Starting a blog is one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. It’s kind of like that dream we all have in some form, where you show up at school naked. The other one I often used to have revolved around being on stage opening night as the lead in a Broadway musical (my secret fantasy), except that I had no idea what the show was about, what my lines were, or what I was supposed to be doing. Both of these recurring nightmares were excruciating because they caused me to experience one of my deepest fears: being exposed as a failure, revealed as inadequate.
But I’ve decided I’d rather live a courageous life than let fear define me. Even though you could be reading this right now and think I’m an idiot/emotional mess/arrogant/hypocritical/completely wrong/insert negative perception here—even though you could read the things I write and reject me—I’ve decided to enter into the discomfort of vulnerability by sharing my heart. We can’t experience meaningful connection in life without it. And I need all the practice I can get at being courageous.
The truth is I’m a recovering perfectionist, my subconscious way to avoid vulnerability through achievement in order to limit risk in my relationships. I’ve spent most of my years believing that, if I worked hard enough in every area of my life, I could actually eliminate any potential for others to perceive me as inadequate. If there was nothing lacking in me, nothing others could criticize, I subconsciously thought I’d be more worthy of love. As a teenager, it wasn’t enough to be a good student—I had to be the top of my class. Athletics brought joy when I had a good game, but anything less than my best statistics brought on a torrent of self-flagellation. Regardless of the context, my good performance was reinforced by positive feedback from others, but my perception of negative performance just caused me to work harder at achieving perfection. The problem was, perfection doesn’t exist in humans. And I am very much a human.
This paralyzing all-or-nothing mentality carried over into my adult life and how I approached my teaching career, marriage, friendships, and even my parenting. If I wasn’t the best teacher/wife/friend/mom I could possibly be, I felt like a failure in that relationship. My expectations were crippling, and my people pleasing habits made it nearly impossible to differentiate my own legitimate desires from my need for approval from others. The more positive feedback I received for my work ethic or achievements, the more pressure I felt to raise the bar on what I had already accomplished. It was an addicting and exhausting cycle.
Moving to a new town four and a half years ago proved to be the beginning of my salvation. Too worn out from the charade of having it all together in my previous job, I didn’t even apply for work as the new school year began. My dear husband gave me permission and encouragement to rest, recover, and regenerate my heart after the extreme burnout I had left behind. Shortly after we moved, I got pregnant with our first babe and knew I would be staying home for several more years to raise our family. Even though it was the plan we had always discussed for our family, the reality of losing my identity as a competent professional caused an emotional crisis. I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t performing.
As I have grappled honestly with my struggle to be a stay-at-home mom for the past several years, I have become more and more thankful for Divine rescue from my previous pattern of busyness, performance, and people pleasing. In the process of sharing my frustrations, fears, and hopes with those I love—my family and trusted friends—I’ve learned the healing power of being known, understood, and unconditionally accepted. My raw, messy struggle for worthiness has been the door to deeper intimacy with the God who created me, as he affirms again and again that I can’t earn his love. I already have it.
Instead of seeking to earn approval by doing, I’m finding real peace in being still and learning to be present. Instead of striving to make myself lovable by being perfect, I’m discovering the relief of sharing my messy journey toward wholeness with other imperfect people. Instead of exhausting myself by fretting about what people think, I’m learning to appreciate the beauty that my uniquely designed heart brings to the world. Instead of comparing my performance to what I see on social media, I’ve decided to use real people as my sounding board for the kind of mom, wife, and Jesus-follower I want to become.
Letting go of perfectionism is a bit like pulling back the curtain that shrouds me from the judgment and potential rejection of other humans. It means being honest with myself and others about my faults, my mistakes, my failures. It means opening myself up to the potential to be seen as “not good enough.” Even with those I love and trust deeply, sharing my real emotional process is difficult and uncomfortable and a bit like showing up naked on the first day of school. It means the possibility of deep hurt. But vulnerability might also be the key to a life with meaning, purpose, connection, and joy. I can either maintain a façade of flawlessness, or experience real relationships. I choose the latter.
I’ve heard it said that every man’s deepest desire and greatest fear is to be known. This rings true—I long to share my heart, to be seen and loved as I really am, yet I am fearful that you will see what’s just under the surface and turn away in disappointment. However, without being fully seen, we cannot be fully loved.
Bringing our authentic selves to a situation or relationship can feel unnatural at times, but it is also necessary to living well. Dr. Brené Brown, who has studied vulnerability and its connection to becoming what she calls “Wholehearted” over the past twelve years writes in Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead:
Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path (34).
Vulnerability—showing up and fully engaging in my life and relationships, even as it opens me up to the possibility of hurt—is so much easier to talk about than to live. It’s easier to stay angry than to share the reasons I feel hurt. It’s easier to withdraw than to tell you why I feel like a failure in our relationship. It’s easier to be critical of others than to look at my own faults. It’s easier to eat an entire batch of cookies than to feel the weight of disappointment. It’s easier to turn on the tv than to ask you how you’re really doing. It’s easier to give you the silent treatment than to admit I was wrong and ask for forgiveness.
I feel vulnerable in the moments I can’t control. When I look through the crack in the bedroom door to watch the love of my life and our sweet daughter shrieking giggles in a tickle fight before bed and my heart overflows. When I pray hard and don’t know how or when the answer will come. When I think about my babies and the dreams I have for their lives, not knowing what they will choose. When I try something new and risk failure. When my heart overflows with gratitude beyond my ability to express in words. When I reach out and don’t know how you will respond. When I share something that matters to me and wonder if it matters to you. It seems that the most meaningful moments in my life are the ones when my heart is at greatest risk.
We cannot experience real connection without engaging our hearts, risking hurt, and embracing vulnerability. I want my real self to live connected with real people, with the real God. This means perfectionism doesn’t work for me anymore. Instead, I pray for the courage to live authentically–faults, struggles, mess and all. I want to show up for the life I’m living. It’s the only one I get.