Me Choosing Me
First, let’s remove the outer perfectionism. I was labeled a slob in my household when I was growing up because there was always a pile of activity in my bedroom. Clothes to fold and put on hangars. Piles of magazines and art supplies and yarn. And, always an unmade bed. (I do make my bed now because that means I can spread books and magazines on top of the bedspread, and not lose my scissors or glue sticks in between the sheets.) Messy is part of my creative expression.
One of my favorite lines is, “good enough for now.” It is something I say, when I send an email, or press yes to finalize the proof to publish a book on Createspace or make a reservation for the airline that will fly me to the next home-base location. It means: Let Go. Move forward. Take action. Good enough for now. If necessary, clean it up later. I don’t have to be perfect! Messy is part of my creative expression.
My perfectionism is a tricky, sticky thread I have been unraveling for 33 years. You can’t see it because it is intertwined with “acceptable, expected,” behavior. Thirty-three years ago is when I started going to Al-Anon and began to learn about co-dependency and people-pleasing. It has been a long, hard unraveling, because it served me to hold an image of myself that was about helping people and making a difference in the world. I studied Social Work in college with a minor in Human Sexuality. I was going to help people heal. I was going to help women. That role gave me value. I didn’t want to let go of that image and let go of the people pleasing.
The people-pleasing was easy to see after Al-Anon and therapy. It didn’t mean I had a handle on it, I just knew it was there, and I could see it in the moment. I continued to fall back into people-pleasing until I got my people-pleasing ass kicked to the curb in 2014, in a situation that was painful enough for me to develop a connection to the part of me that is a Bitch. I can no longer do the people pleasing thing. My body won’t let me. When I discovered the bitch, I finally let go because I also saw how the people pleasing was covertly arrogant. In the sticky layers, it meant I thought that I could handle things that other people couldn’t handle. Unconsciously, it meant I was superior to them. I can process your anger, fear, jealousy, better than you can. Just give it to me and I will do it for you. It also meant I could avoid my own pain, and took on responsibility for other people that prevented me from being free to pursue my own interests. I am kind, helpful, community oriented, but no longer a people-pleaser.
So, once I was freed from that, I had an “Aha!” and became aware of another sticky layer: the place where I feel responsible for other people’s emotions. It draws me in to care-take the emotional health of the people around me. Perfectionism appears when I don’t consider my feelings and desires, and I put everyone else first, like waiting to choose a seat at the table or in the car until everyone else does because I “can handle anything and adjust to the location.” It shows up as me waiting to take my seat at the table. It places limitations on how I want to spend my time because me choosing me means that someone might be upset or hurt. For example, I will sit next to the difficult, challenging person at the dinner table because everyone expects me to handle them, instead of me choosing to sit next to someone with whom I really want to talk and spend time. I know it may sound like people-pleasing but it is deeper than that. It is because I think you can’t handle it, that I am stronger and more capable. I thought I was being generous, but it is really egotistic. Look, I am aware of this and I have been watching it, and making micro changes, or loving myself when I see that I am choosing to put myself second and knowing why.
It is sticky and tricky because I really do care about people. I am loving and kind and I want to help people and make a difference in the world. I really do. Yesterday at the airport, I offered to hold someone’s place in line and I helped someone lift their bags into the overhead bin. Both people turned to me and said, “wow, thank you. That was so kind.” And of course, it felt good to help people as a normal part of living on the planet with common courtesy. I want to spread kindness by being helpful wherever I am. We are all in this together, right? Let’s help each other!
The practice for me is to check within and ask questions. I am learning to step back and let people have their own experiences. To move slower. To stop jumping in to fix something that is not a crisis. To offer help in a natural way instead of a, “here I come to save the day,” way. The dance is to choose me until I am filled up and overflowing with an abundance of being able to give to someone else. Knowing when I need to focus on myself and sharing when I have more to give.
An example of my practice showed up yesterday when I was waiting for a bus with 20 other people. I was watching two women who were crossing the street, one friend pushing another friend in a wheelchair. I watched as the friend pushed the chair towards the sloped curb of the sidewalk and instead of sliding up the ramp, she pushed it in a way that created jarring and the woman in the wheelchair cried out in pain. I was standing close enough to help, but instead of jumping in at that point, I watched and waited. The two women were working through it. There was one shopping bag on the woman’s lap and there was nothing to do at this moment. They were working through the logistics. The woman was feeling her physical pain, her body language was saying, “wait, give me a minute.” In that moment, a young man rushed in and tried to help. I noticed that he seemed to be in the way. I noticed how I was judging myself about not stepping in right away to do something.
Unraveling this even more…I know myself. I have jumped into crisis situations and pulled people to safety. I know that if it felt like a crisis, I would spring into action. Reflecting back on yesterday, maybe the two friends needed to figure out the wheelchair together. Maybe the young man who jumped in to help, needed that experience. It is not my job to save the entire world. As long as I am awake and observing the environment around me, I will know when to help, and when to witness, and when to hold space.
Unsticking and learning about my perfectionism is an ongoing practice. I am also learning to have more compassion for myself and reminding myself that I have lost a brother, a son, and a husband, I have been hurt physically and emotionally, and I have experienced trauma and loss. My instinct is to save other people from pain while at the same time knowing that pain has been an incredible teacher. I remind myself to witness and turn my attention back to me. This behavior of perfectionism has been a way of navigating in the world. Now, I am in the process of upgrading my inner GPS. It is tuned to me first, and this summer, I can’t wait to see what I discover!