I came across a Twitter thread by Lauren Dubinksy analyzing the less salient points of a book I read growing up, Beautiful Girlhood by Karen Andreola, including this description of the book’s method:
When I read that, I realized that it was fairly accurate description of how I’ve lived my entire life. I’ve known forever that I have intense struggles with perfectionism, but Dubinsky’s words laid bare the assumptions underlying it. If it’s true that “there is no flexibility, no recovery, no growth, no change, no second chances,” that “everything is permanent and damage is forever,” then doing things perfectly, the first time, is absolutely essential. Perfectionism may be, as Brene Brown says, “a twenty-ton shield” that weighs us down, but that weight seems easier to carry than the weight of ruining your whole life.
I’m not saying that there aren’t consequences to our actions or that what you do doesn’t matter. There are, and it does. But living your life as if the goal of it is to have an unblemished record is a recipe for anxiety, depression, and paralysis. Believe me, I know. I’ve tried it. And that’s because life itself isn’t an achievement -- there are achievements along the way, but life itself is a process of growth and change. As Kevin T. Porter says in Episode 31 of the Good Christian Fun podcast says, the test for someone isn’t whether or not they did bad things in the past -- it’s whether or not they’re still doing those things or think they’re okay.
And even when people really do mess up, life goes on. I recently read the book The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson, and in it, Leia and Sel are having a conversation about a situation that, to avoid spoilers, I’ll just say seems impossible to reconcile. Leia says, “I’m just so frustrated. At a certain point, when everything gets this wrecked, there can’t be a next, you know? It’s done. Game over. The end. There is no next.” But Sel disagrees, and what he says has stuck with me: “...speaking philosophically? There’s always a next” (295). He goes on to say, “You don’t see it, but next happens anyway and always. With or without you” (296). Leia is struck by it, too, and decides as a result to change the direction of her new graphic novel; she had planned to write a prequel to her first work that literally ended with the end of the world as we know it, brought to destruction by her main character, but now she decides to write about the “next” that has to happen even there: “I could see the world, and V and V had to find a way to live in it. To live with it, with what they had done. There was a next, even after an apocalypse” (298). It may seem like a weird mantra for your life, but I think “There was a next, even after an apocalypse” might become mine to help me overcome my perfectionist ways.
I know that what makes it hard for me to embrace that “There’s always a next” is that that next can be painful or hard, and I’m discovering I’m not actually very good at dealing with hard things (as I talked about last week). I either deny that they’re bad and try to carry on as if everything’s fine, or if I do actually acknowledge the pain, I blame and mentally punish either myself or someone else and fall into depression and/or anxiety, subconsciously deciding that the pain of depression or anxiety is less intense than living with the pain that caused it.** Unfortunately, neither way involves actually moving forward, and they’re both pretty debilitating. My goal now is to learn how to both acknowledge that things are hard or bad or painful and keep going with my life; my second new mantra for my life could be “What’s next?” a la President Bartlet in The West Wing (and this amazing song by Lin-Manuel Miranda could be my jam).
So here's to embracing life with all of its messiness and mistakes and rejecting the lie of perfectionism that makes it possible for you to ruin everything. Because guess what? There's always a next.
**This is in no way meant to imply that if you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, you’re actively choosing to be that way and you just need to get over yourself. Depression and anxiety are, as my counselor says, completely normal responses to chaos. I’m just trying to learn how to recognize when I’m heading in their direction and not succumb to them.