Do you ever feel like you’re not getting anywhere or that life is not worth living?
Do you ever stop and think, “This is not where I imagined I’d be at this point in life?”
If you said yes, to any or all of these questions, know that you’re not alone. Whether we’re too busy or not busy enough, whether we’re young or old, or whether we’re relatively happy or generally sad, it’s not uncommon for questions like these to stop us in our tracks and make us wonder how we arrived here and whether we can take another step. We look back at our life, and it looks like a rambling, “stream-of-unconsciousness” journal entry rather than a well-structured story.
In my last post, “A Letter to the Perfectionist Who Can’t Finish Anything“, I suggested that those paralyzed by perfectionism need to focus on taking the next step. When it comes to being overwhelmed by disappointment with our life story, perhaps, a way to approach these feelings of hopelessness and helplessness is to examine them one word at a time.
On November 30, 2013, the second anniversary of my diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease, I wrote a post called, “Perseverance Is the Word of the Year.” As I looked back at the events of that year, the common theme I saw was perseverance. I don’t consider this to be one of my primary strengths, yet as I examined that year’s events and how I responded to them, that is what stood out to me. Somehow, even in one of the more difficult times of my life, I found a reason for hope, and I am reminded of that with just one word.
If you’re not up to writing a journal entry, a blog post, or a full-length memoir the next time difficult life questions pop into your head, consider writing down just one word. What one word describes the last month or last year of your life? It might take a bit of time to narrow it down. Don’t automatically reject the negative words if they are appropriate, but do consider the positives as well. Taking the time to come up with that word will challenge you to examine life with a more focused lens, and what you find may surprise you.
Jot down the word someplace you’ll see it regularly and add to the list each month or year. Then, you can look back and remember how you arrived at your current destination. And perhaps, you can begin to choose what you’d like the next word to be instead of just letting life happen to you.
For me, the word, story, sums up a lot of what has been going on in my life. I’ve been focusing not only on writing stories and living my story, but I’ve also been intentionally making time to let other people tell me their stories.
So what’s your Word of the Month for May?
I know you want to get things right.
You want every jot and tittle to be checked and triple-checked. You want your work and your character to be above reproach and criticism. You want everyone to like what you do and to find no fault with it. You want to walk that narrow line that hovers over the deathly pits of imperfection, like a tightrope walker balancing for her life, above the whirlpool of endless details on one side and the lion’s cage of critics on the other with no safety net in sight.
- It is laudable that you want to do well.
- It is good that you have integrity and responsibility.
- And it is not a weakness to have an eye for detail and editing prowess.
But when you have boldly started your walk across the imperfection zone only to become paralyzed in the middle, then, oh then, these are such weaknesses because you have only one choice with two outcomes—you fall.
- If you fall to your right, you are drowned in details.
- If you fall to your left, you are torn apart by critics—the worst of which is, of course, yourself.
If you cannot move backwards or forwards, falling is your only choice, and by doing that you fulfill your worst fear—you are not perfect because you cannot finish the job put before you.
So the next time you find yourself frozen in the middle of a tightrope, do not look right or your fear of drowning in detail will swallow you. Do not look left or your fear of being torn apart by critics will ruin you. Only look ahead to your goal and find one small thing that you can do. Blink your eyes. Shift your weight. Maintain your balance. Refocus on your destination.
And when you can, slide one toe forward—toward your goal. Your foot, miraculously, will follow.
And then do it again.
You may wobble.
You may backpedal.
You may let out a scream of fear from time to time.
But keep your eye on the goal at the other side of the abyss and move toward it.
The walk may not be perfect. The end result may be messy. You will, however, be heading in the right direction. Though this will not impress the whole crowd—or maybe not any of it if they have grown bored and all gone home—you will find you are not at an end but the beginning of another opportunity to walk again, now knowing that you can go on despite being a perfectly imperfect perfectionist.
A Recovering Perfectionist
P.S. Remember, just follow your toe. It knows where to go.
P.S.S. If you find any mistakes in this post, know they were included intentionally.
P.S.S. I couldn’t take it. I fixed some of the mistakes.
Stories can reveal truth, but they can also lie. So it’s no wonder that the simple phrase, “He’s telling a story,” can refer to a truth or a lie. At face value, this is simply a statement of fact, but with a bit of context and the right tone of voice, it means quite the opposite.
Consider this scenario:
Jack tipped his head down as if he were studying his big toes that peeked through shredded holes in the ends of his sneakers, but he was really watching his mother and sister out of the corner of his eye. Cassie jumped up and down like a ping-pong ball with her hand over her mouth, and he wished he had a paddle to send her flying out of the room. But thoughts like that are what had brought him to this uncomfortable situation in the first place.
His mom hit the send button on her phone and looked up. “Okay, Cassie, what is it?”
Cassie exploded like a shaken bottle of Coke. “He’s telling a story!”
Jack braced for his mom’s response.
It’s obvious Cassie thinks Jack’s story is a lie even though the sentence is exactly the same as the statement of fact.
Last April, I wrote the blog post, The Stories We Tell Ourselves | On Telling Ourselves the Truth, about how the stories we tell ourselves can help us be more truthful. Sometimes, however, we’re incapable of seeing the truth, and we need more context to know when we’re lying. So how do we get this context? One way is to have someone else remind us of our stories.
But what if I have no positive stories in my life?
In the article, Common, Baffling Mental Habit Linked to Depression, on Psych Central, a study looked at the role suppressing positive emotions had on depression. Apparently, those who suffer from depression have positive emotions on a daily basis, but they actively suppress them. Most would assume that a depressed person simply thinks negative thoughts, but the study came to the following conclusion:
In a surprising contrast, researchers found that a tendency to dwell on negative feelings did not contribute to the development of the depression. In other words, suppressing positive feelings may be the critical, causal element. So, we could define depression (in part) as a lack of positivity, with dwelling on negativity as a merely more noticeable outcome. If you suppress the positive, then you are left with the negative.
I’m only an arm-chair psychologist, but this idea has the ring of truth to it. When a person is depressed they get stuck listening to the same negative stories over and over again not because they have nothing positive in their life but because they don’t believe the positive stories.
And that is when we need others who speak truth into our lives. Yes, sometimes truth is uncomfortable and negative, especially when someone pulls out the, “I’m just speaking the truth in love,” disclaimer. But what if we spoke the truth in love by telling stories about the positives in a person’s life? What if we did this intentionally and on a regular basis? I have to wonder if we’d see a drop in the number of people suffering from depression.
As a part of my move from being a writing hobbyist to a writing professional, I’ve started an experiment that I’m tentatively calling Story Circles. I’ve asked a few friends to join me in a private forum online in order to explore the role of story in our lives. I’ve only posed two questions so far, but the outpouring of positive feedback I’ve received is humbling and overwhelming. I realize that I have the tendency to not believe the positive, but having friends reminding me of our positive stories has forced me to acknowledge the amazing amount of positives I have in my life.
You may think that your life has not been as charmed or blessed as mine, but I encourage you not to make this an exercise in comparison, which almost always turns story into a lie. Even in the darkest experiences, we can find pinpricks of light and hope. If you’re having trouble seeing them today, find a friend or someone you respect and ask them to lend you their glasses. What you see may surprise you—in a positive way.