I've never been one to leave things to chance. I like every aspect of my life to be as much in my control as possible. This is by no means an uncommon occurrence. The constant quest for perfectionism is a malady that many of us deal with on a daily basis.
We all know these people. Maybe you had the annoyingly perfect older sister. She earned straight As, was very popular and had a closet full of amazing clothes that she never let you borrow because you would ruin them. Or maybe you are the boss who can never seem to allow your charges to handle their assignments on their own. You know that they begrudge you for being a micromanager, but all the same, you just can't seem to let go.
My struggle is much the same. However, my need to be perfect embedded itself in a need to be spiritually pristine. To be pure.
As a child, I was a devout Christian, Pentecostal, C.O.G.I.C to be exact. For some reason, this is something I chose for myself. Every Sunday, my mother would drop me off at Sunday school and come pick me up after service. She had had her fill of dogmatism, but never stood in the way of my need to find my own way.
While I loved church, it was during this time that I internalized a dangerous idea. Embedded in many sects of Protestantism is the promise of redemption. The hope that one could change their life for the better after a lifetime of misdeeds. This idea was reinforced by all the contemporary Gospel music that I listened to. Gorgeous songs sang by people with incredible voices, who cried out for or in gratitude of grace; of a full life change.
Since, I began to attend church so young, I didn't really feel as though I there was much that I needed to be saved from. No one or nothing that I needed to be transformed into. Instead, I formulated and internalized a much more dangerous idea--that one's ultimate goal was to go through life as unblemished as possible.
Looking back on it now, it is easy to see how I had arrived at show a dogmatic position at such a young age. Church was a huge part of the problem, but so was the fact that I watched too much Oprah. I know that sounds ridiculous, but hear me out.
The older I become, the more I realize that certain things just aren't for children--even if they are proposed to be positive. My mother has often said to me that I wasn't so much a child as I was a "little adult." As I've mentioned before, I was, and still am, intuitive, empathic and insightful. While these are generally good qualities, without maturity as a balance or protectorate, one can be be left especially vulnerable to any and everything seductive.
This is where the Oprah thing comes in. As a latchkey kid, I spent far too much time watching television. And as a person living in the 90s, that meant watching her show. While I can appreciate many of the topics discussed now as an adult, I feel as though so much of my childhood was spent listening to people talk about their mistakes or regrets. Without a mature and critical mind to analyze this messaging, I determined that failing in any way, no matter how small, was the worst thing that could happen to a person. And thus, I began to associate any misstep I made with a deep sense of shame.
Luckily, as I grew older, and my mind and mentality evolved. One of the most pivotal moments in my young adulthood was when I took a Bible History class at a nearby university. Learning the historical context behind many of the stories of my faith allowed the dogma to loosen its grip. At this point, I no longer considered myself Christian. I was spiritual.
This wasn't necessarily much better. As a spiritual person, I hadn't abandoned my faith, it had just become more inclusive. With a, well, religious fervor, I began to seek out every Eastern based, New Age, metaphysical, book, movie, and/or philosophy course I could find. I told myself I did it for the reason we all do--to search for truth. But the reality is that I had let go of the religiosity, but not the shame. Which meant that I was still looking for the "right answers" not good and helpful tips to living a healthy and beautiful life. In all of these doctrines, I was still searching for a rulebook. An advice catalog that would lead me to do everything right. A handbook to avoid making mistakes.
At the height of my obsession, I elected Sunday as my spiritual day. I spent the mornings in Church, the afternoons in a Bikram Yoga, and the evenings switching between Oprah's Super Soul Sunday and my favorite televangelist.
To be clear, I do not believe that any or all of these practices were inherently bad or wrong. But I do believe that they were bad for me. I wasn't committing myself to these things in order to gain a better understanding of myself. At this stage in my life, I wasn't satisfied with my positioning in life. I was convinced that I was flailing in the wind; on the verge of making disreputable mistakes. Desperate to regain control, I doubled down and rededicated myself to purity--to a mistake free life.
I couldn't help it. As a lifelong perfectionist I felt compelled to. And as a Black woman I knew that I was only going to get so many opportunities in life, so I had better make it work as best as I could. To speak rather bluntly, this mentality led me to a near mental breakdown. I began to overanalyze every step, both physical and metaphorical, so much that at some point I just stopped moving altogether. I inadvertently turned my life into the only space where perfection can reign--in a vacuum.
Eventually, gave up and declared my self an atheist. I just couldn't care anymore. I wanted to live instead. It was then that I entered into the healthiest and most productive time in my life. As things began to turn around, I realized that atheist was another label another type of dogma that would prove harmful over time. I also enjoyed the idea of attributing my bouts with serendipity to something, I just had no interest in exploring what that something was. I had no need for rules. No desire for the "right" answers. To interest in trying to manipulate life so that it would bend to my will.
As I am adjusting to life in my 30s, I feel as though I've lived enough to know that there are some things that will always be outside of my control. And am learning to come to terms with the fact that no amount of ritual, penance, will be able to that can provide me, you, or anyone with a perfect, mistake free life. Moreover, I've finally begun to let go of shame that festered in my soul. Letting go of the quest for purity gives me the opportunity to embrace my humanity instead.
For the first time in my life, I'm realizing that I do not need to figure life out in order to life it. I just need to take the steps and embrace all the mistakes I'll make along the way.
Thrifted dress and earrings.
Photo Credit: Steven Trotman