- Janyne McConnaughey, PhD
So Much More than Perfect
Right up there with my fear of telling my story, was my need to be perfect. It was the grownup version of coloring inside the lines. My story was never going to fit inside the lines of the perfect life I had tried to live. It was probably going to look like I was scribbling. It was definitely not perfect. It was messy.
Not only was I telling my story to the world, but I was also was putting it in printed form. My fear of being corrected was well founded since my mother used to send my letters back to me with the errors circled. Seriously. Do. Not. Do. That. To. Your. Children. I am sure that in some form, she thought she was helping me to be a better writer.
The truth was that I simply could not remember how to spell words or where to put those pesky punctuation marks. I loved writing, but those who lived with red pens in their hands never seemed to appreciate my amazing flights of fancy with ill-placed punctuation. I would imagine there is an error in just about every blog I have written. So be it.
I have come so far! My therapist and I tussled with my need to be perfect. She always understood and I slowly realized it was actually about my feelings of imperfection. Once I accepted myself as an imperfect human, the need to be perfect diminished.
I did not understand my propensity to experience even the slightest imperfection with shame. I now realize I was drowning in shame every single day. I thought it was anxiety. I really did understand I wasn’t perfect—in fact, my subconscious understood there was something very, very wrong with me. Now I know it was that something very bad had happened to me. As I began to understand this truth, the need to be perfect didn’t seem as important.
Overcoming the need to strive for perfection was absolutely essential to doing what I so longed to do—to write, to blog, to be an author. It was impossible to do that if I couldn’t click the publish button in fear that there might be a grammatical error—or heaven forbid, a misplaced coma [sic].
Oddly enough, many of my close friends were English teachers (or should have been). One of the best parts of my church ministry experience was collaborating with my colleague and pastor’s wife to publish a journal for the women in the church. It was the beginning of our foray into learning how to use computers. We were really determined and ambitious to do what we did—especially since it had not been too long since we touched a mouse for the first time (the computer version was no less terrifying than the actual animal).
Once a month, we proudly printed and delivered our journals to the church where they were handed to our friends on the way to Sunday school. As soon as Sunday school ended, we knew one particularly saintly woman would hand her copy back to one of us with our errors circled. We were deeply blessed.
Now I understand my battle with shame and how I had to steel myself for that delivery. I laughed outwardly; but I cried inside. Month after month, I marched my desire for perfection through the painful return of our corrected journal. It was as predictable as the rising sun.
I always knew I needed an editor. When I blog that isn’t possible and I am so proud of all those who read and see my errors and don’t feel the need to message and correct me. I probably could use a few who would volunteer to do that though!
The truth is, the reason my blogs and soon to be published book will be read, has nothing to do with my ability to execute a perfect paragraph. It is more enjoyable to read if I get it right, but a perfectly executed blog that says nothing is deadly. Agreed?
When I wrote my dissertation, a friend helped me edit. There was an occasional problem, but when my committee met, the almost perfect mechanics weren’t mentioned. What they said was, “We seldom actually enjoy reading a dissertation. You are a writer.”
Their words should have told me something, but they didn’t. I left the campus with a Ph.D. behind my name and went out and published nothing. That is what shame and survivalist hiding does to us. It takes our very best gifts and hides them under a bushel. The fear of having my work handed back to me with the errors circled and how it would trigger every piece of shame inside of me, kept me from doing what I was born to do.
Then one day my therapist, who I completely drowned with my writing, said something like, “Janyne, the way you are able to express your thoughts and feelings is amazing.” I wanted to cry. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to make her proud. I wanted to write until my fingers fell off my hands. I was a little girl whose writing ability had been recognized.
I know my dissertation committee was disappointed that I never pursued publishing. I could have an amazing list of published works. Instead, I became an instructional designer for the college and wrote hundreds of course lectures that were edited and hidden behind a privacy security wall. I hope students enjoyed them.
Last week in an email response to something I sent my now retired therapist, she asked me if I had given up being perfect. I laughed. I deserved it. I had made a joke about it. She understands what I have said in this blog better than anyone on the planet. She also knows I can write more in a day than is really comprehensible and that writing freed me from layer after layer. She also understood my need to be perfect and how it would hinder me. We both know that writing is my future. She knew it before I did.
What my therapist did for me is what we need to do for children (and adults). We need to see the gift—whatever it is. Each of us has a gift we need to chase in order to make our life everything it could be. We need to help children find that gift and believe in it—even when it isn’t perfect. Even the most deeply wounded child has a gift. When we see it, acknowledge it, and help to develop it, we open the window to the future of possibilities.
One day, my therapist handed me a feather from a red-tailed hawk. It was not long after she had taken me high on a mountain road to help me overcome my pathological fear of heights—and the reason it began. We stopped to watch two circling hawks and I said, “I am like a hawk circling. When I see something, I dive for it.”
As she handed me the feather, she told me I was getting ready to fly. That is exactly what I needed. We both knew it was my writing that would take flight. I brought the feather home and placed it right above my writing spot. It reminds me of a quill and sometimes I imagine I am dipping it in an ink well of emotions to craft the sentences and paragraphs that fill my computer screen. It is the symbol that told me I had a future.
Am I perfect? Oh no! I am so much more than perfect! Being perfect was so limiting. Without the need to be perfect, I am free to be a writer. When I hold the first copy of my book in my hand, I will call myself an author because I know there is no end to the stack of books in my head. The storyteller deep inside me has finally been set free from her need to be perfect! Now I can do what I was born to do.