“Where there is perfection there is no story to tell.” ~Ben Okri
Somehow I’d gathered my courage and volunteered from the audience during a local improvisational theater show. And before I knew it, I was up on stage with the troupe, being welcomed, supported, and seamlessly gathered into the scene in a way that only professional improvisers can do.
I left the stage high as a kite from the adrenaline rush, returning to my seat and enthusing to my friend that I wanted to start taking improv classes right away!
What I didn’t realize until I was several weeks into my first class was something I have since accepted as a truism:
Improv theater is basically boot camp for perfectionists.
A group of which I am a card-carrying member in good standing.
In class, I understood intellectually that I was supposed to relax and go with the flow, but I didn’t know how to actually do that. All my life I’d learned to do the exact opposite—to prepare thoroughly and know exactly what I was doing whenever I went into a new or challenging situation.
At first I managed to fake it, mentally choosing a few potential characters and situations before every class so that I could appear to be spontaneous in a pinch. Clever me! I was always ready with a funny line or interesting story.
The problem was, I was also always stressed about it.
At first I chalked up the rapid heartbeat and shallow breathing to the rush of performance, until I found myself obsessing after class about what I could have done better. Wondering where I could have been funnier, or reached deeper to bring out more poignant emotions, so that I could make sure that everyone liked me and thought I was a fantastic improviser.
It was okay for everyone else to be fallible, merely human. I had to be better. In fact, I had to be perfect.
Like so many perfectionists, I’d internalized the message that my self-worth was based on what I did, not who I was. And if what I did wasn’t good enough—well, then, obviously neither was I.
At its heart, perfectionism is rooted in feelings of shame and inadequacy.
Those of us who suffer from it are afraid that we’re not worthy of being respected and loved for our natural, unedited selves. There are many reasons why this happens, but the consequence is that we always feel the need to justify ourselves and our actions.
We also feel we must prove ourselves, over and over again; we’re never good enough just as we are.
Talk about a recipe for depression, stress, and burnout.
A 2008 Psychology Today article titled “Pitfalls of Perfectionism” states, “[T]he biggest problem with perfection may be that it masks the real secret of success in life. Success hinges less on getting everything right than on how you handle getting things wrong.”
What if we really got that?
What if we practiced the pursuit of passion rather than perfection?
When we are very young, everything is play. We don’t worry about failing because we’re so excited about trying. As kids, we haven’t yet learned that we’re supposed to think of ourselves as being on trial before the world.
Think back to the first time you rode a bike. Or jumped off the high dive. The thrill you felt probably far outweighed any curb-slamming or belly-flopping you might have done.
You didn’t do it perfectly, but you had a blast making the attempt. And because you had so much fun, you did it again, and again, until you improved. But the improving wasn’t the goal. The fun was.
That’s why it’s so important for us all to mess up once in a while. We must re-learn what we knew as children—that screwing up is not the end of the world. That we can recover, and keep trying, and get better.
We must learn failure resiliency. We need to know deeply, not just mentally, that we can always bounce back.
And maybe even have some fun in the process.
If your sense of security comes from trying to be perfect, or even just “the best”—king or queen of the hill—you’ll be disappointed either when you never get there, or when you do and some newcomer knocks you off your throne.
In other words, if your sense of self-worth is synonymous with your performance, you will never feel safe.
Now what happens if you allow yourself to appear fallible? A few pretty nifty things:
- The intense pressure is suddenly off. You can relax a little. Or even, with practice, a lot.
- You now have room for improvement. If you score 100 percent right from the start, how can you ever hope to do better than that?
- People will not expect 100 percent of your effort all the time. Now you’ve got some leeway when you’re operating at less-than-normal capacity for any reason.
- People will feel more connected to you because they’ll feel you’re one of them, not up on top of (or trying to climb) some kind of pedestal.
Now please understand that I’m not arguing for deliberate mediocrity here. I’m not saying that you should be lazy, or that you should stop setting and striving toward goals. That’s probably not in your genetic makeup anyway. After all, here you are reading a life-improvement blog, right?
What I am saying is that if you can surrender your need to appear so relentlessly perfect (to yourself as well as others!) then you’ll be able to loosen up and enjoy the ride a whole lot more.
When you leave perfectionism behind, you also get to define success and happiness by your own internal measurements rather than society’s external benchmarks.
Granted, this takes practice. A lot of it. You can’t shuck all of your conditioning with a single shoulder-shrug.
But you can gradually learn through experience that it’s okay to be imperfect—like I did on the day that I finally froze up in front of my entire improv class.
I ran out of stories. I choked completely. Everyone stared at me, and I couldn’t come up with a single thing to do or say. I got dizzy; I felt my face flush and my pulse pound. I finally looked up, helpless, convinced they all thought I was a loser.
“Sorry,” I mumbled. “I’m out of ideas.”
And my entire improv class responded, as one, in the way we’d been trained to do from the first day. When a scene or offering flops, everyone throws their hands in the air and lets out a celebratory whoop, as if to say, “We screwed up, and it’s okay!”
There I was, convinced that because I wasn’t the perfect improviser I expected myself to be, I was a failure. Then I dared to look up from my feet and out into the audience at my classmates.
They all smiled at me, threw up their hands, and yelled “Whooooo!!!” at the top of their lungs.
And in that moment, I understood that I was fine exactly as I was.
Just like you are.
Photo by Craig Cloutier