Perfection is a Lie We Tell Ourselves

I’m turning 40 this year. Today, in fact. And honestly, I think I am going through some kind of mid-life crisis.

For the first time ever in my life, I considered walking away from my 4 children and husband. Just open the front door, walk out, and keep walking.

This is especially disheartening since I was abandoned by my father and I had thought myself better than this.

I had hoped, anyway.

There’s nothing particularly wrong. We lead a good, comfortable life. I love my children. I love my husband.

And yet. And yet.

I feel trapped. Resentful.

Angry.

Seething.

There is no declaration of wonder and awe and gratefulness like the Talking Heads song, Once in a Lifetime. “This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife.”

No.

Instead, the other day, I screamed and screamed. I couldn’t stop screaming. The screams just kept pouring out of my throat until I finally managed to stuff them back into my insides.

Swallowing my bitterness as I was taught.

Swallowing. Always swallowing.

My 22 month old baby boy just stared at me; frozen.

I can’t quite recall what happened to rip such a primal sound from my core, but I guarantee you it was not serious enough to warrant any such thing.

THIS IS NOT MY BEAUTIFUL LIFE.

THIS IS NOT MY BEAUTIFUL HOUSE.

THESE ARE NOT MY BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN.

The irony is not lost upon me: I got everything I wanted.

I have my beautiful house. I have my 4 beautiful children that I asked for and got in quick succession. I have my decent, loving husband who is not necessarily beautiful but still extremely attractive to me and at this stage in my life, what else was I expecting?

Actually, I take that back.

He is beautiful.

Who else but a beautiful man would put up with my shit without ever once martyring himself? He is a unicorn.

And yet. And yet.

I am furious.

Why am I not keeping up my end of the bargain?

I got everything (or almost everything) I wanted so why I am so sad? Why am I so lonely? Why does everything feel so bad?

Why do I feel as if I’m living a stranger’s life and everyday, I’m stuck in this slog of parenting, this endless parade of literal and figurative shit? I mean, I begged for these children but did I really think it through?

I feel as if I’m some Sheryl Crow cliche.

And it hits me.

Even if I got what I wanted (or thought I wanted), the problem is that I’m still stuck with myself. I tell myself that if just XYZ happened or my life was XYZ that I’d be ok. Everything would be fine. I’d be better. I’d be satisfied.

But it’s not true.

In the end, there I am. Still.


Virginia Duan is an author/writer and incapable of writing in brief. She swears. A lot. She also finds it almost impossible to refrain from commenting online for the sole purpose of making people admit they are idiots. Fatal flaw is fatal.

Website: https://mandarinmama.com

Practice over Perfection

“If you are depressed you are living in the past. 
If you are anxious you are living in the future. 
If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
Lao Tzu

Hello, my name is Marsha, and I am a recovering perfectionist. Somewhere between striving for straight A’s and drilling scales on the piano, my joy for learning became a twisted drive for praise and perfection.

 

Perfect daughter. Perfect sister. Perfect student. Perfectly anxious all the time.

Fear of failing after being praised for being “so smart”, but also questioned as to why I only got a 103 on an 100-point test when there was a 5-point bonus question.

Learning to see my body as a thing to be judged and ridiculed when relatives repeatedly compared me with a cousin in a game of Who’s Fatter This Visit?

Fear of displeasing my parents and bringing unrelenting judgment from elders. Never Chinese or Thai enough. Too loud, too athletic, too boyish, too opinionated.

Fear consumed my curiosity and joy. To combat my fears, I chose to battle the judgments and expectations with perfection. Somehow, I thought trying to be perfect would free me from the judgments of others, to find peace within. Instead, perfection trapped me between the depression of the past, all the mistakes I could not change, and the anxiety of the future, where failure could happen at any moment. By college, the disease of perfection progressed to self-loathing. Who could love someone so flawed? Why should I even try if the possibility to fail exists? Nothing I do is ever good enough. This must mean I’m not good enough.

I was about 4 years out of college, struggling in a stressful job, drowning in an unhealthy relationship, when I realized something had to change. With this realization, I carried all my anxieties, sadness, doubts, and fears into the hot room the first time I walked into the hot yoga studio down the street.

My face felt like it was going to melt off in the humidity. Nothing would be left of me but a puddle of sweat and a yoga mat. As the class began and I attempted to move my body with the teacher’s instruction, the heat began to strip away what I carried into the room, leaving behind only what was necessary. To survive the heat, the bright lights, and the glaring reflection of myself in the mirrors, I had to put down my baggage and dig into strength I didn’t realize I already had.

After final savasana, the cool air rushed over my rosy-pink face as I walked out into the air-conditioned lobby. Despite looking like I had just fallen into a pool with my yoga clothes on, I felt light, clean, and unburdened by the baggage I had carried into the room just 90 minutes before.

