Goodbye Perfect

San Diego, CA

It was only an off-handed comment, but I remember it so clearly.

It was around 1997 and I was in high school. Specifically, I was hosting a dinner party at my parents’ house (as one does at sixteen). I set the table with china and crystal, carefully arranged the linens according to my recent studies of napkin-folding, and cooked up three different pasta dishes as a sort of ‘pasta bar.’ I was chatting with one of my guests when she turned to me and delivered bluntly: “You know, Meredith, if not for one thing, I would want your life.”

I felt wonderfully validated by the compliment. “You want my life?” I thought. “Well then I must be doing something right!” But beyond that, I became immediately fixated on this one exception: “Wait, what part of my life could she judge and find wanting?” I reflected. “I should definitely fix that right away.”

Much of my early years were spent striving to perfect myself. I worked hard in school for academic achievement, certainly studying more than necessary to get along. I poured myself into an appropriately diverse and engaging set of extracurriculars. Yet my definition of achievement wasn’t focused on resume-building alone. In addition to being the smartest and most accomplished I wanted to be the most well-rounded too. I journaled about my experiences and build a strong sense of self-reflection. I spent time with my family. I built emotional intelligence skills around listening and connecting. I committed to reading the Bible every morning and night as I plumbed for spiritual depth.

While I had a broad view of life, I had only one metric to measure every dimension against: excellence. Was I getting A’s on tests, devotedly going to the gym, cultivating both breadth and depth in my relationships, calling my parents, and taking on leadership roles? Was I being the best? My goal was to do everything required to become a ‘complete human being’ and to do it all well. Like my friend’s comment, I would know I was on track if people looked at my life and said “Gosh, I want what she has.”

There are plenty of issues with this worldview. To begin, this perspective set me on an endless quest with predictably unsatisfying results. I learned that there will always be someone who is smarter, funnier, more empathetic, better-read, more well-rounded, etc, etc, etc. It’s tough to be good at one thing, and much it’s harder to be the best at all things.  Given that I didn’t always find myself at the top of the heap, I also had to become an agile mental gymnast to preserve my sense of self-worth. I looked for ways to reestablish my identity when I lacked hard proof of relative superiority (like test grades). One trick was to subtly reframe and recontextualize what types of excellence really mattered. “Yes, it’s important to be smart and emotionally intelligent like me,” I would think to myself, “but it’s not that important to have a great fashion sense or win at chess. So, in a way, I’m still the best.” I picked the constellation of things that I would judge on; it meant that I could still define myself as comparatively excellent in any range of situations.

Though this worldview drove my achievements and gave me worth, it became clear that these subconscious patterns didn’t help me connect with others. It’s no fun to sit in a room silently cataloguing the reasons why I’m smarter than this person, more engaged than that person, and more emotionally aware than that other person. I didn’t want to be constantly striving for more – or perpetually reframing why my slate of achievements are just as good as the next person’s.

So I’m working on giving up those old habit patterns. I’m redefining success away from ‘excellence, comparative superiority, and enviability’ to simply ‘authenticity.’ I used to make authenticity a sub-goal of my overarching quest to be the best (i.e., “Goal 283: Be the most authentic person around”). But I know it’s far more powerful when authenticity becomes the dominant lens. Who am I? What is innately valuable about me? And how do I sit with all the parts of me instead of trying to perfect them?  Frankly, I don’t want you to covet my life. Instead, I want you to live your life fully, just as I want to live my life fully.  With all it’s real messiness and imperfection.

This focus on authenticity neuters my reliance on external validation. I began my journey with a sense that if I made myself good enough then others would want my life; they would like me and I would have done well.  But you remember my friend from high school and her one reservation about wanting my life? She said she would love to be me except… “you worry too much.” And so, as I throw out the idea of perfecting my life, I’ll also throw out my biggest worry about doing so: the fear that unless I make myself better and better, then I might not be worthy of your love and approval. Hopefully, striving for authenticity means that love and approval don’t need to come from you anymore; I should be able to find them independently.

It’s so easy for me – for any of us – to present only the Facebook veneer of a sublimated life: the travels, the engagements, the meals, the beach days with impossibly beautiful Californian weather. But regardless of what you see on your smartphone, here is the truth: I am not perfect. There is messiness and brokenness and not-all-put-together-ness in me. And far from being something I need to polish and perfect, I am more and more embracing those imperfect parts and loving myself even more. It has taken me until my earlier thirties, but I have learned that I don’t so much want to excel at life.  I just want to live it.

With love,
Meredith

goodbye perfect

Saying yes to fears

San Francisco, CA

This past weekend I was lucky enough to catch up with a good friend who lives on the other side of the world.  He mentioned that a friend of his was afraid about many things.  Afraid about things happening.  Afraid about things not happening.  Afraid about being liked.  Afraid about not being liked.

When my boyfriend passed away unexpectedly in 2010, I found myself scared of so many things.  I was afraid of never falling in love again, afraid I would fall in love again, afraid I would fall in love and then that person would pass away, afraid I would forget him, afraid I would always remember him, afraid of being judged for grieving in my own way, afraid that what I felt was real, afraid that what I felt was false.  The list went on for pages in my journal.

Writing down the list of fears helped immensely.  I found that the first step in moving through the fear was simply to name it.  Give it form and substance.  Put words to it.  I didn’t worry about the ‘why?’ behind it; tracing each fear back to its psychological source wasn’t the point.  The point was getting rid of the fears.  And to get rid of them, I needed to know what they were.

