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Posts Tagged ‘perfectionism’

Oh, 2013. How glad I am that you are almost over. You had your moments, many of them, but you sure didn’t spare the punches either. You taught me many new things and reminded me of many things I already knew.

Photo Credit: MomMaven via Compfight cc

Here are some of the ideas I’m taking with me into 2014:

1. Things often take longer than you think they’ll take. Especially things you really care about or that are particularly unpleasant.

2. Stress takes its toll on the physical body.

3. Perfection is frequently impossible. Doing one’s best is a more realistic target.

4. Meaning in life is created by relationships, engaging work, and an ability to reframe adversity.

5. Feelings are always okay. It’s what you do with them that you have to be careful about.

6. The gift of true and unconditional listening is rare. Shower those who give it to you with affection and appreciation.

7. The temptation to lie is data about you and your relationship with the person to whom you want to lie.

8. Sometimes pretending you belong even when you feel like you don’t will get you pretty far.

9. Knowing who you are is magic akin to knowing a true name.

10. Sometimes other people are wrong.

11. Learning to recognize the difference between things that are true about yourself and things society has told you are true about yourself can help you achieve things you never thought were possible.

12. The food in France is really, really good.

13. Home is a little white dog, a piano, a place to create, and good times with friends.

14. Asking is a good skill to cultivate. So is saying no. So is generosity.

15. Being imperfect makes you more approachable.

16. Failure is a part of life. Sometimes it feels like it is a larger part of life than you would like. That is the time to embrace it even more strongly. You are learning, you are growing, you are taking risks, and you are the active driver of your own life story.

17. Change takes a long time and is often uncomfortable and difficult. You will need all your courage and belief in yourself to pull it off. Including the courage to fail and pick yourself back up to try again.

18. I can listen to Moonface’s new album Julia with Blue Jeans On over and over again and I never get tired of it.

19. Repeat after me: You can’t make everybody happy all the time. No, really. You can’t. Nobody can.

20. In times of darkness, it is the ability to find the pinpoints of light that keeps you going.

21. Sometimes I am lonely. But I am not alone.

What have you learned this year?

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Last Thursday I was eating my lunch when I heard a horrible crunching sound in my mouth. I pulled out a small piece of white porcelain, confirming that yes, I had just broken the crown with which I had so much trouble two years ago.

I spent some time shining a flashlight in my mouth and staring at the damage, followed by some aimless wandering around muttering “Okay” at periodic intervals. After calling the dentist and making an appointment, I ended up laying on my study floor with Nala and staring at the tree outside the window.

I wanted to lay there looking at that tree forever.

My Tree

My Tree

A friend of mine posted on Facebook that he didn’t seem to have energy to do even simple tasks, but he was pretty sure he wasn’t depressed. I suggested it could be related to anxiety. I was speaking from personal experience.

The last two months have been among the most stressful of my life, coming at the end of perhaps the most stressful year of my life. And it turns out the symptoms of high stress that you hear about are actually true. They include:

1. general fatigue/exhaustion (I was so tired on Friday, I got lost in a familiar part of town.)

2. lack of ability to focus (my speed of reading has fallen drastically)

3. muscle tension (in my case, particularly in the back, shoulders, and neck)

4. less effective immune system (I’ve had the flu twice in the last three and a half months)

5. insomnia

6. memory loss/unreliable memory (Two weeks ago I double booked myself. I still can’t believe that happened. I am usually a scheduling goddess.)

7. easily overwhelmed

8. tension headaches

9. appetite changes

10. easily triggered fears/worries

I haven’t wanted to write about any of this for a number of reasons. But on Thursday, I felt like breaking my crown was too much; it was the last straw. I considered lying there and contemplating the tree forever. It seemed like a pretty good idea, until the thought wiggled its way into my consciousness that I should write about this. And eventually, buoyed up by this thought, I got up.

As a child, I was taught to try to be as perfect as possible. If I was going through a hard time, I was supposed to hide it.

But this belief contributes to the problem. Not only is it isolating, but it strengthens the idea that if we don’t handle everything perfectly, we are failures, when in reality we’re just the same as everyone else. Everyone has struggles. Everyone goes through hard times. Everyone has moments when they stare at a tree (or the road or the ceiling or the screen or their feet or the dark when they can’t sleep) and want all the difficult things to go away because they seem like too much.

So I’m going to be honest. I’m tired all the time. I prioritize my to do list carefully every day because I can’t get as much done as normal. Nala is always at the very top of that list, and everything else comes after. Sometimes it takes me an hour or more to figure out how to respond to a typical situation or request. I can’t always be there for my friends the way I want to be, and sometimes I have to cancel plans.

I’m not depressed. I love life, I love the world, and I am optimistic about my future. I have so many projects I want to work on, so many books I want to write, and so many people I want to spend time with, some of whom I haven’t even met yet. I get frustrated by my energy levels because I still want to do all the things.

But realistically, there is only a certain amount of stress any of us can handle before it begins to affect things. And I am past that amount. I look forward to a time when that’s no longer true. Hopefully it will be here soon.

And in the meantime, sometimes I will spend some time staring at my tree.

