April 20, 2013 in Washington Voices

No longer a perfectionist, I was ready

By The Spokesman-Review
 

A while back my husband, Richard, mentioned an advertisement he’d seen for a book on how to make sense of black holes.

“Are we supposed to make sense of black holes?” I queried. “Aren’t black holes pretty much a mystery?”

He said he thought so.

I suppose it won’t be too long until I see “The Dummies Guide to Black Holes” at Barnes & Noble, because with Google and Wikipedia at our literal fingertips, mystique has become a quaint notion. No information is too esoteric to find and everyone’s busy finding it.

I can’t look down my nose at this, because I used to be a perfectionist, which is a high-maintenance trait. Knowledge is the handmaiden of perfectionism, and I’ve been an information vacuum most of my life. Greta Garbo may have wanted to be alone, but I just wanted to know. After a childhood that veered into chaos, knowledge made me feel secure, more powerful and in control. I liked my ducks in a row.

Now I truly do enjoy learning about and understanding the world, people and how life works. Although there are some things I can’t know too little about, like the Kardashians and sausage ingredients.

But my childhood insecurities and inadequacies formed me into a driven perfectionist, not about others, just myself. I was a bit of a control freak, afraid to be wrong. I didn’t just have to know things, I felt obligated to have answers, which made me feel I could cope with the unruly and scary forces of mystery. Thus I could negotiate a world bathed in senselessness and make sense of it, even if only in a cockeyed way. When we’re young, we think we know everything, but it’s just a fig leaf for our ignorance.

Around 13 years ago, a confluence of events revealed to me how soul-sucking perfectionism was, and how much the futile striving for it was costing me in stress and anxiety. I began to understand that my zealous pursuit of knowledge was feeding arrogance, complacency and flawed answers that left me empty in crucial ways. Control was a deceptive illusion and my life, though not fake in any way, was often lived as performance art for invisible Simon Cowells.

So I forsook perfectionism, knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and the insecure need to control and be right, and the world began opening up to me in surprising ways. Coloring outside the lines led to more happiness and optimism, my character flaws became just a part of all I am, and “just OK” became permissible. In mystery, no longer a source of anxiety, I found wonder and satisfaction, even amusement. I began to value the questions, finding an odd satisfaction in them. I came to enjoy saying “I don’t know,” and “haven’t a clue!”

This put me in a very good place to learn that I had breast cancer. My cells had gone rogue – a mystery – and I didn’t have to make sense of it, explain it, or research it to death. I could just accept it as an imperfect part of life. Others had had cancer and now it was my turn. I simply wanted to go through it maintaining my core personality and sense of humor.

There’s nothing funny about cancer, but there’s a lot of funny in it and I mined it for all it was worth. Choosing to view it as an adventure, I journeyed through it without anything, including myself, being perfect. Instead I experienced an unexplainable peace foreign to my younger self.

I will always be a recovering perfectionist, frequently backsliding. And quite honestly, all perfectionism isn’t bad; I find it quite helpful in artistic pursuits. Aim low and I have no problem getting there; aim high and I do my best. It may not be perfect, but few things are.

Perfectionism was like a black hole trying to suck life and light right out of me, and no “Dummies” book could have helped me. It was a matter of reorienting my heart, mind and soul so that I could appreciate mystery, and find beauty and comfort within it.

And how do I explain why that is?

Haven’t a clue!

You can reach Deborah Chan at tabbytoes@comcast.net. Previous columns are available at spokesman.com/ columnists/.

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