Perfection Kills Connection: Lessons from the dark side

If we are to tell the stories only we can tell, this is one of my stories. My struggle with perfectionism and with it’s dark underbelly: isolation and failure. Perfectionism is one of those things that we laugh about struggling with. When we’re asked the job interview question, “What is your biggest weakness?” Perfectionism is a safe answer that, a way to subtly say, “I really don’t make mistakes. Isn’t that exactly what you want in a candidate?” The reality, though is that perfectionism not only isolates the perfectionist from other people, it insulates them from the ideas, thoughts, and input of others. It cripples their ability to connect, create, and lead. The irony is that when we are so fixated on getting all the answers just right, we don’t ask any of the important questions.

Ironically enough, I have been putting off writing about this topic for many months because I wanted this article to be perfect. The thought of having to open my mouth and talk about how much of my life has been spent trying to get it “just right,” makes my stomach turn and my jaw tighten. And yet, I’m learning to feel the fear and do it anyway because I know I’m not the only person that struggles with personal perfectionism.

I am the daughter of a very religious man. We’re talking no-incense-in-the-house, no-shorts-on-Sunday, tv-only-comes-out-for-watching-Star-Trek-once-a-week kind of religious man. Growing up, I didn’t fully understand all of the house rules, but I tried my damnedest to live up to them all. I prided myself in knowing all the rules of our religious life. Kids at church would turn to me for the answers because of who my dad was. They assumed that because he was super religious he knew everything about God and, that by simply being his offspring, I did too. For a while, I ate that praise up. I liked having all the answers. And all of the attention. My dad and me, we had it all figured out.

And yet…I did wear shorts on Sunday, I said all the words I could think of that rhymed with “sit” and “duck” and then got a talking to and sometimes a mouth full of soap as a result. I was a walking contradiction and I couldn’t make sense of what was wrong with me. My solution? Ignore it and pretend that it away. I could do this religious thing just right. I knew I could, if I just tried and prayed hard enough.

Flash forward 15 years, I am sitting on the phone listening to my dad admit to an addiction he had denied when I had asked him point blank years earlier. I felt numb. Not only had my gut told me this was a problem I was pretending away, but I was also faced with the very real truth that my dad, the man with all the answers, was — like all of us — deeply flawed. I wish I could say I responded with compassion and understanding, but I didn’t. I chose to see what he did as failure. Failure to admit he was wrong. Failure to do everything right all the time. I sat in my numbness, holding the satisfaction of being right like a knife. I told my dad he had lied to me, and not to reach out to me, that I didn’t want to talk to him for a long time. So there I sat, with my “holier than thou” sword clutched to my chest pushing my dad away because he showed me he wasn’t perfect.

Years later, with the remnants of my marriage crumbling in my hands, I saw that I too wasn’t perfect either. Staring myself in the face, I had to admit that I, too, had broken important promises. I didn’t have it all figured out either. I never had. All those years of pretending I had all my shit together had done one thing, and one thing only. It had walled me off from everyone and everything that I truly loved. I built those walls so long ago, that I had forgotten they were even there.

In order to create the illusion of perfection we must create walls around our true selves so that others can only see our polished, shiny, and photoshopped selves. But the more walls we build, the less we let others see who we truly are. Until one day we sit all alone with nobody to blame but ourselves for our complete isolation and loneliness. See that’s that trade-off with perfection. When we pretend to have it all together, we have to build more and more armor around ourselves to keep others from seeing the reality of our lives — that we, like everyone else, struggle.

Admit to a friend we’re struggling, whatever the struggle is, is really hard. Especially when they seem to have the very thing we’re struggling with in the bag. But, as Ash Beckham once said, “if you want someone to be real with you they need to know you bleed too.” My problem was that I’d refused to let others, even those closest to me, see me bleed.

Back to my crumbling marriage, feeling utterly alone and ripped in two, I phoned a friend. That phone conversation was the turning point for me. It was the moment when I admitted I didn’t have it all figured out. My friend was surprised. I had never talked that openly and honestly with her before. Regardless, she supported, loved, and listened to me. The conversation was one of the first times where I spoke totally and completely honestly in years. I didn’t hide or sugarcoat or pretend things away. I told her the truth of my life and where I was at. I didn’t apologize because I didn’t know what to do next. It was the hardest and most amazing thing I had ever done. Amazing and excruciating and wonderful and awful all at the same time.

Her support and love saved me. And, in a very real way, it saved my marriage. Being able to talk to her helped me sort out where I was emotionally, what I was feeling, and to grieve the loss of something I thought I had — a perfect marriage. These conversations allowed me to give both myself and my husband the space to be incredibly flawed human beings together. My marriage broke apart, but BECAUSE I was vulnerable with someone I loved, I was able to create an entirely new marriage with that same man — something that feels nothing short of a miracle.

If you’ve never had the experience of letting someone you love truly see you and then accept what they see in you — the good, the bad, and the ugly — there is no way I can effectively describe to you what it’s like. The best I can do is say that it’s the most alive you can ever feel. Yes, it’s hard. And, yes, not all the feelings are lovely and wonderful, but it sure beats the hell out of living an entire life with emotional anesthetic — where ALL of your emotions are numbed.

Am I still a recovering perfectionist? Most definitely. But knowing what it feels like to live a truly honest and wholehearted life, I would never go back to the way things were. I have fought and worked to be where I am and there is nowhere that I would rather be.

If you’d like to join me, welcome. If not, that’s ok. But, to quote Dr. Brene Brown in her book Rising Strong: …“if you’re not in the arena getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”

As for perfection? There’s really no such thing.