At 18, I couldn’t let go and just be a freshman college student looking for my way in the world. I thought I was supposed to already know everything about where I was headed and who I would become. I rarely took a night off from studying and rarely ever drank — yes, I was that college student.
Of course a laid-back person didn’t have this problem. It’s one of the reasons I envy them and began experimenting to find out if it’s possible for me to join their ranks.
“Where’s the script?” I wanted to know. “Someone tell me how to be an adult and do everything just right.”
But there is no script. Something adults in my life failed to impart was that they were just flying by the seat of their pants, making it up as they went along. There is no handbook for life; it’s all improvisation. If I had realized this sooner, it may have saved me a lot of misery.
The knowledge I did have about adulthood at age 18 was pretty useless. All I knew was a mixture of perfectionism and deep disappointment when perfect wasn’t achieved. I had no skills to recover if met with disappointment or the seven-headed beast that is failure, so I hated trying at all. It seemed like everything I thought was professionally designed to make me hate myself:
- Soak up knowledge like a sponge and never make a mistake.
- Know exactly who you are and don’t ever change because that makes you fickle and wishy-washy.
- Everything you do gives people an impression about you and that impression is all that matters.
- You are what other people say you are.
- Always look to men and never be a leader because you’re not strong enough.
- You are only as beautiful on the inside as people think you are on the outside.
Everything hinged upon judgment. My life was dictated by the opinions of others. If everyone in the world disappeared and wasn’t available to judge me, would I just cease to exist?
I was led to believe you went to college and knew exactly what you wanted to study (something useful). You made the dean’s list every semester and graduated in exactly four years, with honors. You’d immediately have a job, which your degree directly tied into, and you made money and became independent all at once. I was always told that if you didn’t do all these things just right, why did you do them at all?
Furthermore, there were these antithetical beliefs: Never waste time, talent or potential. How many jobs did you have that wasted every single one of those things? Psych Central editor Margarita Tartakovsky just wrote about this issue in “What to Do When You Hate Your Job and Can’t Quit.”
“My worth is not my job,” comedian Jessica Williams tweeted after she was accused of not leaning in at the “Daily Show” when Jon Stewart announced he was leaving. I’d give anything to have known and believed that statement when I was 20 years old.
What was missing from my knowledge about life was how I was supposed to be happy. That never entered into it. Money, job, family — that’s all it covered. The insurmountable task of being happy was just supposed to take care of itself. It didn’t.
In the end, the perfectionist voice in my head is unrealistic and totally out of touch. It’s wrong about everything. Nothing is perfect. Mistakes aren’t the end of the world. People have to change and that’s a beautiful, mature thing. Worst of all, it wasn’t showing me how to do anything anyway. It was just judging every move I made and making life stagnant.
I am not the sum total of my opinions or my actions. I am not my Facebook profile. I am much more, but I don’t have to spell it out for anyone. I don’t have to make a presentation or prove anything to anyone. I only need to know myself in so much as I know I’m a good person and capable person. I trust that I am going to make the right decisions and even when they’re wrong, I can still make them right. I can recover from missteps and keep celebrating life because it’s all improvisation — and coping.
“So look, perfectionist voice in my head, you’d better start saying something useful to me because I’m not checking in for any more tongue lashings. I’ve been sharpening my sensibilities in the school of life, and you’ve just been talking the same trash since 1994. Lighten up.”
What would you say to your inner perfectionist?