Brene Brown, in her book “The Gifts of Imperfection” talks about her Breakdown/Spiritual Awakening in 2007. It was the point when the perfectionist part of her fell apart and she was really required to examine her life, when the break DOWN allowed her to break things apart and then rebuild. It’s really exhausting being a perfectionist. I know, as it’s something I struggle with – not doing so much because it has to “be just right” or I have to “know it ALL” before I begin. In a previous life, I was perhaps considered to be an angel (or even a bloody angel!) That’s not how I set out to be; it’s just that over time, I lost my centre. I became aloof, cold, put barriers up, forgot who I was, and found myself living a big fat lie because of the different masks I kept wearing.
Outside, all was sweet enough: inside, there was sourness from judgement and anger, bitterness, pride and jealousy, from feeling ignored and unloved. You may find you are put on a pedestal – however you get there, it will be for all of the wrong reasons, for you can’t be still be real and be there. It’s a hologram, an illusion, a mirage. But let me tell you; it’s almost impossible to get off without crashing and burning. You smash into so many pieces, it seems life has ended. And it has – or at least the life that you knew has ended.
So at that point, you have some big decisions to make. You can choose to just lie there, or you can pick yourself up and start gluing your Kintsukuroi pieces together. You’ll need to handle your own pain and maybe try to handle others; chances are, you’ll do neither successfully. At some point, you’ll have to stand up again – and then, since you don’t remember who you are, you’ll have to try on different personalities to figure that out.
There will be wild swings backwards and forwards, until you can end up knowing – and liking yourself again. Looking back, I don’t much like some of the immediate ones that I became (and I didn’t much like them at the time either), and I dare say people from those previous periods wouldn’t recognise who I am now. That doesn’t matter. I know me, and that’s enough. For a long time, I worried about the people in my past; now I know that it really doesn’t matter, for they did not know I was a caterpillar training to be a butterfly.
It wasn’t easy to pick myself up, though. I couldn’t just climb up and dust myself myself off – because I didn’t WANT to be that person any more. It probably took at least two and a half years, and it was often very lonely (I’m thankful for the friends that stuck around and the new ones who found me). I had no self esteem, I still had a voice that wasn’t heard, was struggling financially, in a dark place where I could see no options -and I didn’t want to be so desperately unhappy anymore.
Like any journey, there were good times, and the less than totally positive ones where I was exhausted, in tears, taking wrong turns and finding myself on steep learning curves, as I struggled still to be brokenly perfect. I had climbed into a black hole, and found it wasn’t so easy to get out – but I was determined to do that, find new ways of thinking and behaving. I kept going, making adjustments as I went along.
And then I found that I was healthier, happier, in a loving relationship that gave me wings – and surrounded by spiritual but imperfect friends who inspired me. My anxiety was greatly minimized; I no longer needed to sleep on my stomach to calm my nerves. I slept reasonably well most of the time. I stood up for myself and could set boundaries. I found I started to find my voice. I could be okay knowing I can’t please everyone – the perfect wife, daughter, mother, friend, colleague. By trying to be, I only exhausted myself.
I chose not to see life as hard anymore, choosing instead to see it as an adventure. From 2005, I started to give the year ahead a theme, with the theme usually coming out of the experiences of the year before. There were no rose tinted spectacles, though I’m pretty good at looking for a silver lining in any situation, but I no longer lived in a bubble – or wore masks. I practiced feeling my emotions, knowing they wouldn’t last for ever, and I focused on healthier ones. If I was sad, I allowed myself to be sad, but not unremittingly sad. If I was angry, I didn’t feel rage, but I allowed myself to be angry; really angry, not “this is how a perfectly controlled person does anger.”
There comes a time when you realise, with some urgency, that life is much shorter than you think. There are no dress rehearsals, as my dad used to say, so get on with living the best life you can, as THIS is it. And IF this is my life, then why would I hold back from following my heart, from choosing to be happier and making choices that suited me (with a view to the longer term of course). Why would I choose not to live from a place of authenticity, a place where it doesn’t matter whether people like me or not, or if I was in their tribe or not? Why would I waste any energy on worrying what others thought, or on blaming others? It meant I would take responsibility for my life, and if I failed, I failed – and always learn something useful in the process.
I learned that I could change my life by conscious choice, made on a daily basis. My happiness is at once outside of my control (because I cannot control circumstances) – and yet within my control (because I can control my reaction). Understanding this removed the immense pressure to control things that had left me unhappy and anxious to my core.
