If you met me on the street you wouldn’t notice. I’m frequently clad head-to-toe in lycra and I rarely wear makeup in the daylight.
If I told my law school classmates, they wouldn’t believe me. I never tabbed my books and still don’t know how to make an outline.
I don’t have flawless hair or an impeccable complexion. I can’t make impressive spreadsheets and my computer documents are all in one, disorganized folder on my hard drive.
I talk too loud in public and routinely violate social norms.
Sometimes, after a sweaty yoga practice, I don’t shower before bed.
You can’t know people’s stories from looking, but my story is about perfection.
Perfect student. Perfect daughter. Perfect body. Perfect life.
Good is barely adequate and trying is failure.
As long as I’ve been talking, I’ve been perfecting.
I was the perfect kid.
My teachers constantly gushed about my impressive intelligence and obedient demeanor. They thought I was “darling” and “brilliant.” I was a “shining star” and at “the top of my class.” In third grade, I got in trouble for fast-walking in the hallway on the way to lunch. I was sick about it for days. I was President of my elementary school, a spelling bee champion and infamous for my epic portrayal of The Wicked Witch of the West. I played soccer and volleyball. I tap-danced and did “street jazz.” Every afternoon I sat down to do my homework, as soon as I got home from school.
I was the perfect teenager.
I didn’t drink, do drugs or have sex. I never lied to my parents about where I was going or what I was doing. I got straight A’s until my senior year. I went to my first choice for college. I never had a curfew, didn’t have to be punished, and rarely showed attitude or resistance to anyone. When my skinny frame became a woman’s body, I decided to be skinny again. I ran 8 miles a day and ate one bowl of cereal. Occasionally, I splurged on a six-inch subway sandwich. I made up excuses in public about why I wasn’t eating. I drank 20 oz. Pepsi-Ones, all day long.
The older I got the harder it was to be perfect.
I faced graduating from college without a concrete career plan or admission to professional school. In a single year, I had three different jobs. I dreaded seeing people in public, because I didn’t have anything impressive to tell them. I couldn’t share elaborate life plans or fancy accomplishments. It was harder to be thin. And easier to get wrinkles.
I kept trying to keep up, but feeling behind.
I left public education and got a law degree. I became a yoga teacher, moved to Los Angeles and learned to cook. I stayed thin and fit and compulsively applied eye cream. I went on terrible dates and lusted after unavailable guys. I pretended to have a career plan and compared myself to everyone on Facebook.
But the standard for perfect kept changing. And I was always struggling to adapt.
Then a week ago, I got slapped with some straight-up truth.
“Perfectionism is a Hustle”
Hell yeah it is.
In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown writes about perfectionism. And I can relate.
She points out that perfect is impossible, and that those of us who are obsessed with attaining perfection are setting ourselves up for disappointment, over, and over again.
She reminds me that perfectionism is exhausting and unsustainable. That perfectionism shields vulnerability, numbs compassion and masks the honest part of myself that connects with other people. Perfectionism is lonely and isolating and self-destructive.
When I think about myself as I perfectionist, I feel like a case study for Brown’s book.
When I try to be perfect, I keep people at a distance. If they get too close, they might see me for who I am. They might see me struggle to keep it together. They might feel my sadness or anger or insecurity. They might judge me or leave me or betray me.
When I try to be perfect, I disconnect. I lock up my emotions. I bury everything to hide how I’m feeling. All of the hiding makes it difficult to feel at all.
When I try to be perfect, I am tired, and judgmental. I get irritable and reactive.
Ultimately, I’d like to leave the hustle for the honest work of showing up authentically for myself and the people around me. I’d like to let go of the idea of who I should be and connect with who I am.
But I’ve been hustling my whole life. In the face of challenge, uncertainty and vulnerability, I immediately retreat into the shelter of perfection. I cover up the mess. Put on a smile and pray that the world will buy it.