There is a heaviness in the air as my husband and I get out of the truck and make our way up the front walk, but the minute we open the door, Maisie is there, tail wagging, up on her hind legs, her tiny front feet pawing the air and then landing on my legs. Even though she makes it difficult for us to get in through our small entry way, it is impossible not to smile at such an exuberant welcoming. I am carrying way too many things — my purse, grocery bags, my bowling bowl — to give her the attention she is seeking, so I drop everything in a heap just inside the door, bend down and rub her ears, and then pick her up and carry her into the living room with me. She is not supposed to jump on people and so I realize that I am reinforcing questionable behavior, but the warmth and affection and sweetness coming off of her are a balm to my weary soul, and so I do not care.
We have just come from the last official night of our bowling league and yes, it is bowling that has put this gloom over us, and yes, it feels a little ridiculous (or, as Louis CK puts it, “white people problems”). Still, we each have our reasons for the clouds that are following us. His seems legitimate, from a place of deep disappointment; he has finished the season with a 199.93 average and so has missed qualifying for the PBA by .07 pins. (They require a 200 average. No, they don’t round up. I don’t know why.) My cloud, however, feels petty and childish and it is the awareness of this pettiness and childishness, more than the feelings themselves, that makes me feel so much worse. I feel like I am dying inside.
I don’t know what my average ended up being because I’d rather not know. I am not a good bowler. What I am, however, is a clinical perfectionist (yes, I diagnosed myself; isn’t that what the internet is for?) and that makes living in this world somewhat of a crippling experience. Because there isn’t anything — anything — for which I can’t find a reason to beat myself up, with sometimes frighteningly intense, inwardly directed rage. That includes this hobby I took up three or four years ago as a way to get out of my head. How’s that working out for me, you ask?
It is hard to explain to someone who doesn’t experience debilitating perfectionism the ways in which it can hang a perpetual black veil over one’s life. Something like bowling, as a friend at league reminded me, is supposed to be fun. But when you suffer from extreme perfectionism, everything you do becomes a way in which you are a failure. You live in terror of looking like an idiot, making a fool of yourself, exposing all your weaknesses to an unforgiving and judgmental world. In truth, there is no one who is more unforgiving and judgmental than you and no one to whom you direct that judgment more than yourself. It is never about bowling (or whatever your failure du jour is). Instead, it is about the abusive relationship you have with yourself.
I am so envious of my perfect little dog, who, really, is not so perfect. She barks too often (especially outside) and too loudly (especially inside). She wolfs down her food and then gives a happy, healthy, incredibly un-ladylike belch when she is done. She doesn’t always come when she is called, and sometimes she scares the bejesus out of me when I don’t know where she has run off to. Sometimes she is so excited to see my husband when he gets home that she pees a little on the floor waiting for him to say hello. She bites my feet when I put my socks on or my pant legs when I put my pants on. She barks at me when I take out her harness. She always, always, always has to have a little wrestling match with the leash, grabbing it in her mouth and shaking it for all it’s worth — every single time we leave for our walk. We take a step, and then it’s grab, grab, grab. “No!” I say and we take two more steps before it’s grab, grab, grab all over again. “Drop it!” Grab, grab, grab. “Not okay!” I say, picking her up and holding my mouth right by her ear. Only then does she choose to stop and walk without playing with the leash.
But what makes her perfect in spite of her imperfections is how completely sure of her own worthiness she is, how accepting of the fact that she deserves love, that she in fact expects love, and she shows us just how much when she turns herself belly up for a rub or shoves her head into one of our hands, insisting that we pet her. She doesn’t concern herself with the ways in which she may fall short of her mother’s expectations for her behavior or her training. She worries not one whit over her appearance or whether her orange harness is flattering (it is; she looks adorable in it). And she certainly doesn’t worry about how well she does or doesn’t bowl.
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about perfectionism, where it comes from, why I am plagued by it, and the pall it casts over my life. I walked away from religion many years ago — that subject in itself is probably worthy of its own blog post, hell, probably its own book and so I’ll not go into the specifics here — but there is a passage from Luke that has always stuck with me, still resonates with me: “Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” The idea of not spinning and not toiling is so very appealing. It is so thoroughly and completely exhausting spinning and toiling at every damn thing you do.
