Perfect and Normal

May 18, 2019

I’m a recovering perfectionist. My internal compass was set to society’s north, not mine. When I was a child, my parents were worried about my inner wiring– they could see how hard I was on myself and tried as best as they could to not add one ounce of pressure to my tightly wound coils.

My perfectionism definitely took a hit in college, but instead of taking these hits as “growth opportunities” I buried them and moved on. Even though I was no longer aiming for a perfect GPA, I kept up my training regimen to strengthen the inner voice that was my own worst critic. I showed myself no mercy. I scoffed at the thought of being satisfied with “doing the best I can.” To me, that sounded like a lame excuse.

Parenthood laughs in the face of perfectionism. Nevertheless, I persisted. Unmedicated labor and birth (at least the first time); homemade, organic baby food; breastfeeding exclusively for over a year (in spite of medical/mental/physical health challenges that would have been helped immensely by supplementing at least a little bit with formula); classical music in the nursery; mommy and baby yoga and all the other enrichment classes we were “supposed to” take.

Is this enough foreshadowing for you? I hope you can see the train wreck that’s coming, because I sure didn’t. Even though being a mother forced me to tone my perfectionism down to a heightened sense of being “normal,” I spent way too much time trying to maintain control. I don’t even like the word “normal”– sounds so boring and lacking in creativity– and yet, if I’m being honest, that is exactly what I craved. At least the appearance of it, anyway. As things unraveled with Ollie, as we all were swept from the open sea and bashed repeatedly against the rocky shoreline, my brain kept screaming, “THIS IS NOT NORMAL!” I started keeping a mental list: Normal versus Not Normal.

Normal: school days and carpool lines, extracurricular sports and plays and playdates. Not Normal: taking your child from wilderness therapy in Hawaii to a therapeutic boarding school in Asheville and then on to a residential treatment center in Utah.

Normal: coaxing teenage children out from behind closed bedroom doors. Not Normal: having to be escorted through 9 different (locked and unlocked) doors to see your child.

Normal: weekends off, school holidays and vacations, family get-togethers. Not Normal: year-round school and therapy; your child being away from home so long that he forgets where the light switches are when he finally is allowed back for a visit.

Normal: hard and sad goodbyes. Not Normal: hard and sad goodbyes, followed by a strip-search once your child returns to campus (to check for contraband).

Fear has many faces. It’s easy to spot fear when it looks like worry or anxiety, but fear also hides beneath anger, perfectionism, guilt, grief, embarrassment, inflexibility, prejudice, and even some types of humor. Fear can be both violent and paralyzing. It lurks just under the surface, so it’s easy to miss (or mistake).

How many times did I have to bang my head against that rocky shoreline before I loosened my grip on what was “normal”? How many more books and specialists did I have to consult before accepting that perfectionism is incompatible with being human? We are finally in our own little waterway, swimming upstream, and yet even now when we hit a rock or a waterfall I’m gripped by fear. But now I know what it looks like, how it shows up in the ways I think and act.

What does fear look like for you? What disguises does it use when it shows up in your life? Can you imagine what a powerful connection we could make with each other, if we all were able to make friends with our fear, to know all its patterns and tricks, and to call them out? To be humbled and human, so vulnerable and yet so strong? To not judge ourselves– or others– so harshly, because we feel fear?

Feel the fear, acknowledge it, and set it aside. We’ve all got some swimming to do together.

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