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In my ongoing quest to stop being a perfectionist and instead just be a human being, I have found the following strategies to be useful.

1. Get a dog. Dogs don’t care if you’re perfect; they only care that you love them.

Portrait of a Devoted Doggie

2. Reframe the idea of perfection. Decide it is impossible, or decide it encompasses more than a single rigid definition, or go all philosophical and decide that imperfection is perfect in its own way.

3. Spend time around people who appreciate your natural strengths.

4. Spend time around people who are okay when you falter.

5. In fact, spend lots of energy finding awesome people with whom to surround yourself. This helps with all sorts of things if you are paying attention.

6. Distinguish between situations in which you must present yourself professionally at all costs and those (often in your personal life) in which you have some more leeway.

7. For the latter, force yourself to be honest. Especially when you really don’t want to admit that you need help or that you’re having a rough time.

8. Accept that not all people are going to understand or believe your honesty. Change your response to this from a panicked “I must seek their approval at all costs” to a shrug. Be grateful for those who are supportive. (And if none of those exist in your life yet, go back to number 5 and try some more. They are out there.)

9. Remember that you are one person and that therefore you cannot do all the things. Even if other people want you to. Even if you want to.

10. Realize you can’t control everything, and that perfection doesn’t automatically equal happiness.

11. Actually, not only does perfection not equal happiness, it sometimes equals stress, burn-out, dysfunctional relationships, isolation, and despair. Remind yourself of its downsides when you’re having trouble letting go.

12. Embrace the cheesiness and tell yourself you love yourself. Tell this to yourself even more when you think you’ve fallen short.

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I am tired of apologizing.

Expressing empathy and sympathy? I’m all over that. But I’ve spent way too much of my energy apologizing for things that have nothing to do with me.

And you know what? I’m not sorry.

  • I’m not sorry that I may have different priorities than other people .
  • I’m not sorry that I have things I want and things I need.
  • I’m not sorry that I want to be treated with respect and consideration.
  • I’m not sorry for the life choices I’ve made, even if people don’t agree with them or understand them.
  • I’m not sorry that I don’t want to discuss my financial situation with strangers.
  • I’m not sorry that I have a different sleep schedule from the norm.
  • I’m not sorry that the ways in which I spend my time are not obvious.
  • I’m not sorry that I notice and sometimes point out sexism and misogyny in media.
  • I’m not sorry for my own opinion and assessment of myself.
  • I’m not sorry when I choose to say no.
  • I’m not sorry that I can’t be perfect.
  • I’m not sorry when I refuse to take on other people’s issues willy nilly.
  • I’m not sorry for the existence of my emotions.
  • I’m not sorry for standing up for myself.
  • I’m not sorry for communicating.
  • I’m not sorry for being complicated.
  • I’m not sorry that we don’t have every single thing about ourselves in common.
  • I’m not sorry when people won’t take care of themselves. I feel sad about it, because I know how bad that feels, but I am not responsible for the choices they make and the pain they put themselves through.

This is what it looks like to not be a people pleaser. You start apologizing a lot less frequently. Instead you communicate, and you compromise, and you take responsibility for yourself and your actions, and you surround yourself with people who are willing and able to take responsibility for themselves and their actions, and when you screw up on occasion, you apologize and make amends, and everything works out a whole lot better.

Stop apologizing for yourself. Start living instead.

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“There’s always been a bit of the Princess archetype in you,” she said. (And she’s totally right; there always has.) “And I thought you had manifested that for yourself, that your life was settled and you had gotten your happily ever after. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, but I didn’t see you.”

In her talk on vulnerability, Brene Brown says that the word courage comes from the word coeur, French for heart. What is courage? She says it is telling the story of who you are with your whole heart: in other words, allowing yourself to be seen, choosing the authentic. It takes courage to tell our stories. It takes courage to be honest and open. And it takes courage to infuse our artistic work with truth.

Coeur.
Photo Credit: Miriam Cardoso de Souza via Compfight cc

She also mentions the importance of having the courage to be imperfect. And let me tell you something about the Princess archetype. It’s not all bad: it includes a healthy dose of positivity, some chirping birds, romance and adventure. But it also contains no space for imperfection. The Princess in the fairy tales is perfection in essence: she is beautiful and charming, she is talented, she can sing and play music and dance and speak twenty languages, she always knows what to say, she has a sweet disposition, and she never ever feels angry or tired or upset. She can only feel fear when she is in danger as a plot device to allow the prince/knight/fool to rescue her, self-actualize, and win her as a prize. And she is always brave and smiling.

Being the Princess means not being seen for yourself.

I have been the Princess. I have tried to be perfect in every possible way. I have worked to be attractive and charming and to always set people at ease and know the right thing to say.  Whenever I have made a mistake, it has meant falling short of impossible standards. I have tried to please everyone and hate admitting that I need anything at all.

And yet, it has only been through surrendering the Princess archetype that I could begin creating the life that I want. It has only been through searching for people who don’t need me to be that Princess that I could finally be me, with everything that encompasses. It has only been through finding my coeur to begin to tell my story that I could create authentic connections with other people. Being able to see other people and being seen yourself, as it turns out, go hand in hand.