Maisie is like those lilies. She does not have to earn my love, she had it the very first moment our eyes locked at the shelter. She doesn’t have to achieve anything to stay in my good graces. All I need is her face looking up at me, her eyes firing love bombs into my soul, her (usually) silky ears (she badly needs a bath) under my hands, her unfathomably deep love and affection. She doesn’t toil, she doesn’t spin (okay, sometimes she spins, but just for fun), and most importantly, she doesn’t worry about acceptance and approval and perfection.
But here’s the biggest lesson from Maisie about love and acceptance and perfection: not only does she not hold herself to ridiculous, self-imposed standards, she does not hold me to impossible standards. She doesn’t ask me how bowling went when I walk in the door, she only shouts, “Oh my goodness, you’re HOME. I’m so HAPPY to see you.” She doesn’t ask me how many views my blog gets, or how my gig went, if I nailed that tricky passage in the Brahms, or how many CDs we sold, or how many people were at our show. None of that matters to her. She loves, like all dogs, unconditionally.
And she forgives, without fail and without needing an apology. Even when I was so sick and she didn’t get a proper walk for nearly a week, she held no grudge, just cuddled her warm body as close to me on the bed as she could get, never once barking (honestly) a complaint. When I leave her alone in the house for too long, she not only forgives me, but she rejoices in our being reunited. When I lose my temper because I am falling short of unattainable perfection — when I throw the metronome, slam the piano keys, swear a blue streak at a volume that would give her barking a run for the money — she forgives me (she may leave the room, but she forgives me).
Here’s the thing. I don’t like throwing my metronome. For one, it’s plastic and plastic cracks when thrown. But more importantly, that kind of rage isn’t good for anyone: my dog, my husband, the planet. And certainly not for me. A writer friend of mine, Josie Overmyer, once wrote that “rage covers up sadness that doesn’t know what to do with itself.” I remember when I read that it stopped me in my tracks. I had never really thought about it from that angle, but it really is true. All of that frustration and rage occasionally manifest themselves in cracked metronomes; but more often than not the rage is directed ruthlessly inwardly, just a cowardly way to cover up the heartbreak of never measuring up, never being good enough, always falling short, and the frightening conclusion that underlies it all: my failure to be perfect makes me unworthy of love.
That your worthiness of love is directly related to your ability to be perfect is a brutal, miserable, and unconscionable lie to tell yourself. It does not make you achieve more or become better at your craft. It does not make you become the perfect musician/writer/bowler/wife/friend (fill-in-your-own blank here) whom everyone will love. Instead, its gifts are anxiety and creative paralysis, bitter tears and a locked-down heart, and a vicious pendulum that swings between giving up and vowing to just try harder and be better next time. To be perfect, which is of course impossible, and so the cycle continues.
Honestly, it’s somewhat terrifying to even write these words because one thing about perfectionists is we like to pretend is we have it all together. I’m pretty sure I’m not actually fooling anyone, but if I was, I’m sure as hell not fooling them now. This past week I experienced a brutal crisis in confidence, the foundation of my life badly shaken. If it were not for my husband and that 17 pound mutt, I’m not sure where I would have gone. So I’m trying to take a cue from Maisie and the lilies and learn to stop spinning and toiling in some pointless pursuit of nonexistent perfection. And part of that process means standing naked in my humanity, putting all my fears and insecurities out there in the open. Quieting the what-will-people-think voices and letting the dark parts of my heart get outside and bask in a little more sunshine.
I’m not sure where I go from here, because I’ve lived a long time with these perfectionism demons. They have been my constant companions for as long as I can remember and if I evict them, I’m not sure who will show up in their place. But they have overstayed their welcome and it’s time for them to leave. And I’m not throwing them a going away party, either. Good bye and good riddance, as they say.
In honor of their departure, I’m ending with one of the many imperfect photos I have Maisie. She leapt for the ball, but my frame was off-center and I pressed the shutter a split second too late. Still, there is joy and triumph, sunshine and fresh air, and my perfect, perfect dog. And that’s good enough.
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So, lovely readers, are you like my husband and my dog, who embrace their imperfections, or do you too struggle with perfectionism? How do you balance high standards with accepting what is? I love to hear from you, so feel free to share in the comment section below.