“There is a crack in everything-that’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen
Last night I failed to fulfill a commitment I had made to someone I don’t have a lot of history with. I was supposed to be at an event and be part of a group that stood up and talked briefly about who we were and why we had started our Arbonne businesses. I was really excited about doing it. But somehow I got it in my mind that the event started at 7:30 when in fact it began at 7. My daughter went with me to cheer me on, and when we walked in and the meeting was already well in progress, I realized with a sinking nasty feeling in my stomach that I had screwed up.
No one made me feel bad about my mistake-they were gracious to a fault-oh, except this one person-ME. I absolutely devolved into self-flagellation, shame and exquisite emotional pain. WHAT? Yes, absolutely. Our ride home was filled with me finding ways to feel bad about almost every aspect of my life, to the point of saying something that actually made my DAUGHTER feel bad and shamed. And this morning, even after a good night’s sleep and with a great cup of coffee in my hand, I am still squirming.
It IS difficult, when you are new to a relationship, to do something that you feel really doesn’t reflect who you are. It is way more difficult to live with the burden of your own imperfection. Because that is what this is about. And that is what I want to talk about today.
I am reading a book by Brene Brown called Daring Greatly. I cannot adequately express how great this book is. Brown’s arena is shame research, and who wants to think about shame? But she has done a great thing for the world by being willing to look at this most painful, secret and, well, shameful, emotion. One of her premises is that we spiral down into perfectionism to avoid shame. And what she concludes is that we don’t avoid shame with perfectionism, we cultivate it and ensure that it will rule our lives.
Perfectionism is NOT: striving for excellence, it is NOT self improvement, and it is NOT responding to the inner voice that spurs us on towards creativity, achievement or greatness. It is entirely oriented to the responses, or the feared responses, of others.
Dr. Brown describes it like this: “Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feeling of shame, judgment, and blame.”
It focuses on what it can never hope to control or determine-how others perceive us. Therefore it leads to anxiety, depression, addiction, shame, judgment and blame. Because when you can’t control what you are counting on for your sense of well-being, it makes you really miserable. When you are anxious, depressed, ashamed, filled with self-loathing, you lose all effectiveness, all joy, all courage to give it another shot.
Case in point: on the way home last night, and lying in bed, and this morning with the sun rising on a perfect day, I am questioning my abilities, my goals, my dreams. I am wondering if I have any business trying to make a go of this Arbonne endeavor, wondering if the course we have set for the next several years has any validity or is even possible, wondering if I “still have it in me” to accomplish my goals. I am looking for someone to blame. I am still feeling ashamed, even as I know I need to let it go. And I am a little afraid to keep trying. All because I screwed up on the time of a meeting. A little extreme, you might say, but to me it feels perfectly logical. And that is falling into the clutches of perfectionism.
Dr. Brown posits that the way out of the morass of perfectionism is “…the long journey from “What will people think?” to “I am enough”.” Sorry if I mangled that punctuation-ARGHHH there I go again, afraid of not being perfect!!!! When you are mired in self-castigation and shame, you tend to think that the way out is to do better, to try harder, to NEVER SCREW UP AGAIN. But in actuality, the way out is to give yourself a break, already, and join the human race, which is populated by imperfect human beings, who for the most part, are doing their best.
This involves three tasks: being kind to yourself, which just means treating yourself with the same compassion and understanding with which you would treat someone you actually love; relaxing into the experience of being a part of humanity, which is stunningly imperfect but manages to bumble along anyway; and practicing mindfulness, so that you can look at the pain your shame has brought you, feel it and acknowledge it, but not let it take you down the rabbit hole into despair, quitting, isolation, depression, and self-loathing.
My additional observation, from long years of this pattern of behavior, is that going that route is a way of forestalling the criticism of others. If I hate myself really well, no one else can do it first. I won’t be ambushed by someone’s displeasure or disappointment because I have beat them to the punch. It is, at its heart, a form of pride: No one can hate me better than I do! And it is grounded in the hope that if I beat myself down, no one else will. It really is a crappy way to live. And it immobilizes, neutralizes and stops me in my tracks.
My friend Janet has a saying: “What if it were just okay?” What if it were okay to be human, to fail, to disappoint others at times, to not be perfect. What if it were okay to be in process, to not know all the answers, to be in the dark. What if it were okay to just be me, the way I am right now, with all my faults and foibles? Because it is, you see. It really is okay. It is what is real. And it isn’t going to change much until we die. But the sun still comes up, the cows still need to be milked, and there is still joy and light and hope if we will let it fill us.
There is a crack in everything. That truth can defeat us, paralyze us, lead us to despair. But it is that very thing that lets the light in to our lives, because it reveals to us our need for grace, for forgiveness, for compassion. It brings us to the point where we can give those great gifts to all the other cracked things around us. And that is a life worth living.