By Samantha McKenzie
There’s an unspoken message that’s always been looping in my head. “You’ve got to be perfect, Samantha.”
I don’t recall ever actually hearing anyone say it, but I’ve felt it all of my life.
I’ve felt it as I sat in church every Sunday morning listening to the pastor speak so highly of Jesus during a sermon.
I’ve felt it from my mother when she’d scold me for not keeping my room clean like my sister did. Or when she reminded me that my hair was too untidy, my shoes too scuffed up to wear to church or that my ash-like skin required more of that good petroleum – because enough was never enough.
I felt it too from my father who, ever so kindly, demanded perfect grades. We were never rewarded for our A’s and honor roll awards, it was an expected feat. When I got a 97 on a test, my dad, in his own ‘higher expectations’ voice would ask me how I missed the 3 additional points. He always waited to hear my explanation. Thank God I got the bonus question right.
The notion that I had to be perfect continued into young adulthood. I learned quickly that I should act a certain way as a young woman. This, I understood, led to attaining other perfect things, like acceptance into a good college, the choice of a good man and all the trimmings of perfection that came along with that like perfect little children, a perfect high-paying job, and perfect family vacations.
But this quest for perfection went way beyond my home life. When I took my first steps into adulting, I learned that my peers had been taught the same thing. There was a culture of everybody, everywhere, chasing that illusive life of perfection. Some, by any means necessary.
I was surrounded by it. My professors spoke the same message. My co-workers learned that cut throat game they taught in the workplace so they could get ahead and get the perfect promotion. Every boyfriend I had played the perfect role too.
My apartment neighbors wondered how perfect I was when they noticed that every Wednesday night I’d come home at 2 a.m. It didn’t matter that I worked at a weekly newspaper and this was press night, the time we spent meticulously proofing for errors, cutting and pasting pieces of news stories in order for it to fit neatly around advertisement copy. It didn’t matter that I was in a field that demanded perfection, accuracy, and how not having this ruined your credibility. It didn’t matter that losing the trust of a reader had the same damning effect as not being perfect. None of this mattered, because 2 a.m. was an inappropriate time for a lady to come home.
If you’re a person of color or an immigrant, you probably have been taught that you had to be better than everyone else around you or else.
If you’re a person from a strict or religious family, you were probably taught that you’d be punished for any and all transgressions.
If you’re a self-proclaimed over achiever, you probably put an inordinate amount of pressure on yourself to get it right the first time. (You compete with competition. Even when there are no competitors. You create them in your head so you can beat them.)
If you were born into a family who wanted to keep up with the Joneses, well yeh, you’ve been drinking the perfect Kool-aid too.
Perfection is an illusive notion that leads us to the water and then shoves our head down to drink all of it. It’s not even a worthwhile goal. I think what our parents were trying to teach us was we should strive to do our best, and make each day better than yesterday.
What we really want to teach are the principles of purpose. You were born with one. Find out what it is and do it.
You’re going to need skills to live a fulfilled life. That includes learning how to be organized, learning how to manage your time and knowing how to talk to people so that either they will be willing to help you, or you will be able to help them.
Pick and choose the things that you engage in. Some things aren’t going to be a good fit.
Don’t follow people blindly. Instead chart your own path. You’ll know because it will feel right. Lord knows every wrong path I’ve ended up on, I heard a voice in my head that I ignored or got a pang in my stomach that was urging me to leave. So did you.
Be a better person than you were yesterday.
Use the day productively and have fun doing it.
Embrace being a better you.
Stop lying. To yourself first, then to others.
Speak kindly to people. It goes a long way and improves the success of your day.
Learn to cook a healthy meal. Then another. And another.
Breathe. Sit still. And then move towards your progress.
Remember, you don’t have to be perfect, just be better than yesterday.