A couple of weeks ago, I read an article about why everyone hates Anne Hathaway. I always thought she was an intelligent, beautiful, uber-talented young woman, but apparently she is utterly detested by many. The author posited that perhaps her too-perfect-ness was at fault for her abysmal approval rates. Ironic, I thought: since most of us wish we were perfect, do we also wish to draw such ire?
One quote from the article made me choke on my own saliva: “’We love authenticity, that’s why we have a billion reality shows,’ said Neal Gabler, an author of several best-selling books on Hollywood culture and history.”
Oh, right! OUR LOVE OF AUTHENTICITY is the reason for the out-of-control reality TV show phenomenon!
With all of the staged, alcohol-soaked drama and creative editing, there is nothing real or authentic about reality television. Rather, I think we want to see one another’s frailties, neuroses, warts, and cellulite. We want to see Bethany Frankel peeing in a bucket in her wedding dress or Kim Richards drunkenly making moo-moo faces in the mirror as she plummets toward her alcoholic bottom. “Sure, she’s rich and skinny, but she’s a narcissistic mess.” “At least I’m not as bad as her.” Ironically, rather than uniting us, all of the imperfections immortalized on reality television serve to separate us from one another.
It’s clearly not limited to reality TV. We extrapolate the innumerable messages we receive to our own lives. We take on the artificial deficiencies created by advertising agencies and seek to fill the void. We imagine our neighbors, friends, and well-put-together strangers having perfect lives. We try to retrofit the story of our lives into some narrative arc, a hijinx-y Rom-Com starring Katherine Heigl. But secretly we suffer.
In my own efforts to practice imperfection, I’ve started to ask myself about my idea of perfection. What does it look and feel like? Where does it come from? What does it cost me? How does it keep me in line and, in so doing, how does it affect my authentic experience?
As part of this, I’ve taken a mini inventory of my own behaviors and beliefs. The following is only a partial list of the things I believe I have done as a result of comparing my life to some “perfect” ideal:
- Pretended I was asleep when my painfully shy high school sweetheart finally kissed me because I couldn’t take responsibility for my own raging teenage hormones
- Sat in college courses and obsessed over how I could ask the most brilliant, astounding question to gain the admiration of the professor and my fellow students (thereby missing the dialog that would have made my question even remotely relevant)
- Spent unknown amounts of money (and time) on cosmetics, skin care products, and laser procedures to “improve” the appearance of my skin
- Showered, got dressed, and even applied makeup in the dark because I couldn’t bear to see my face and body in the mirror (I still do this one)
- Compared myself with every woman I have ever met since the age of about 10 on a complex scale involving measures of age, beauty, physical fitness, intelligence, interestingness, sexiness, and desirability
- Spent many hours tipsy at home alone after work because I felt paralyzed, unsure of how to move my life in a direction that would be more satisfying and bring me more happiness
- Wasted more than a year working on a book proposal because I was afraid to just write the book
- Bottled up my feelings (and sometimes later exploded) because I was afraid of losing someone’s love
- Perseverated on small tasks like cleaning and organizing because they gave me the illusion of control
- Failed to give my full attention to any number of work or writing projects because of a fear that I would not do them perfectly (this is a big one for me)
At first glance, these may not seem related to perfection but upon closer examination, I see that I think and do things as if someone else is watching and judging. As if there is a master scorecard hidden somewhere, and I clearly do not have home-court advantage. But the watcher and judger is ME.
The problem with dismantling my allegiance to perfection is that the information that sculpts my perfection ideas is everywhere. It came from my childhood, from my family, my friends, friend’s families, television, advertising, dating, relationships, job interviews, and interactions on the job itself. When one is exquisitely sensitive to external information, as I tend to be, it can become very confusing to assimilate it all into a life and a system of beliefs.
The inability to see myself for who I really am – to accept and make myself known, to communicate authentically, to ask questions and talk about what makes me uncomfortable, fearful, and ashamed – has deep repercussions. I keep it in. Bottle it up.
What if we all realized that, as pointed out to me by a wise friend several years ago, the consequences of being ourselves were not so dire? That would mean there is no reason to keep our true, imperfect selves hidden. No reason to react hurtfully rather than dealing with what is really happening. No reason to kill yourself, hurt someone else, or suffer in silence.
Where does one begin though? At what point during a conversation between two friends does one of them say, My partner and I haven’t had sex in 6 months. When does a woman admit, Sometimes my kids are out of control and it makes me feel like failure as a mother. Or, when asked, How are you?, someone admits, I’m sort of sad, actually, unsatisfied with life and not sure what to do. Or, Sometimes I think it would be better if I didn’t exist (in all the permutations and combinations of significance that one has).
Since I started writing Drinking to Distraction, people have come out of the woodwork with words of love and support, as well as their own stories. I believe this is because I openly revealed my weaknesses, or at least the things that tend to be viewed as weakness by current societal standards. Quitting drinking and learning to deal with my life as it is, it’s about as real (and imperfect) as I can get. It has created a space for me to become curious about myself and the world, and perhaps a little space for others to do the same.
How will you begin?