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilites is risky but nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy – the experences that made us the most vuleranable. Brene Brown
My happiness starts and ends with me; imperfections and all. My darkness AND my light, my sunshine AND my shadows make me uniquely me. No-one else can live my story. No-one else can make my choices. I am the chief storyteller and the chief character, creating the story, characters, and their locations by my choices, and by the boundaries I create, because without boundaries I can’t get mad at anyone for choosing to step on to my patch. It means I refuse to blame people or circumstances any longer and that leaves no room for excuses. It also means I am accountable for my behaviour and I can hold others accountable for theirs – but hopefully with respect, and with grace.
And in embracing my imperfections, and practicing courage, compassion and connection on a daily basis, I did find so many gifts there for the taking. I dared to be happier.
As an HR professional now specialising in employment law, I need to have a record of my CPD/my continuous personal development. I also have a personal philosophy of CPD and for that reason I happily read self-help books. If I can’t help myself, I’m in a poor state, after all. And since I know I’m not perfect, and need all the help I can get at times, such books offer me many great ideas I can implement myself or I can pass on to others.
CPD & Change
Continuous personal development means change, and since change is a constant in our lives, we may as well learn how to get comfortable with it. Sometimes that will be about reacting to external changes we have no control over. Other times, we will (or can) choose to change with an aim to improve and grow. As a recovering perfectionist, of course that isn’t enough, as “improving” implies something isn’t perfect already – but it’s this that make my journey interesting, because to risk change and growth is to risk failure. Gulp!
Getting Comfortable With Change
Yet over time, I’m getting more comfortable with change and taking risks because I now know there is no failure, only feedback,(thanks Jane Talbot), I now know that there are gifts of imperfection (thanks Brene Brown) – and I’m gathering evidence that I survive – and thrive.
Thriving or Surviving
I read this story today and thought how glad I am that I keep taking the risks because that way, I know I’m living while I’m alive. I know people like the guy in the story; people who hate their current jobs but won’t move because in 10, 20, or in one case 25 years time, they will get a good pension/pay off. People who stay in neighbourhoods, houses, relationships and friendships they have long since outgrown but won’t leave because their very familiarity brings comfort where change would at least initially feel quite different.
A Marking of Time
For some, life then becomes an existence, a marking of time – and a terrible waste of a life. We only get one life, and our life is what we make it. It’s too short to stay unhappy. So take risks. Accept you may fail. Know that there is no failure, only feedback. Learn to fly without a safety net. Live while you’re alive.
The only way that individuals change is to do something new, which by definition means you’ll do it poorly, and for the high-need-for-achievement personality the challenge is they don’t want to look bad. They don’t want to look foolish. They often don’t trust the organization to support them if they take a risk and try something different.
I remember as if it were yesterday a 43 year-old headmaster of a school. Now a headmaster or principal of the school, this was a gentleman who had 1,600 customers, or students, between the ages of 14 ½ and 17 years of age, and after I had given a speech this gentleman came back, and I appreciate his candor, but what he said to me, he says, “Professor Delong,” he says, “I need to confess something to you.”
He said, “You told me that I need to try and do something different and that I needed to go through this path of agenda-setting and getting help from someone else. But,” he said, “I just need to confess to you, but I hate what I do. Thank goodness I only have 12 years to retirement.”
Twelve years. And so in some ways this great man has given up, and you can thank yourself, if you’re listening to this, that none of you have children that are going to that school because those 1,600 kids need a file leader, need an inspiration, and this young man at 43 has given up.
He is basically halfway through life and he has stopped growing and he has stopped developing, and I’m naïve enough to believe that individuals can change at 40 and at 50 and at 60, and it is the most exhilarating feeling in the world, and it’s frightening, and you can’t do it alone, but you can fly without a net. I promise you, you can. It will, I promise you, put you back on the road to what I would call, in a very basic form, put you back on the road to life Twelve years. And so in some ways this great man has given up, and you can thank yourself, if you’re listening to this, that none of you have children that are going to that school because those 1,600 kids need a file leader, need an inspiration, and this young man at 43 has given up.
He is basically halfway through life and he has stopped growing and he has stopped developing, and I’m naïve enough to believe that individuals can change at 40 and at 50 and at 60, and it is the most exhilarating feeling in the world, and it’s frightening, and you can’t do it alone, but you can fly without a net. I promise you, you can. It will, I promise you, put you back on the road to what I would call, in a very basic form, put you back on the road to life. Thomas Delong, Harvard Businss School Professor