When I think of all those years I was trapped in the tower of Princess-hood, I feel very sad. Now that I’ve rescued myself, I try not to be perfect with appropriate imperfection. I don’t always smile. I am not always brave. I sometimes put my own needs first, and I am allowed to ask for things. There is space for me to have emotions. The world doesn’t end when I can’t always be strong.

It feels very strange to not be a Princess. But also very right.

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I didn’t write a blog post earlier this week because I have the flu, and I spent most of Monday sleeping, and most of the rest of Monday having such a high fever that all I could do was sit around and think strange thoughts. I haven’t been this sick for quite some time. But I am going to do my best to write something for you today.

I’m going to tell you a story. Sometimes now when I write I hear James Altucher in my head saying “Bleed on the page.” And I see the photo of Penelope Trunk’s bruise after she had a fight with her husband. And I say to myself, I could never do that. But today I have the flu, which means I can do things I sometimes think I can’t, so this is that kind of story, only Amy-style.

I was sixteen or seventeen, in drama class. My drama teacher was big on improvisation and on giving us assignments that required improv. I wanted to be handed a script and learn my lines and figure out blocking, but that’s not the way things were done in drama most of the time.

My group was doing a skit that showed a teenage girl finding out she was pregnant in the middle of a family dinner. I was supposed to play the girl’s big sister who offered sage advice in a touching sisterly scene later on in the skit. But my classmate who was supposed to play the pregnant teen had been out sick for a long time, and eventually we had to perform the skit without her for our grade. So at the last minute, I had to step in to play the part.

Afterwards, I thought it had gone about as well as could be expected, given the lack of rehearsal time. I sat with the rest of my class in the seats facing the stage, glad it was over, until the drama teacher began really tearing into my performance.

Was I aware, she said, that I had been smiling the entire time? How horrible and awkward it had been, and how amazing my fellow group members were for somehow managing to continue on in the face of such a poor performance. And then she came right up to me, in front of the entire class, and said, “Do you always smile when you’re sad? Do you?” She was insisting on an answer I couldn’t give her, and it was all the worse because the answer was yes. And I hadn’t even known it until that very moment.

To this day, when I think of this story, my heart hurts.

I can even smile when I have the flu. Now there's talent for you. :)

I can even smile when I have the flu. Now there’s talent for you. 

Sometimes conditioning runs so deep that we don’t realize what we’re doing, even when we’re working very hard to be mindful. I write in this blog about a lot of things I still struggle with. I’m still a perfectionist. I’m still sometimes a people pleaser. I tell you that your emotions are okay, but I don’t always believe that for myself. When something happens that is upsetting for me, my first instinct is to pretend everything is okay.

Once upon a time, it was extremely important that I be good at acting in a very specific way. One that didn’t go over well in drama class.

That story is over now. But I still smile sometimes when I’m sad.

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I’ve been trying to think of what other 2012 life lesson I should write about today. It’s problematic because I feel like I’ve learned so much, and I don’t want to choose only one thing. So I’m going to bypass this problem by making a list (and you all know how much I love lists).

Things I Have Learned in 2012:

  1. Being assertive is important.
  2. Ditto being open and authentic.
  3. I know how to make a mean cranberry sauce.
  4. Setting boundaries means I have more energy for being social.
  5. Chicago has a world-class art museum. I want to go back.
  6. Hurricanes can hit when you least expect them.
  7. First person point of view has a lot of nuances that are fun to play with. So do unreliable narrators. These two things are related.
  8. I am happier when I make my writing a top priority. I also accomplish a lot more.
  9. When you are confident, you hold your body differently. When you hold your body differently, you become more confident.
  10. Nobody is perfect. (This is quite a relief for all concerned.)
  11. Starbucks serves their pumpkin spice chai lattes all year round. Although I’ve yet to test this.
  12. People say wise things all the time if you pay attention.
  13. It doesn’t actually rain every day in Seattle.
  14. There is such a thing as too nice.
  15. Too much stress, and I’m in pain and/or sick.
  16. I’m better at making hard decisions than I give myself credit for.
  17. Life really is stranger than most fiction. Things happen that you could never get away with putting in a story.
  18. It’s okay to ask for help.
  19. New Year resolutions can sometimes be a very good idea.
  20. I like pie. (All right, I already knew this one.)
  21. Feeling an urgent need to succeed is something that happens at the beginning of the journey to mastery. Somewhere in the middle of the journey, I chill out and can focus more on the actual work.
  22. No matter how many books I have to read, I can always find more books I’d like to read, particularly if I venture into a bookstore.
  23. It can be useful to learn to embrace failure, since being okay with it allows you to take bigger risks and accomplish bigger things.
  24. Change takes time.
  25. People are infinitely adaptable.
  26. Seeing life through a lens of gratitude increases levels of happiness.
  27. So do little dogs. Probably also cats.
  28. So does loving yourself.
  29. Time keeps passing. And passing. And passing. No matter what happens or does not happen.
  30. Suffering and adversity can reveal great beauty.

What did you learn in 2012?

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