Up until the 1960s, the hairshirt, or cilice, was worn by nuns and monks as a sign of repentance and atonement for sins. It was an undergarment usually made of rough cloth or bristly animal fur, occasionally with metal spikes, to create constant discomfort. My hairshirt is carefully constructed, not of animal fur or metal chains, but of anxiety, shame and depression. Taught early on that my value lie in aspiring for perfection, in not making mistakes, in being highly critical and highly criticized, I do not wear mistakes well.
The last few weeks have been comprised of some big mistakes. Everything from leaving keys in the lock of an outside door overnight, to being so confounded by multiple contracts that I billed a client incorrectly. I was not murdered in my sleep and things are being worked out with the client, but I’m embarrassed by my episodes of incompetence.
I am a highly organized, competent and grounded person most of the time. When I make mistakes, I feel crushed. Depression slides over me like a dark, wet blanket. I want to hide. I want to quit. I want to run away. I don’t want to make eye contact and my stomach is in knots. Intellectually, I know this is not a healthy, proportional response to mistakes. I know it’s baggage that I’ve lugged along for decades. It’s painful to be perceptive and yet ineffective at changing one’s gut reaction.
Sometimes I rush to fix my mistakes or make over an entire system to ensure the same mistake can’t be made again. What I’m doing is not leaving time to grieve over this loss of imagined perfectionism. And it is ALL imagined, this world I often live in – where I would never make a mistake, where I am a superhuman, where I will be loved because I do everything right. It never existed except in my head. It was a seed planted long ago and it is nurtured by stress.
I’m the person to whom people are constantly saying “let it go” or “relax”. To which I mentally respond “bite me!” I should point out that telling uptight people to relax is akin to telling a starving person that they need to eat. A big duh is coming your way. As one friend pointed out, I don’t do anything in half measures. I’m intense, focused and determined. Until I fry my diodes. And then things seem to fall apart.
The counterattack is recognizing that my perceptions are not reality. It is talking back to the voice in my head that calls me stupid and irresponsible. It is reminding myself that I would never say these things to another person in the face of their own mistakes. It is practicing what Buddhists call maitri, or unconditional friendliness to oneself.
The journey from self-loathing to unconditional friendliness is neither easy, nor linear. I must constantly retrace my steps. The real trick is to catch myself in the act of attempting perfection, to stop myself from pursuing love and self-acceptance through doing perfectly, when doing good enough will suffice.
I’ve met a lot of people like me. In that dismissive way in which we categorize people, they’re called Type A personalities. Studies have focused primarily on middle-aged men, but here’s a picture of a middle-aged woman: wife, mother, PTO president, part-time business manager, volunteer, writer, gardener, caretaker of pets, children, elders and home. Throw in some unpredictable peri-menopausal hormones and you’ve got FrankenWhine, just waiting to be chased away by angry villagers.
Perfectionism means it will never be enough. Despite all the wonderful, fortunate things in my life, I’m living in a mindset that says I’ll always be hungry and dissatisfied. Except at this very moment. Writing is my way home, my escape from the mental trap of perfectionism. When I write, I feel good enough. And when I don’t write, I drive myself to excel at everything else. Often everything else has something to say in the matter.
Writing is the salve to all self-inflicted wounds for me. It is a world where mistakes are encouraged, tangents expected and thoughts run like muddy little hooligans across white carpet. Time stands still and everything else can wait. The writing is not perfect, but the act of doing it takes away that indefinable longing. It nourishes me, re-sets my emotional clock, plants me back in a world where I am loved because of my imperfections, accepted in spite of my peculiarities and no longer in need of external redemption.
Sometimes my mistakes are simply reminders in disguise. With a gentle nudge, I stop trying to be perfect and get back to being me, the writer.