Last month I received a postcard from Champasak,Vietnam. It was from my high school friend Tim. After getting his PhD from MIT, he decided to turn down lucrative offers and buy a boat to sail around the world for a few years. “F*** what I’m supposed to do. This is what I WANT to do,” he told me. Some people thought Tim was a f***up by wasting his degree. He could care less.
I wish I could care less. Not only do I strive to be perceived as perfect but I’m also plagued with a mad need to apologize every time I’m perceived as anything less. Last time I had too much to drink at a family affair, I was so horrified at my (slurring) behavior that I intended to notify everyone I would promptly enroll in AA. When someone questioned the number of romantic flings in my life, I assured them that it was a rough phase (not just a “me” phase) and I was currently seeking spiritual guidance. Even when I do something that is bravely “F*** the world”, I secretly hope the world is not only watching, but heartily applauding my nonconformist attempts. When I took my road trip across the US to interview women, I fantasized that my trip would grow in fame, my blog would be read by millions, and I’d be featured on the today show as a crusader for the female spirt. This didn’t *quite* happen. But of course, I would never admit that I ever had such lofty ambitions and then failed.
I wondered where this need to prove myself started. Perhaps, like for many, it was grounded in childhood and a frenzied need to be liked.
At age 10 I wore dark Hanes-her-way pantyhose under my shorts so the other kids would think I got a tan on vacation in Florida (we actually went canoe camping in Montana).
At age 11, I practiced soccer every night so people would think I was athletic and pick me (please not last!) for PE kickball.
At age 13, I studied for exams to make honor roll, and then, realizing that honor roll was only for geeks, purposely messed up my exams to get off honor roll.
At age 14, I pleaded with my mom to get contact lenses so I could be pretty (not ‘frizzy hair four eyes’, as I was known).
All I wanted to do was fit in and be ‘perfect.’ I wanted to be perfect according to everyone else’s standards. I didn’t have my own standards.
This need for perfection gets augmented as we enter adulthood. We are surrounded with phrases like “Dress for success” and “Be nimble and adapt.”
However, at work, I received feedback that perhaps I was too quick to try and adapt. I decided to talk to a career counselor on how to best present myself in the workplace
“I’m a chameleon,” I boasted. “I can learn any language and fit in anywhere. In fact you can chop off my limbs, drop me Africa and I’d learn the clicking language of pygmies and set up a banana dessert shop.” I expected her to applaud me.
“If you are that adaptable than you aren’t really anyone are you?” she said. “Can’t you just be the same person regardless of where you are?”
Her words hit home. Did I not have an identity?
“Your identity, and what makes you uniquely you, is your imperfections.”
I didn’t want to be known for my imperfections. I wanted to be known for my singsong voice, brilliant poetry, and impeccable dinner parties.
Of course at the last ‘impeccable’ dinner party I overcooked the pork. I was so horrified that I intended to write a suicide note for the first tenderloin and hang it from the ceiling. I asked my guests if they would mind waiting to eat while I whipped up another loin in, oh, 90 minutes.
“Are you crazy?,” they asked. “We’re starving and can manage with a little overdone pig. It’s okay to have one un perfect dish.” Was it?
I write about not humble bragging, bringing your whole self to work, and the need to be naked. However I seem to be incapable of doing any of it, too fearful that I’ll choose the wrong ‘naked’. What of instead of “good naked” I choose the “bad naked” in the Seinfeld episode where you are caught hunched over eating a pastrami sandwich? No one needs to see that, do they?
“You seem too put together and buttoned up,” the counselor continued. “We all know you have insecurities and are not perfect…so show it!”
What? People knew I wasn’t perfect?! I was mortified almost as much as during the pork tenderloin incident.
“What should I do?” I asked
“Show people your crazier side.”
I, once again, made drastic plans to course correct and prove that I was cool. I imagined myself coming into work dressed as a clown making animal balloons for the other employees. That was definitely crazy.
This idea was met with looks of sheer terror.
“Please don’t do that! For everyone’s sake. Can’t you just be yourself?”
Myself? What was that? An uncoordinated workaholic that falls in love with wild hair accented men named Don Pablo? A cross between Bridget Jones and Samantha Jones with a dash of Amelia Bedelia? Or perhaps I’m just a regular 30 something woman trying to find work balance and femininity. I cannot get rid of the Chameleon bit–I kind of like jumping into new lands and claiming them as my own. I also cannot completely let go of my ‘perfection’ insecurities. But perhaps instead of trying to mask them, I should acknowledge them and give them a seat at the table. “Hello neurosis. Are you joining us for pork tenderloin tonight?”
“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.” Salvador Dali