step by step, that add up, day by day, instead of needing to have everything right here, right now.

So fuck off, perfectionism. Seriously. You’re a right pain in my face. I embrace the tepid glow of mediocrity with a one-armed hug!

2. Don’t take things personally.

Yeah. Don’t take things personally, even when they are meant personally. I’m not talking about constructive criticism here. When someone says to you, “You have hurt me,” the right response is always, “I’m sorry.” Oh to hear those words sometimes! This is important…even if you didn’t mean to hurt them. If someone says, “You have been mean/unpleasant/thoughtless in your behaviour” and, particularly if it is someone you respect, you ought to listen well and see if they are right. Maybe they will be, and make space for that. And maybe they won’t be. A friend who can speak the truth in love to you is a treasure, though.

But if someone says, “You are fat and ugly” or “I am ashamed of you” or if they behave in a pointed manner to allow you to receive the message that you are inferior/disliked/the wrong gender/not in their clique/unattractive to them, then these are messages that are designed to hurt you and hold you captive. So don’t take them personally. They have pretty much nothing to do with you. Don’t allow insults, however veiled, softly spoken, or screamed by a stranger in the street, be something that you take to heart. When we insult or actively receive insults, we are engaging in violence and power struggles. Leave those who insult us to the angry place in themselves where they work out words that ring with authority to give themselves the stability they crave. That’s their issue. As my friend Marie says, “What others think of me is none of my business!” Not taking these things personally should apply even moreso in the case of receiving insults or rejection from a group. People like to bitch together so that they can bond via their dislike of someone. Seeking intimacy through shared derision of others is probably not the best kind of intimacy: it can only be the product of insecurity, and we all know how well relationships built on insecurity persevere. Respond to hurts instead with self-kindness and it becomes easier to lean towards peace and forgiveness, millimetre by millimetre.

The alternative is to spend your life reliving past humiliations, a la Adrian Mole (like the time when he tried to sniff glue, and had to go to A&E with his model airplane stuck to his nose, or the time his mother went into labour and he got his hand stuck in the jar holding the £5 taxi fare to the hospital…which was then solved hours later by the simple expedient of letting go of the fiver), and wasting precious time and energy proving to yourself and others that you’re not the bad things that have been said about you.

Because frankly, life’s too fucking short for all that crap. :)