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Imperfection Part I

I love it when I find research to support what I’ve believed to be true. Followers of my blog know that I refer to myself as a recovering perfectionist. A couple of years ago, my boss at the time commented on how exceptional a spreadsheet was that I had created and noted how much of a perfectionist I was. Of course, I was flattered by the compliment, but told her that I strive for excellence rather than perfection and explained the difference that I saw in the two. She didn’t seem to grasp it completely, but commented that whatever I wanted to call it, it was great. I walked away thinking I have more work to do if others still perceive me as a perfectionist. I was glad that I was bold enough to provide a different perspective for consideration. As I mature and uncover new things about myself, I’ve learned that my previous acts of perfectionism have been filling the need to compensate for perceived and believed deficiencies within myself. I’m tired of covering up. I’m prepared to risk others knowing the truth about me. The truth is that I am imperfect.

My latest read is a treasure by Brene Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, called The Gifts of Imperfection. I admire the author’s body of work and love that she’s a social worker like myself. This is the type of read that you take in a few passages at a time, then pause to digest. I keep it close to me on my overcrowded nightstand. When I’m up for it, I read a few paragraphs or chapters, contemplate, digest, absorb, and repeat on a another day as I go through the chapters, sometimes skipping ahead and sometimes going back. Lately, I’ve been contemplating my life experiences and taking time to self-empathize with my upbringing, my challenges, and what I’ve overcome. Major life events can spark serious self-reflection and my breast cancer journey certainly qualifies as a major life event. The end of radiation treatment last month was a very emotional time for me. I didn’t expect it to affect me as it has because I’ve been a warrior through the whole process, staying focused on making a full recovery.

There is a chapter in Brene’s (yes, we’re on a first name basis) book, The Gifts of Imprefection, on Letting Go of Perfectionism. That chapter was written for me. And guess what? She also refers to herself as a recovering perfectionist, so it’s not just me. Brene points out some myths about perfectionism, which I will share here for you to contemplate. 

Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight. 

Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism, is at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomish it. Please. Perform. Perfect. Healthy striving is self-focused – How can I improve? Perfectionism is other – focused – What will they think?

If you’ve never encountered this information, I can see it being mind blowing. I’ve known some aspects of this for a while through my own personal work and I find it mind blowing to read on paper. How common is it to hear someone being referred to as a perfectionist? Some people even view it as a compliment to be called a perfectionist. Some people refer to themselves as perfectionists. Think about how you were raised? These 2 myths about perfectionism challenge everything I was taught growing up about how to be and how to live. A fact is that my family has experienced generational poverty, abuse, and abandonment. These experiences have undoubtedly shaped how my family learned to cope with life. At some point, I found myself behind a wall that constantly grew taller and wider. Therefore, I find freedom in learning how to not let my actions be led  by what others think, but by how I want to improve. I find freedom in letting go. This takes work. It’s a lifelong process.

This is heavy stuff. Next time, I will share Brene’s actual definition of perfectionism and attempt to unpack that. 

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Full Circle Part II

“Don’t sleep your life away”. Those words were uttered to me by a cashier at the local grocery store where I worked part-time over 20 years ago. There are some memories that the mind just won’t let go. He asked me questions about what I did in my spare time and I heard myself saying “sleep” several times. I was in the throes of my depression back then. I slept a lot and was tired all the time. He baffled me because he was smart, had done 2 years of state college, and was actively seeking full-time employment at the store. Why would he do that?  Why wouldn’t he just go back to school? You have to understand that I was groomed for college and beyond throughout high school, so this was indeed baffling to me considering that he had been to college. I did ask him why and he said that there was good money in working full time plus he could get medical benefits.

At that time, I saw all the jobs there as dead-end (I do not feel this today…an example of education privilege), but who was I to talk? I dropped out of college too. I initially typed that I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but that was not the case. I knew what I wanted. I just didn’t have the courage to live it yet. I had worked that job as a cashier since I was in high school. I felt trapped. Yet, if he only knew that his unsolicited advise ignited something in me and might have even made me a little indignant. The cautionary way he said it got my attention. He was very perceptive. I might be making this up, but I think he was a psychology major. Whatever the case, you can call it a challenge, a wake-up call, a slap in the face, a come to Jesus talk, …whatever it was, it helped propel me forward. My light, albeit dimmed, wasn’t completely burned out. Despite who I had disappointment by not choosing them through religion, familial ties, college preferences, cultural expressions, etc., and especially despite disappointing myself, I didn’t want to sleep my life away. I wanted to have control over my decisions and my happiness. I was not going to suffocate in mediocrity, heartache, disappointment, pain, inertia, hopelessness, helplessness, guilt and shame. I made the decision to not give up.