In that moment I knew I had to make a choice to change: do I keep choosing perfection or do I choose a new path and let the illusion of perfection go?

I came back the next day. And the next. And the next, for 60 consecutive classes. The heat melted the walls I had built up around my heart. The structure of the class built a bridge between my mind and my body, giving me a chance to observe myself without judgment. In a room full of mirrors, there is no hiding. I came to appreciate the connection with myself through my own reflection, to check in and show myself compassion – arguably one of the hardest things I learned how to do.

After each class, I left the hot room a kinder, more patient person. I found a deeper well of empathy for others and the ability to listen with intention. I discovered how to make space for my own self-care, how to be fully present for others.

Over time, the priority in my yoga practice has shifted from finding depth in a posture to a mental practice of courage, determination, strength, patience, and awareness. I now approach the postures with curiosity, how my body feels journeying into and out of the asana, being fully present in the moment instead of anticipating how deep I could bend. In the same way outside the hot room, I shifted my life from trying to be perfect and now choose to approach life with awareness and curiosity for what each day brings. I’m much more interested in living than being.

The courage I found to walk into the hot room each day became the courage I used to leave an unhealthy relationship and punishing job.

The determination and strength I cultivated by getting into certain postures again and again after falling out drove my decision to move back in with my parents as a necessary step to applying for graduate school and switching careers. I knew I could persist and make it happen someway, somehow.

The awareness of my breath gave me the awareness to recognize my old perfectionistic behaviors during stressful times and stopped me from repeating old patterns of behavior.

Most importantly, however, my practice taught me how to love and accept myself exactly As I Am.

As I continue my practice, I am often reminded that it is a yoga practice and not a yoga perfect. Life isn’t perfect because it is so much more. I use to say that yoga changed my life, but I’ve come to realize that I changed my life.

Yoga gave me the path. I walk it.

 

About the Author: Marsha Ungchusri is a Chinese-Thai-Texan-American currently living in the DMV area. Grocery shopping is her shoe shopping. When she isn’t practicing yoga, you can find her experimenting in her kitchen, refining recipes and flavor combination to feed the people she loves. You can find her cooking adventures @princesshungry and bite-sized reflections of her yoga practice @marsha.fierce.

 

Mother

Perfection meant doing everything exactly the way Mother wanted.

“You have to clean this like me. Why do you not do it like me?”

“You look so dark. You have to be pretty, so stop being out in the sun so much.”

“When you go to dinner, make sure you say ______, so that your uncle can laugh and be happy.”

When I followed Mother’s instructions, I received praise, not only from her but also the people Mother wanted me to please, perhaps for her own praise.

“Good, you are such an obedient daughter.”

“See? Now that you have stayed out of the sun for a few months, you look pretty with light skin. ”

“(My uncle speaking to me) What a smart girl! (talking to Mother) You must be so proud that you raised such a charming and intelligent daughter.”

I grew up believing that I needed to follow Mother’s rules and instructions to be accepted. To be loved. But no matter how much I reveled in the amount of praise, the instructions constantly felt like accusations that I was inadequate and imperfect – flawed, even. To hide my feelings of inadequacy, I would put up a front: I made sure I was happy and bubbly in front of everyone else that Mother wanted me to present myself to, but I would be withdrawn at home, a blank and colorless slate once again. I felt I had no voice or role or personality outside of who Mother wanted me to be. Every time I put on my mask outside the home, I became an actress. I knew my lines, I knew how to deliver them, and I knew how to wrap up the show so that I could give the spotlight back to Mother, the mastermind behind my acting and script. Every day, I craved the praise I received from Mother and others, yet I’d return home after my act completely empty, wanting to be filled again.

Mother’s words showed me enough how I was supposed to live to be perfect, without flaws, just the way she wanted me to be. After all, she didn’t give up her entire life and her livelihood in another country to come to the United States and have an imperfect daughter; she wasn’t going to settle for that and accept it, just as she has had to with every other aspect of her life. Therefore, I couldn’t mess up. If I were perfect, she would be validated in her sacrifices, disappointments, and failures, and I would be living proof that everything was worth it.  

It’s no wonder that it was so easy for me to also put on my mask and become an actress when I met God, when I found a seat at God’s table. I wanted to be the perfect Christian who followed all the rules; Mother taught me well enough, so I simply had to continue the act, now under the identity label “Christian.” But when God called me to take off my mask and lay it down at His feet, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had nothing else to show for my life thus far except for the blank and colorless slate behind the mask. Who was I behind the mask? Would God be satisfied with what He saw? What script would I follow now that I had a new master? What did I have to give now?

There was a moment, in my desperation to find solace in God’s word, when I flipped open the Bible to a random page to see if there was anything that God could speak to me and share with me to help me face the world and myself at the same time. It felt silly to say a quick prayer and flip open my Bible to a random page, but I had nowhere else to turn and nothing else to guide me in my search for answers. I landed on the following verse.

