For a very long time I’ve been carrying around the heavy weight of my past, a story of childhood hurts that I kept telling myself over and over again until it defined me. My dented trust in life’s innate beauty, my need to control and improve whatever and whoever was around me, my lack of playfulness, as it turns out, were once needed ways to ring-fence my vulnerable core from the heavy storms of life. I had become resilient, or at least I thought so.
noun re·sil·ience \ri-ˈzil-yən(t)s\
Merriam-Webster defines resilience as the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens, as well as the ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, pressed, bent, etc.
I became strong and healthy and successful after what had happened. I was, however, not able to return to my true original shape where there is joy and silliness and playfulness, no fear of life, no fear of being hurt, abandoned, or rejected. Where there is only peace with and acceptance of whatever is now and curiosity about what is to come.
Instead I lived like a tumbler toy, picking myself up again and again but there was something fake about the re-established position. It felt stuck. How could it not? In order to spring back from the heavy forces pulling it down it had to be fixed somewhere, it had to grab on to something. For me this anchoring place was perfectionism. There is a beautiful post by Kathy Parker about perfectionism. I could not put it any better than this:
There’s nothing wrong with healthy striving to work hard and be the best version of ourselves that we can be. But that is never what it is about for the heart of a perfectionist. It is striving for your acceptance and your approval. It is all about what you think of me, not what I think of me. It is the belief that if we do everything perfectly, then we can avoid your shame and judgment. We can avoid ever feeling out of control. Because if we let go of control, even for a second, we begin to unravel. And so we grasp tightly to control and hold onto our perfectionism like a security blanket.
It usually takes another big storm, in fact more something like a tornado, to shatter perfectionism and show it for what it is: a stopgap solution that can never fulfill the heart’s true longing. It can, at best, only prevent worse.
My tornado happened in 2015 when the things that provided me security and a sense of belonging fell apart: my marriage, my home and my job satisfaction. It’s no coincidence that all three things happened at the same time. They were all related and pinpointed to the one same insight: that my perfectionist ways were no longer functional. Its negative side-effects had started to take over its benefits. I had become too exhausted, too miserable, too critical for my own good and that of others.
I knew I had to change but I was horrified of it, for change meant unpredictability, insecurity, nowhere safe to cling onto. And worst of all: letting go of control. The idea alone felt dreadful but I had no choice. The old ways simply didn’t work anymore. So I started a journey of self-discovery, of traveling back the road to my own true self, the one that I had left behind as to not expose it to the dangers that life presented.
The journey is hugely uncomfortable, the road stony and shabby and engulfed in thick mist. I can hardly see two steps ahead. I have no idea whether the next turn takes me left or right. And I can’t tell whether there is a cliff edge expecting me around the corner or a sunny beach.
The only thing that keeps me going is that there is no way back anyhow. I can only stay stuck where I am now (no way) or proceed forward and hope for the best. I’ve read so much lately about those times of crisis and about the opportunities for growth embedded in them that I have started to feel, deep within me, that there is some truth to it, even though it still seems like a very long shot for it to materialize.
For a start I have begun to frame my story differently and to look at myself with kinder eyes. Yes, I have suffered. Yes, I have seen stuff I didn’t care to see. Yes, I have missed out on things that others had the privilege to enjoy. But those very same things made me the very person I am today, that brought about not just the shadow but also the light of my personality.
I used to think of myself a lot in terms of shadows, in terms of what to improve, what to fix. I have now started paying more attention to what is good already, in its imperfection. It’s a rather hard thing to do for a perfectionist as it implies resisting the urge to fixate on the difference between what is and what could be. What has helped me reframe my thinking, amongst others, was this short video on resilience.
It’s rather beautiful, isn’t it? Reminds me of the lyrics of an old Leonard Cohen anthem:
Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.
Feature image © Reel Youth