Since my first post in this series that I’m calling “Full Circle” (you can read it here) , I’ve been thinking about my definition of success. I’ve also been considering how my readers may perceive my definition of success. Am I a success? High achieving people like me tend to frequently practice goal setting. I’ve already achieved most of my major life goals (the ones that can be somewhat quantified by others). However, that’s not all there is to it. I also have goals of conquering fears, overcoming family pathologies, deepening relationships, and emotional, spiritual, mental self-improvement. It continues to require faith, courage, honesty, assertiveness, self-compassion, self-reflection, perseverance, empathy, understanding, diligence, and resilience to be in the place I’m in today. There may be more. It also takes work. Each item requires work and I’ve spent more time on some than others. I find that it’s a constant process of learning about self. I love it when author and TV host Iyanla Vanzant says to “do the work” because I know what she means. I’ll discuss what “work” in my next installment.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve been successful in many areas and not as much in others. It varies. I can hear the inner critic in me saying to tone it down a notch as I try to give myself credit. Does this sound like I have more “work” to do?  I acknowledge that I have overcome many obstacles, some of which were self-imposed, and some not. I am constantly overcoming and evolving. It’s like I’m in a race with myself to see what the best version of me will look like. Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

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Full Circle Part I

This post is deeply personal because I’m exposing some of my wounds that took a long time to heal. In my early twenties I went through a serious depression. I felt like such a failure because I dropped out of college in my 2nd year. I was confused about what I wanted to do with my life. I was confused about religion. I was confused about family and love. I was confused about who I was and how I was going to express who I was in my own life. At the time, most of my friends were away at college and I saw them moving forward. They had their friends and college activities. They were experiencing college life, which I had wanted for myself so badly. They even encouraged me to get back to it. I felt even worse. I sunk deeper into my depression. It’s not that I wasn’t smart because I was exceptionally smart and was in an accelerated program in high school. That’s how I came to know my friends. I was smart enough to know that my life wasn’t working for me anymore. It was muddled by other people’s wants, aspirations, and expectations. 

And it was more than a funk as some might have minimized it to be. I slept all the time, and when I wasn’t sleeping, I watched TV until I was numb. I didn’t want to be around people. I did manage to work, but I was miserable. I’m not exactly sure how long that period lasted. It felt like years. It was definitely a dark cloud. My life wasn’t working, so I decided to just stop. I was lost.

I prayed all the time for God to reveal my purpose because I didn’t know. I was also dabbling in self-help books. Then one day, I decided that I needed therapy. I found a therapist through my insurance plan and called to set up the appointment. Within a few days, I ventured off to downtown Chicago in the middle of  winter. I specifically remember that the appointment scheduler asked if I preferred a woman or male therapist and my response was “no”.  It became clear to me after my first and last session with a male, that I preferred a woman. No matter, after I made the mistake of telling my mom I was so screwed up (code for “you screwed me up”) that I needed therapy, she called as many people in my family as she could to tell them I was seeing a therapist. I started getting calls from my uncle and sisters telling me that I could talk to them and how could I do that. I was essentially shamed for seeing a therapist. I never went back. Despite what they thought, I felt at the time that no one really had my best interests at heart. They were all concerned about their own lives. No one understood me and I certainly would never tell them what I was going through.

I’m treading carefully now because I don’t want to bash my family, but I have to admit that they were the biggest part of my problem. As a social worker, I can say transparency can be beneficial to help others on their journey. After all, I am a recovering perfectionist. The disease is perfectionism, which I believe can be passed down. Its roots stem from poverty, trauma, abuse, shame and denial. Looking back, it was not that I was inately confused. The messages I received were conflicting and I didn’t know how to mitigate them at the time. I tried to please my mom who didn’t want me to go away to college and who wanted me to partake in a religion that I didn’t believe in. That wasn’t working anymore. It felt like my life was not my own. As the youngest with a significant age difference between my siblings, I often felt alone. I didn’t get along with my stepfather. He was part of the problem, so I could not find solace in him. My friends were off making memories with their college friends. My coworkers at the local grocery store seemed stuck in the mediocore rat race (ouch, but this is from my perspective), so I didn’t fit in with them because I knew I wanted more. I didn’t fit in with the acquaintances I had made at the Jehovah’s Witness meetings because they didn’t seem to have other cultural influences/expectations to contend with. I pulled myself away from my Catholic extended family because I was tired of feeling like a charity case. They were very much tied to our Haitian customs and culture, whereas, we were not despite my family being born in Haiti. I didn’t have anyone who could relate to what I was experiencing, and quite frankly, I was too embarrased to share it.

The girl from my twenties never expected to be living in Texas and to have earned a graduate degree. I knew one day that I would be married with kids, but to think that I would have peace of mind, was unimaginable. I’m living the life that I want. I’ve also helped some people along the way. My relationships with family and friends have evolved for the better over time.  

So how did I get through that difficult time?  What steps took me through that dark cloud?  Stay tuned.