2 Kings 4:2

“Your servant has nothing there at all,” she said, “except a little oil.”  

In this passage, Elisha speaks to the wife of a dead prophet who needed to repay the debt of the creditor who was coming to take her two boys as slaves. She had nothing else to give, besides a little oil. Elisha then told her to ask around for empty jars to fill. After gathering the empty jars and going into an empty room to fill the jars, the widow had an endless outpouring of oil, to the point where she had no more jars to fill.

When she thought she had nothing to give, she received everything she needed. With a little bit of oil, she filled more than enough jars to fulfill her needs.  

I prayed to God that night: Your servant has nothing there at all. Nothing beneath the mask. Except maybe a little faith. Faith that things could be different without the mask. Faith that things could be a little better. Faith that I could be loved and accepted just the way that I am, no strings attached and no mask needed. Faith that there is a life of freedom waiting for me when I set my mask down. God help me to be free. Help me to trust in the little faith that I have in the life-giving and fulfilling future you have planned for me.

That little bit of faith carried me through the years as I discovered more of who I was separate from my mother’s desires, expectations, and instructions for me to be perfect. Sometimes, I still want to put on that mask and be an actress, out of habit and out of a selfish craving for praise and validation. Sometimes I still feel that people won’t recognize me or love me if I don’t have that mask on. It has taken time for me to feel brave while baring my skin, and it has taken even longer for me to believe that my skin beneath the mask was more beautiful and worth sharing with the world than the mask that I’ve co-created with my mother.

As an adult, I find myself still caught off guard by my mother’s requests for me to do things her way, to say things exactly the way she’d want me to. It’s taken courage for me to say no to my mother or to walk away and come back to conversations only when I’m ready at a later time. It’s taken courage for me to be called “disobedient” or “unpretty” by my mother after my small acts of defiance. When I think about my mother and what she sees in me now, I wonder if she’d prefer me with my mask on. I wonder if she’d prefer the perfect daughter still. But I still have my little faith that has sustained me thus far, the little faith that God has much much more life-giving and joyful things ahead for me once I no longer have to live under my mother’s standards of perfection. And I pray that the little faith I have and God’s abundant faithfulness will help me be free to be the imperfect me.


About the Author

Cindy is an aspiring mental health counselor studying at Teachers College, Columbia University. She was an English teacher who taught 12th grade newcomer immigrant students for two years. These wonderful students taught her the importance of mental health, self-care, and self-love, so she sometimes writes about those lessons and moments, among other things. She also loves ginger beer and Korean food.

Photo by Katherine Hanlon on Unsplash

Perfection

Perfection is
a treasure hunt,
an endless search
for a brighter horizon
and a bigger
treasure chest.

Perfection is a
a journey,
towards a mirage
that dissipates
as you draw near it.

Perfection is
a marathon
of endurance.
Surely,
everything
can be
improved
if you’re willing
to endure what
it takes to improve.

As a woman
as a Korean
as an American
as a Christian
I have been told
that I am to
endure.

I am to be
above reproach,
never tiring,
excellent,
and
demure
and
gentle
and
modest
and
humble
and

lovely and never vain
successful and never bragging
independent and never leading
self-sufficient and never selfish

straight
and
pure
and
thin
and
Perfect.

I tell myself that
all this pressure
is meant to turn
me,
a lump of coal,
into a diamond.

And then I learn
that you don’t
get diamonds
from coal.

Besides,
what good is a diamond?
It has no value,
no purpose
on its own.
(Honestly, they’re not all that rare anyway.
They’re only worth what the industry claims they are).

But coal,
coal has a purpose.
Its goal is
to burn
it
all
down.
To bring light
and heat
and go out
in a cascade
of sparks.

So who needs diamonds
when you can be the flame?

Perfection is not a treasure hunt
or a journey
or a marathon.

It is a performance,
and I am tired of playing pretend.

I will not give up my fire
to be pressured into
a shiny thing
that only holds as much value
as the men around
decide to give to it.

I am more.

I am a universe of fire
contained
in the dark.

I am good.
I am very good.
I am good enough.


Photo by Blaque X on Unsplash

About the Poet:

Stella is a second-gen KA who lives in Southern California. She has a passing interest in most things, and a passionate interest in justice, literature, representation in media, education, food, pop culture, crafting, and all things cute. She is addicted to personality tests, but never agrees with the results.

True Love Waits

Photo by Ezra Comeau-Jeffrey on Unsplash

About the Poet:

Ellen Huang recently graduated from Point Loma Nazarene University with a B.A. in Writing & Theatre. She takes joy in creative writing, books, theatre, films, fairy tales, swimming in the ocean, the Halloween season, pyrography, and cake. As her English name means “light” and her Chinese name means “love,” her life and storytelling is centered on progressive faith and platonic love.