“Your soul is as disheveled as your apartment,
and until you can clean it up a little, you don’t want to invite anyone inside.”
Just as a musician falls in love with a chord, or a photographer falls in love with the way the sun sets, making for perfect lighting for a picture, I have always fallen in love with words. I am deeply enamored by the way some words seem to find each other – how some words can string themselves together and sing a harmony that jumps straight into your soul.
The words above dove their way into my heart about a year ago when I first laid eyes on them. At the time, I just thought it was a beautiful quote. One year later, it seems to me that the words were a bit of foreshadowing into what the year ahead would look like.
I turned 28 on Thursday. And while birthdays, for most people, are usually always a time of reflection and contemplation, this birthday in particular brought me back to this quote and how those words embody almost exactly what 27 was for me.
The months closing in on 26 and leading up to 27 tested my strength, my faith, and my resilience. I was caught in the middle of one of the biggest transitions of my life, going from full-time graduate student and juggling all sorts of odd jobs, to settling into something much more secure and stable — two things I was so unfamiliar with. While that might sound like the ideal situation, somehow having things fall into place in one part of my life almost always means that things are falling apart in another place. At the same time that things were coming together professionally, I was met with some really, really tough stuff personally. I was reacquainted with demons I fought off long before I even hit my 20s. I came face-to-face with skeletons that I thought were buried so far in my closet. And in the last few months from 26 into 27, I learned survival. I learned how to figure things out on my own — how to stand on my own and how to be on my own. Little did I know how what I perceived as a strength would come back to bite me in the ass.
Perhaps 26 into 27 was about claiming my independence, and 27 into 28 is about coming to the realization that independence, for me, has been a lot less romantic than than it has been isolating. Independence has been a lot less about me standing on my own two feet, gracefully tip-toeing through life, than it is about me keeping people at an arms distance and wrapping my heart up in caution tape, careful to make sure there were no holes in the tape — no cracks in my shield. Independence, for me, has taught me less about what it means to be my own person, and more about what it means to keep things hidden, in fear of being seen, known, or exposed.
* * *
I’ll be honest; this post has been sitting idly in my drafts for a little bit over a month. The idea behind what I wanted to write about came to mind after having a conversation with one of my coworkers — someone who quickly went from an acquaintance to a friend. The thing about being friends with my coworkers is that they see me, even when I don’t let the light out. They hear me, even when I’m not speaking. They know me, even when I give little to work with.
Somehow, we got onto the topic of my apartment. Without so much as a second thought, I blurted out the same sentiment that I tell anyone when they ask about it: I hate my apartment. No reason why. No words followed. No further desire to discuss it. Conversation then shifted into a talk about vulnerability — how there’s obviously more to my story, how evident it is that there are some things I keep guarded, and how helpful it would be for both my personal life and my professional life if I just raised the white flag and opened myself up to the possibility of maybe letting someone else into my fenced in yard.
I am the kind of person who has only ever known how to see other people. I am best when I am serving someone else, but put the spotlight on me, and I run. I am no fan of vulnerability when I am the one that needs to reach for it. I am horrible when it comes to being seen.
After the conversation I had with my friend, she sent me a Brené Brown video about perfectionism and told me to watch, to listen, to pay attention, and to start attacking that fear of vulnerability in the face.
I went home and spent the weekend watching a bunch of feel-good TED talks, bought tickets to see a TEDx event live (crossing things off my 30 before 30 bucket list one at a time!!!), did a lot of reading about perfectionism, and got to work on writing this.
And here comes the irony – I’ve spent the last month writing and erasing things that I wanted to say. I’ve written paragraphs with intensity and passion, and with barely a second thought, deleted them. I spit out sentences that I thought were appropriate, and meaningful, and important, and shortly thereafter got rid of them. The words coming out of me weren’t good enough for what I wanted to say. They weren’t strong enough to convey the depths of what I felt. They weren’t profound enough to describe that light-bulb moment that happened when I realized just how big the role of perfectionism is in my life, how hard it is to allow myself to be vulnerable, and how much of myself I keep closed off. I struggled with putting something out there that wasn’t perfect enough, while trying to lay out a map of what it means to struggle with perfectionism. Irony.
The second irony is my career. In my career as a counselor, I am fortunate enough to get the chance to sit right in the crux of someone else’s pain, and watch as they allow themselves to break down the walls they’ve built to protect themselves. I sit with clients who are so, so afraid to share things, because once they put out the secrets they’ve hidden from the world, they’re losing an old friend — the one thing they’ve kept for themselves. And the beautiful irony is seeing clients who have the insight to know that without cutting themselves open, without allowing someone else into their world, there is no growth and there is no change. In my work, I’ve found that a measure of good work is when you are sitting with someone and they offer their truth — when they trust you with their own reality. When it’s just you and them and nothing but a room full of hard truths and vulnerabilities. And yet somehow, here I was, doing that exact work with a caseload of clients, struggling tremendously with it myself.
And who would have thought it all started with a quote and ended with a metaphor.
