“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” ~Anna Quindlen
“Oh, my god,” she said, “I forgot to shave my left leg!”
That may not sound like a particularly dramatic announcement, but Jenny and I were sharing a seat on the chartered bus taking our senior class to the beach for “Senior Cut Day” a few weeks before graduation, and her discovery horrified me.
An unshaved leg, it seemed to me at the time, was scandalous in the extreme.
Had it been me who forgot to shave, I would have kept my sweats on all day rather than display my embarrassing imperfection.
Jenny, on the other hand, not only shared her faux pas with me, she then announced it loudly to the entire bus. She laughed about it, and invited everyone else to laugh, too!
I was appalled.
I was also fascinated. That someone could intentionally draw attention to her imperfection, and laugh about it, was mortifying, yes, but also intriguing…
It was hot at the beach that day. My well-shaved legs were bare, but I had forgotten to pack a T-shirt, and because I was self-conscious that my belly wasn’t perfectly flat as a pancake, I kept my sweatshirt on over my bikini.
Rivulets of sweat rolled down my torso, but heaven forbid I put my imperfection on display!
Jenny, meanwhile, spent the day laughing, playing volleyball, splashing in the waves, quite unconcerned about her hairy left leg.
Can you guess who had the better time?
You might think that this experience would have taught me something, but in fact, before I finally began to let go of perfectionism and ease into becoming myself in all my flawed, imperfect glory, I spent decades flagellating myself for not being perfect.
Somehow I believed that I couldn’t be lovable if I weren’t perfect, so I was caught in a vicious cycle: aiming for perfection, failing, then beating myself up for the failure and goading myself on toward perfection again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Throughout my teens and twenties, in pursuit of the perfect body, I was plagued with eating disorders, kept carefully secret so as not to reveal my flaws to the world.
In college, nothing less than an A was acceptable. The pure joy of learning took a back seat to striving for the perfect grade point average.
Meanwhile, in relationships I hid my true self behind a mask, fearing that nobody would love me if they saw the real, flawed me.
Amazingly, I did find a man I could be myself with, but when we decided to get married, I was the quintessential “Bridezilla,” completely focused on planning the perfect wedding.
My obsessive pursuit of perfection helped me stay in denial about the fact that, although we loved each other, the relationship was built on a shaky foundation.
During my marriage I discovered a love for making art, but the joy I experienced when creating was soon overtaken by misery, because nothing I made ever felt good enough. Eventually it seemed easier not to create at all. I became paralyzed by perfectionism.
I could say that it was the very public “failure” of my divorce that started me on the road to accepting myself. Or that it was the college classes in Feminist theory, which helped me overcome my eating disorder and start to accept my body the way it was.
In fact, I see self-acceptance as a long and winding journey, composed of thousands upon thousands of teeny, tiny baby steps, over the course of an entire lifetime.
Baby steps like the revelation—thanks to Jenny on that high school bus ride—that it’s possible to laugh at yourself, and even draw attention to your flaws, and that this may be a more comfortable way to deal with them than trying to hide them all the time.
Baby steps like the gradual dawning that instead of beating myself up, I could forgive myself for my mistakes and missteps, and that responding with self-compassion was a much more pleasant way to live.
Baby steps like the epiphany that making ugly messes at my art table is infinitely more fun and satisfying than making nothing at all (and that often what I deem “ugly” at first, appears less so after some time has passed!)
Gradually I untangled the false belief that only if I were perfect would I be worthy of love and happy.
Letting go of the attempt to be perfect took a long time. At first it felt like a dishonorable surrender, like giving up and “letting myself go.” But when I thought about the people I loved most in my life, I realized that of course not one of them was perfect.
I realized that the people I love being around the most are those who accept themselves as they are, who are comfortable in their own skin. Why should I expect anything different from myself?
Little by little I began to deprogram myself. In fact, I intentionally embraced imperfectionism, and discovered, much to my surprise, that the more I allowed myself to just be me, the happier, more serene, and more content I became. And the more attracted other people were to me, too!
There’s nothing wrong with self-improvement, but the truth is, none of us is—or can even hope to be—perfect. We may pursue mastery, excellence, improvement, and be challenged by the pursuit, but insisting on perfection can only lead to self-disgust and unhappiness.
The only thing we can ever really hope to be perfect at is being our flawed and wonderful selves.
If you’ve been stuck in a perfectionist spin cycle, what’s one thing you might do to press the pause button?
Giving up on being perfect is hard. The work of becoming yourself is hard. The payoff, though, is truly amazing, and you’ll continue to reap the benefits for the rest of your life.
Friends having fun image via Shutterstock