It was fun to have my daughter and niece Phoebe home for our Thanksgiving celebration yesterday. Both young women are college freshmen and both are trying to find their own way in this scary and wonderful world. Yes, our world is both scary and wonderful, bitter and sweet, serious and silly, filled with potential and filled with disappointment, sometimes all in the same breath. Two days ago, my friend Britta was mugged in downtown Minneapolis by two guys on bikes. She screamed and was heard by another guy on a bike, who ran down the muggers (a brave soul) and was able to at least retrieve her cell phone. Within the span of about four minutes, Britta witnessed both the depths of our depravity as humans and the most glorious heights, when a rescuer answered her cry for help. As another friend of mine, Sarah, so eloquently said in a recent post on her blog, we are made for relationship. We are not meant to be alone. But for a while, in college, it seems you’ve left your family behind and you are sort of learning to make your way alone, with the help of a whole lot of new friends who are trying to do the same. Listening to my daughter and niece talk, I remembered my own endless striving for the elusive “state of perfect” when I was in college. I dug out an essay I wrote on this subject a few years back (and perhaps I’ve already posted it on this blog, but because I am a recovering perfectionist, I am not going to check to see). Here it is:
Allowing room in your life for calculated risks allows room for growth. In my last year of college, I was still achieving a 4.00 or straight A average. At the time, I happened to be getting a B in the final two-credit upper level German Grammar course that I needed for my German major. I dropped that class for fear of ruining my perfect grade point average and, in consequence, had to settle for a German minor, instead of a double major with my BA in English. Even in law school, after receiving my very first B, when most students had long since given up trying to read every case assigned, I still forged ahead through the one-hundred paged reading assignments. I was striving for some unattainable goal called perfection. The problem with trying for perfection is that you tend to play it safe. Even law school itself was a “play it safe” tactic. I knew I could do well as a law student, but I didn’t know that I could be a writer, which was my life-long dream. In my mid-twenties, when my son was at a Montessori preschool, his teacher noticed that he resisted moving on to the next level (the Montessori method is supposed to be self-directed). When we finally got him to express a reason for this resistance, we learned that he merely enjoyed the mastery of being able to put all of the shapes into the correct openings, or to draw all of his letters just so. He didn’t want to experience the hazy place of discomfort when learning a new skill. It is funny how, when you see your own foibles manifested in your children, you finally understand how they are hurting you. So, I strapped on rock climbing shoes, and learned to rock climb. It was scary, but so exhilarating when standing on that cliff edge. I wanted my kids to understand how taking risks could move them forward. We went to a high-adventure camp, did a ropes course, and dove off that zip line. I watched their confidence grow, watched mine. And I became determined to no longer be one of those people who always played it safe in life and, in consequence, never really set sail. That said, I am all for taking the risks with a bit of a safety line. I wasn’t rock climbing or doing the high ropes course without heavy duty carabineers. It’s all about calculated risks and allowing room for mistakes. Even in rock climbing, sometimes you have to back track and find a new route up the side of the cliff. Failure is only ever an opportunity to learn and that is something the perfectionist cannot understand. There’s no way I’d drop that German class today.
Finally, I read this truly remarkable little article on perfectionism by Brene Brown. If I only I had read this article when I was in college. But I guess I’ve lived my way into the knowledge that I will never be perfect and when I focus on being perfect, I miss out on life. Perhaps even miss out on my life’s mission. And then hearing over and over again this fall that “to be true to yourself, you may have to disappoint other people,” a point my yoga teacher kept coming back to during the course of our teacher training. I, in turn, repeated this refrain to my daughter during our Sunday phone calls. She has been going through a bit of a struggle as to whether to stay at her same college or transfer (she’s ultimately come out on the side of staying put and it is all her own decision–she’s owning it, which is nice to see as I feel perhaps I was too much a part of her original decision to attend this particular college). Love to her. And love to my niece who is already such an amazing photographer. She took the below family photo for us in August. You go girls! Find and be the authentic you, not some image of what you think you are supposed to be.