“The maxim ‘Nothing avails but perfection’ may be spelt shorter: ‘Paralysis’”
I have a story to share that winds back the clock almost 30 years. It’s a story about the time I got upstaged – and a little unhinged – by Genie Lynn and her flute recital. There I was, a young girl of about eleven, standing backstage, nervously clutching my piano score. I was about to perform in front of at least two-hundred of my school peers, parents and teachers. I knew my notes – I’d practiced diligently – but the jitters were well and truly present. Then, at the last minute there was a small change to the program and Genie Lynn (a student a couple of years older) was slotted-in just before me. As the sweet tones of her flute reverberated around the auditorium, I realised to my horror that Genie Lynn was playing my song – and playing it well!
I don’t remember much more about the music recital that day, but yikes how I remember the burning shame. I walked on to the stage shaking like a leaf and played my piano piece the worst I’d ever played it. I stumbled and bumbled and barely made it to the end. With an unconvincing little bow I ran off stage, out the back door and promptly collapsed into a blithering mess behind the toilet block – crying my heart out.
As an eleven-year-old I couldn’t grasp the platitudes of ‘just do your best’ when all I could hear was how good Genie Lynn sounded and how I knew I couldn’t measure up. After I played, I felt the deep shame of being overshadowed by a much better act, and the shame of embarrassment from messing up so badly. Although I was unaware of it then, I had removed my focus from what I was capable of and I only saw my inferiority. This left me insecure and floundering and resulted in a less-than-desired performance. My bad performance then only compounded the feelings of ‘not being good enough’.
Isn’t it like that sometimes?
When we become overwhelmed by the success of others and we hold ourselves to unrealistic comparisons we often divert our eyes from our own path – our own unique ‘calling’. When we only see our limitations and take our focus off our strengths, abilities or hard-work we can then find ourselves wallowing in self-doubt and self-criticism. For those of us who struggle with perfectionism, this can show up as an unhealthy and unrealistic striving to always be the best in order to gain approval. Or just as equally, when we feel that we might never measure up, we can get stuck in a paralysis of inaction or hide ourselves away rather than face the possibility of failure or disapproval.
As Dr. Brene Brown writes,
“Perfectionism is a self addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimise the painful feelings of shame, judgement and blame….Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best….It’s a shield. It’s a twenty ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”
And Michael Law says,
“At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success…”
As I consider our theme this month – to fear less about our limitations – I don’t pretend to have it all sorted and I don’t pretend to have overcome all my insecurities. Acknowledging that limitations are an innate part of our humanity and learning to lean comfortably into healthy improvement, while leaning away from unhealthy striving, can be a challenge.
I deeply desire to live a life unhindered by the fear of being upstaged because I know with confidence that I’m living my truth and staying focused on my path. Even better, when I am upstaged (or just perceive someone better than myself) that I will be undeterred, confident in the knowledge that I have done my best and self-assured enough to celebrate another’s achievements. For me, it is also a challenge of faith: to trust in a strength and purpose beyond my own abilities, from a God, that I believe, holds the blueprints.
With no pretense of having it all together…
P.S Genie Lynn, if you ever read this, please know that I hold no grudge. I don’t remember any other performances that day, but I know you had no intention to ‘upstage’ and you played beautifully. 🙂