I recently dragged my kids to Baltimore so that I could have lunch with an old colleague (he’s young…but we’ve known each other for 13 years) at the National Catholic Education Association convention. A gifted writer and speaker, my friend can get his audience to laugh right after they’ve cried.
As my Katherine and David grabbed his pieces of watermelon off his plate after rolling in the aisles of the publishers’ exhibit, he described his process of becoming comfortable in front of a large group of people who expect him to inspire them and say something spiritual that they can take home in their tote bags.
The next day I sent him an e-mail thanking him for our time together and for sharing his gifts with the world–even though that’s, at times, a struggle for him.
“I’m glad, too, that I am giving what I have to the world, and I’m glad you are too,” he replied. “I held back a long while–typically out of fear of being unworthy. A while back I came across the Leonard Cohen lyrics to ‘Anthem’ and have kept the refrain printed out and taped to my computer ever since then. It goes,
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.”
I could relate so well to what he was saying, and to the words of the song.
If creativity (and recovery) were flights anywhere in the continental U.S., perfectionism would be the TSA employees at security stations in the airport investigating your tubes of mascara and toothpaste to make sure boarding those flights were as difficult as possible.
Perfectionism is like an untreated person with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) who gets stuck analyzing a lady bug on a blade of grass–unable to determine what shade of brown its dots are–instead of appreciating the view of a spectacular rose garden she’s in.
In other words, perfectionism is a bastard. Like practically every other depressive I know (read the message board of my “We Didn’t Do Our Best” post), it can cripple my efforts to live freely and happily (not to mention plaguing me with writer’s block). Left unattended, perfectionism will build a prison around me so that every shot at expressing myself is thwarted by fear of not getting it right.
“Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead. It is a loop–an obsessive, debilitating closed system that causes you to get stuck in the details of what you are writing or painting or making and to lose sight of the whole,” writes Julia Cameron in “The Artist’s Way.” “Instead of creating freely and allowing errors to reveal themselves later as insights, we often get mired in getting the details right. We correct our originality into a uniformity that lacks passion and spontaneity. ‘Do not fear mistakes,’ Miles Davis told us. ‘There are none.'”
Beyond Blue has been an important exercise for me to tackle my perfectionism. When your contract stipulates you need to write two to four posts a day, you can’t afford to waste time and make each of them perfect. And my editor reminds me regularly to write from wherever I am, which is about as far from perfect as the U.S. is to New Zealand.
So I regurgitate a recent conversation I overheard, or an e-mail from a friend (like the one above), or a passage I just read from a book. Sometimes I reread the archives and cringe at the awkwardness in my phrasing, the crude content of a post. But then I remember what David Burns, M.D. wrote in “Ten Days to Self Esteem” about perfectionism:
“Our vulnerabilities and flaws–and not our successes and strengths–ultimately make us lovable and human. People can be admired or resented–but never loved–for their successes and and achievements…. Our ‘brokenness’ is essential to being human. Our failures and moments of despair can sometimes be our greatest opportunities for growth, for intimacy, for spiritual awareness, and for self-acceptance.”
Then he reiterates what Paul says in the Second Corinthians, after he begs God to remove the thorn in his flesh, that “strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). As inconvenient and bothersome as it is, our brokenness actually provides the path to beauty and strength.