“Living involves tearing up one rough draft after another.” –Author unknown*
Perfectionism is a particular form of unhappiness, I often say. For perfectionists—and I am a recovering perfectionist—nothing is ever quite good enough. The possibility (no, the slightest thought) of failure—or a B+ performance—is enough to make our stomachs jump and faces flush.
We deprive ourselves of the fun that comes from celebrating success, opting instead to knock wood, lest we jinx ourselves for the next time. It isn’t a very joyful way to live.
So close to perfectionism (and yet, as the cliché goes, so far) is an orientation toward growth. People who embrace personal growth also embrace change. We roll with the punches; we stick our necks out. We take risks that are especially scary to my inner (recovering) perfectionist.
Perhaps most importantly, we are vulnerable in the pursuit of deep—deep love and relationships, deep wisdom and compassion, deep gratitude and growth. We live the length of our lives and also the width, to paraphrase Diane Ackerman.
It has taken me a very long time to truly understand the difference between being perfectionistic and being growth-oriented, although the two seem like night and day to me now.
I have come to see that to live fully, we need to see ourselves as one rough draft after the next. Not only that, but we need to rip up the old rough draft—our mistakes and imperfections, along with familiar routines and habits—in order to create our new draft. (An improved draft, but not a perfect one.)
This ripping up can be brutally painful, but as Lee Lipsenthal taught me, “pain and suffering bring the opportunity for great transformation.”
Here’s the thing: Often somebody or something else rips up that first rough draft for us. Our spouse asks us for a divorce; we go bankrupt or belly-up; or, if we are like Lee, we get cancer.
And when this happens, we have a choice. We can recreate our old draft, hoping that we can remember all the best parts and order them just as they were before our loss.
Or we can accept the painful event as a gift, and create something entirely new.
Lee, in his transformational book Enjoy Every Sandwich, writes about this process as birthing a new life. We are trapped in our own little life-box, he writes, walled in by the usual stuff: Routines and beliefs that limit us. Fears of all varieties—about money and love and kids and careers—that drag us down. We create our suffering and our stress through our own perception, but sometimes we do not even see that we have created the walls that trap us ourselves.
But then, we decide to discard that first draft, to scratch away a little bit at one of those walls, and a little light shines through—change becomes a possibility.
Lee was a master of personal growth and transformation before he was diagnosed with terminal cancer; this became even more true through his illness, right up until his death. Here is his how-to guide for personal growth:
“You won’t know where you are going, or how to get there, or what it will look like on the other side. But if there is pain or worry or unhappiness, scratch away at the walls that imprison you—scratch away with prayer, meditation, yoga, exercise, laughter, art, movement, gratitude, acceptance, and love. Scratch away with the knowledge that there is so much more to life than what we imagine it to be. There is… so much more to living and loving and being than can be seen from inside our little walled-in world. If you choose not to, there is no one else to blame.”
Like it or not, we are always in draft state. Putting aside the possibility of enlightenment (and why don’t we do that right now, shall we? along with our aspirations for perfection?) there is no final draft.
Ripping up our rough-draft-selves is messy; it isn’t a rejection of not-quite-good-enough as much as it is a deep dive into something-more. It requires accepting the smeared and tattered aspects of our old selves so that we might let them go.
We seek perfection out of fear—fear of not being good enough for others, or for ourselves. We go after change—we grow—out of love. It is the ultimate life-embrace, the greatest openness. Rebirth and big change are painful, yes. But rebirth is necessary for living life to the fullest.
*Quotation from Lee Lipsenthal’s book Enjoy Every Sandwich
© 2011 Christine Carter, Ph.D.