* * *
Before watching the video, I saw perfectionism as a part of my life that I left behind. I thought of who I used to be: an academic at heart. I looked at perfectionism as getting straight A’s in school, and beating myself up over an A- or B+. I looked at perfectionism as making sure I won all the spelling bee’s in elementary school, at making sure I was in the National Honor Society, and being a part of all of the extracurricular activities that I could fit into my life in high school — even if they didn’t fit my hobbies, interests, or who I envisioned becoming. Perfectionism meant being what was expected of me for my parents: going to school, getting a job at 15, getting the grades, being quiet, being small, being good enough. Perfectionism meant going to college and having a job to come home to on top of a job by my college. Perfectionism meant that schooling didn’t stop at at Bachelor’s degree. Perfectionism meant painting a scene for what my life is now that I have all of the things I’ve worked for: a Master’s degree, a career, an apartment of my own — all without ever stopping once to admit that maybe my shelves are a little dusty, maybe I’m missing some things, maybe life isn’t just solely about the stuff that I’ve accumulated, or the person that I appear to be. Maybe there is more.
Brené Brown says, “Perfectionism is not about striving for excellence, or healthy striving… it’s a cognitive behavioral process, a way of thinking and feeling that says this: if I look perfect do it perfect, live perfect, or work perfect, I can avoid or minimize shame, blame, and judgment.”
If I never talk about the things that I don’t like about myself, maybe someone else won’t see the cracks in the foundation. If I never address the things that I am afraid of, people on the outside will look to me as strong and courageous. If I never come face to face with the reality of why I keep certain things hidden, I will never be seen. And how authentic can I be if all that you get is a snapshot of who I am?
The thing is, I crave it. I think we all do. I think it’s human, and it’s innate to want people to see us for who we are. I want to be able to talk to a good friend and tell them what my fears are — how sometimes, I am fearful that I gave all I had at love in the past, and not one person has measured up, and how it’s likely that I won’t find someone who can be that guy again for me. How I fear that maybe, I won’t have kids. How I say that this is okay for me, but really, it might not be. I think we all want to be able to look at our parents and tell them what it was they did that hurt us so badly, all while knowing that sometimes, parents mess us up without even trying. And it’s not always their fault, but that’s just what happens. We are all human. I think we all want to avoid it. We want to avoid letting people in too far, so we can avoid the uncomfortable feeling of being judged, or looked down upon, or seen. Because if we are seen for who we are, they will know. They will know that we are imperfect. They will know that we are scared. They will know that the picture they have of us in their minds is cropped, and airbrushed, and placed under a filter.
So, I don’t invite people into my apartment because there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to clean it up a little bit. There’s a part of me that thrives in the chaos and wishes someone were strong enough to crack that wall down and come dance in the mess.
* * *
Years ago, when I started this blog, a mentor of mine told me to write my truth. She told me that the most important part of writing was honesty, and that if I could be honest — if I could write my truth, no one could take that away from me. I’ve referenced that profound piece of advice over and over again, and I sometimes forget the importance of speaking my truth and owning my truth and being the kind of person willing to tell a story based on what I know very well to be true.
So today, five days into closing the chapter on 27, and dancing into 28, here is my truth:
I am in a good place career-wise. I am in a good place with the majority of the people in my life. I am grateful, and I am happy. But, there are days when I want to pack my stuff up and run back to my parents house, all while knowing exactly what kind of chaos I would be running back into. There are days I wake up in the morning, take a good look at myself in the mirror, and ask myself how on earth can be the person that people trust enough to be vulnerable with and disclose the dark parts of them. There are days I don’t feel good enough. Not a good enough daughter, or friend, or sister, or therapist. There are days I don’t think I am where I am supposed to be — days when I feel despite all that I’ve accomplished, I’m still five miles behind. There are days that I am so fearful I somehow did something wrong, that I somehow made a mistake and I’ll regret my life in the long-term. There are days I have to sit and calculate if I have enough money to buy groceries and afford my electric bill, all while scrolling through social media in envy over new cars, and jewelry, and houses. There are corners of my apartment that are still not furnished; there are things that I still haven’t hung up on my walls. There are days I open my planner and wonder how the hell am I going to squeeze in all that I have. There are days when I can’t make commitments with my friends, because I would rather lay on my couch and watch Netflix than listen to everyone talk about buying houses, and having babies, and how much money they have saved for the this next big thing. There are days I am fearful that I am not doing enough. There are days that I really, really hope that I am.
* * *
Apparently I’ve become somewhat a victim of growing up. I’ve somehow slid my way, not so gracefully, through my early and my mid twenties, and landed face-first in my late twenties.
I guess this is 28. I guess this is another trip around the sun for me.
There are things I want out of 28 — like health, happiness, abundance, adventure, experience. And then there are the things that I know I need to work on — like practicing what I preach, allowing myself to be open to the possibility that maybe I don’t need to go at this alone.
I think we sometimes hesitate to invite people into our lives for whatever reason. Our space is hardly occupied. Our shelves still have dust on them. There’s still boxes where there should be furniture, and a coffee table where there should be a TV stand. If only we could sweep up the rubble, or get rid of the dirt or put together a piece of furniture, we would be ready. If things looked better, it would feel better to let people in. Today, things still don’t quite match. There are dishes piled in the sink, piles of laundry that has yet to be washed, picture frames leaning against the wall that have yet to be hung, garbage overflowing the can. Our situation isn’t quite what we want it to be. We aren’t where we want to be. My hope for 28 for both myself and for anyone who feels the tremendous weight of perfectionism and the difficulty with vulnerability is this: start going to church. Start attending the Church of Brené Brown. Start looking at all the walls you’ve built around yourself, and fight back all those fears you have. Let yourself be seen. Let yourself be known. Don’t let the dust on your shelves or the rubble all around you stop you. Invite people in anyway.