Imperfect, Not Failing
[This post was originally published on Chelsey's personal blog.]
I did Whole 30 for the first time at the beginning of last year. I am a sucker for some good, organized rules when it comes to my health and fitness, so I jumped right aboard the bandwagon and spent the week before preparing like a mad woman. I bought a cookbook and food processor; I meal planned and prepped; I binge ate the last of my Reese's Christmas trees. The morning of day 1, I put a roast in the Crockpot and high-fived myself for being on the fast track to success. Then around day 4 I stumbled across an article that outlined the kind of condiments that are and are not allowed during the program. I scrolled down the list until I got to Dijon mustard. “Some Dijon mustard is approved, however, a lot is made with white wine, which is off limits for your Whole 30.”
My heart dropped.
Made with white wine? Dijon mustard? Like the kind that I used to make the dressing for the delicious bistro breakfast salad I’m currently enjoying??
I ran to my fridge, pulled out the bottle and audibly gasped as the truth stood printed in front of me—white wine, ingredient number 3. I panicked. Dramatically. “I have to start over, right??” I asked my roommate who said something along the lines of, “If you start over I will literally never speak to you again.” After some lengthy internal debate, I decided to not start over, but that teaspoon of Dijon mustard loomed over the rest of the 30 days, making me feel like I had failed miserably even when I crossed the finish line. Why? Because imperfection and failure have always been synonymous to me.
I thought about this as I drove to work this morning. I felt like I failed at something yesterday, and it was clawing at my chest as I sped along the interstate in silence, watching the sunrise. “You might as well give up on that dream, because you big fat failed at it and it will only continue to disappoint you,” said my internal monologue—a monologue that I am so familiar with I almost don’t notice it when it begins to derail my hope for projects and relationships. Then the still small voice that meets me in my anxiety whispered, “You did not fail. You were just imperfect and imperfection does not equal failure.”
I chewed on that thought as the interstate split and I turned my car towards East Nashville. Just because I stumbled through a writing session doesn’t mean I failed at songwriting? I’m just doing it imperfectly? If I get a little moody with a friend and am less kind than I hope to be, that doesn’t mean I failed at friendship and should become a hermit to protect the world from my monstrous rage? I’m just in need of a little grace? When a Whole 30 recipe calls for a teaspoon of mustard and I don’t read the label properly, I shouldn’t make myself walk the plank of self-disappointment as punishment for my screw up? Oh.
And then 1,700 pounds of self-applied pressure lifted off my shoulders.
Typically, if I know something is going to be imperfect I will probably not do it. Or, the second something starts revealing its imperfections I dip out. Relationships, goals, Wednesday night yoga—if I am standing face to face with imperfection I will use it as an excuse to distance myself from whatever the thing is. Because if imperfection means failure, and failure means making a fool out of myself in front of the whole world that is obviously watching and judging my life (I’m looking at you, Yoga Wizard behind me at the 6pm Vinyasa class), I need to get out of Dodge before shame and the opinions of others get some pitch forks and angry-mob-style force me out.
But if I can uproot the lie that imperfection and failure are inseparable, being imperfect doesn’t seem so scary. If I can shift my language from “I failed at that” to “I was imperfect at that” I begin to enter into things with a lot more grace and patience with myself. Because here is the thing: the words that we say to ourselves are so important. Condemning myself for failing at something becomes debilitating and embarrassing, but allowing myself space to be imperfect is just embracing the limitations of my humanity. Failure is the back door to shame, but imperfection is an invitation to step into grace.
So I can be an imperfect friend and writer and Instagram user and dater because it does not mean I’m failing. Pressure's off to be perfect because my lack of perfection does not mean I’ve screwed something up beyond repair, it just means that I am human and there is grace and growth available for me here, too.
There is a quote that I have clung to this year by Theodore Roosevelt. If you have read any Brené Brown you probably know it—it’s referred to as "The Man in the Arena".
“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood. Who strives valiantly: who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming…” it goes on to say that you cannot have great victory without risking defeat and imperfection, and those things are worth it to live a courageous and worthwhile life.
What I have realized in the last couple months is that it is not just about choosing to be the man in the arena or not. It’s not as if you can say, “No thanks, the arena is too scary and uncertain for me so I’ll just go on back to my village, you guys have fun.” No, there are only two options—you are either the man in the arena or you’re the critic. You are either fighting and risking and cheering on those who are battling beside you or you are in the stands judging the fight from a comfy but cowardly chair. The critic wants things to be perfect so he is critical. Since he cannot tolerate his own imperfections, and therefore refuses to step foot in the arena that will cause him to stand face-to-face with them, he spends all of his time shaming people for theirs. I don’t want to be the critic, and being the man in the arena means embracing the humanness and shortcomings that shake my courage awake. I must fight valiantly, knowing that I have not failed until I have retired myself to the stands.
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