My list of fears was very long.

Then, I had to face them.  By facing, I do not mean doing the thing you’re afraid of or overcoming it in some forceful way (e.g., intercontinental flights for those afraid of flying).  Instead, by facing, I mean just that:  turning my face towards the fear.  The point was to look at each fear instead of hiding from it.  I needed to accept them.  And most of all, I needed to say yes to them.

So, for each fear, I just said “yes” to it.  This was not a “yes” that I wished the fear would materialize, but instead an acknowledgment of its possibility.  “Yes, I might end up alone.”  “Yes, people may judge me.” “Yes, I might never be able to move past this.”  I just said yes.  Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.  Yes, that might happen.  Yes, this might happen.  Yes, yes, yes.  I said yes.  I cried yes.  I kept going with yes until there was nothing left.

yes bold
And soon, I moved to a place of:  “Okay.  Yes.  But so what?  So what if it does happen?  If that’s what’s going to happen, then I’ll deal with it.”  And at that point the yes turned into a sort of acceptance of possibilities.

What I realized was that before I found yes, I was running from every fear.  I was doing whatever I could to escape them.  Trying every tactic.  (It felt something like this.)  I was exhausted.

But when I stopped running, turned to face my fears, and said yes, the fear passed right through me.  I always thought that once it caught me (like Coyote catching the Roadrunner), I would be destroyed.  But instead, when I stopped and let it catch up with me, it evaporated, ghost-like.  It’s almost like my fears passed through straight through me.

When I started saying yes to fear, I also saw that the thing I feared and the fear itself were distinct (FDR got this one right; in the very first paragraph of his First Inaugural Address).  If the feared thing happened, whatever it was, I could deal with it.  Step-by-step, I would figure it out, because that’s what humans do.  But there was no use in being afraid of it.  Why work myself up emotionally for a possible situation in the future?  Saying yes allowed me to let this go instead of ducking, dodging, hiding, and running to avoid it.

My mental image of running from and then facing fear is that of Bugs Bunny.  He runs away from Yosemite Sam, that creepy monster or some other cartoon villain with all his might.  But what actually diffuses the situation is stopping and facing the bugaboo.  Stopping and facing lets us see that the villain – the fear – is laughable and inept.

If you are looking to let go of fear (or simply anxiety or nervousness), you can take the same approach:

  • Make a long list of the things you’re afraid of.  It can be anything.  Fear of things happening, fear of things not happening, fear of the judgment of others, fear of how you’ll perceive yourself.  Keep writing until you have no more fears to share.  (“I am afraid of not having enough money,” “I am afraid of my kids not going to the right school,” “I am afraid if I speak up people will think I’m too assertive,” “I am afraid that if I don’t go to PTA meetings, people will think I’m a bad parent.”  Whatever it is.)
  • Go through the list.  Say yes to each one.  Keep on saying yes until the fear loses its magnitude
  • When you’re feeling afraid again, come back to the list or repeat the exercise anew.  Write down your fears, say yes to each one, and let them go

Wishing you all love without fear,
Meredith

 

"Fear Monster"

Beyond Freedom

Johannesburg, South Africa

I reached Johannesburg earlier this week subject to that ‘just arrived malaise’ that often hits me upon landing in a new city. I always acknowledge that I’ve travelled far and it’s okay to be tired, while another part of me jumps straight to aggressive self-judgment:  “You are only in this city for so long!  You should go out and experience it!  Why are you laying on your bed?!”  While I have learned to quiet that inner voice full of “should,” I nonetheless feel fairly awful if I haven’t ventured out of my hotel by the end of the day.  So I touched down, took a much-needed nap, knocked out some work, and rallied.

My first and only stop was the Apartheid Museum, an elegant and well-executed history of apartheid in South Africa.

Between the mock-ups of Mandiba’s jail cell and the ‘Europeans Only’ signs, the part of the museum which stuck me most was the struggle of it all. Hundreds, thousands of people dead in the fight.  Such intractable reluctance to give up power.  An almost inconceivable investment of energy, emotion, and life to secure what I naively see as the basic, universal right to freedom.

In truth, freedom has been hard-fought – not just in South Africa’s recent past, but in our continuing global present. Freedom is not a right that is won, but instead a daily reality which we must continue to bring into existence.

But what happens when we are so fortunate as to feel secure in that freedom?  What next?  Where do we direct our energies when the exhausting fight for freedom is done?

One definition of freedom is “the power or liberty to order one’s own actions.” This definition necessarily elicits the next question:  With the liberty to order our actions, how should we do so?  And to what end?

We of course have different goals – different definitions of happiness, purpose, meaning, or fulfillment.  Yet I would propose that whatever our goals, we articulate them clearly and pursue them consciously.  Freedom gives us the right to choose.  Intentionality means that, when exercising that sacred freedom, we do so conscious of the world we want to create for ourselves and others.  (See earlier post on the definition of intentionality here.)

With all the struggle that goes into securing freedom, it seems disrespectful and almost amoral that we would exercise that freedom in anything but the most thoughtful way possible, consciously creating ourselves into the people we want to be and thoughtfully crafting the world in which we want to live.  What is beyond freedom?  Intentionality. 

 

Image“To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” 
-Nelson Mandela