The Problem with Perfect

I’m nine years old, it’s late summer, and I’m playing tag and roughhousing with a group of boys in the churchyard. My mother is standing on the church steps with the other adults, talking and smoking cigarettes, stretching out the fabric of the evening until the stars are visible. Occasional shrieks of laughter punctuate the cacophony of insects and tree frogs, and fireflies dart like tiny, luminescent spirits in the graveyard. It’s the kind of Southern night that can make a poet or a songwriter swoon.    

The boys are beginning to accept me as one of their tribe and rarely cut me any slack for being a girl. I want to understand their world, so I learn the proper way to throw a football, and I try to be impressed with things like baseball cards and comic books. I am holding my own in whatever game we decide to play, and being an only child, they give me some sense of what it would be like to have a bunch of annoying brothers. I’m learning that having brothers means I need to be tough and willing to get my clothes dirty. So I don’t think much about the mud on my shirt when I notice the adults putting out their cigs and shuffling towards the parking lot. 

I wave goodbye to the boys, reaching the car at the same time my mom does. There is just enough light from the streetlamp for her to notice that my white shirt is no longer pristine. She is instantly furious and launches into a tirade about me being thoughtless and careless in my “good clothes” and how we don’t have money to replace such things. I feel shamed and humiliated, and not knowing what else to do, I slide into the back seat, hoping that it’s too dark for anyone to see my tears. 

I overhear one of the other mothers say, “It’s alright. A little stain remover will take that right out.” 

As the parent of two rambunctious boys, she probably owned stock in stain remover and could tackle grass, mud, and blood without batting an eyelash. I cry even harder because she is standing up for me, and I wish I could go home with her instead. Maybe she would like to add a lively daughter to her brood. Then I notice a brief glitch in my mother’s programming. An expression that almost looks like regret passes over her face, but I don’t get an apology. 

What I internalized from that experience and many others is that the way to avoid criticism, shame, and humiliation is to be perfect. 

The years that followed were full of honor rolls, college degrees, summa cum laude, and all the other academic accolades I could acquire. I got the corporate job after graduate school and surpassed anything anyone in my family had ever done in terms of education and position. If I could do enough and be enough, then I thought I would finally be worthy of love. In my world, love was conditional, merit-based, and could be withdrawn at any moment. It paid to be an over-achiever.  

What did I pay with? My soul, mostly. 

On the one hand, I developed self-discipline and the capacity to stick with something long after the initial excitement wore off. I learned how to push through apathy, boredom, illness, frustration, fatigue, and doubt. I learned how to work when I felt like it and when I didn’t. That is how you win the medal and save the day, or so I thought. It’s a repetitive process of self-denial, grit, and determination. 

On the other hand, I developed a harsh and relentless inner critic that never made allowances for being human. I was still the girl afraid of getting mud on her shirt. Every bit of my self-worth was tied to achievement, and without it, I had no idea who I was. If I wasn’t working toward something and slaying a goal, then I was nothing.  

Attaining the goal always ended up feeling shallow, though. I would sink into depression afterward, because there was always something higher and better on the horizon. I didn’t pause to celebrate accomplishments, because they were never enough for me anyway. I didn’t bother to hang diplomas or awards on the wall. If achieving made me feel worthy, then I had to find another hit as quickly as possible.       

Fast forward to the present. I’m sitting in my therapist’s chair, watching the fishes dart back and forth in their tank, wondering if they feel limited by their world or if they are blessedly unconscious of lakes and oceans. For their sake, I hope they have no aspirations.     

Determined to get to the root of my perfectionist problem, my therapist, who seems a lot like Gandalf to me, finally asks, “Can you be okay with not being a god? Can you accept that you are a fallible, flawed human?”

“No, not really. I’d rather be a goddess,” I reply with my usual wit and sarcasm, laughing while I cry a little on the inside, because it’s true. I’m not madly in love with being human and never have been. A part of me has always felt like I don’t belong here in this life or even on this planet. (Some say that people like me are starseeds, but that’s a far out topic for another blog). 

I’ve also spent over two decades immersed in women’s spirituality and the Goddess movement, which helped me wake up to my own feminine power in a hypermasculine world. I had to slough off a lot of early conditioning, and I did it with sisters who weren’t afraid to drum, dance, sing, laugh, chant, howl, cry, and connect with our ancient lunar wisdom and magic. 

I still emphasize connecting with the Divine Feminine in much of my writing and my spiritual practice. It can be a path for healing low self-esteem and victim mentality, particularly for women who were brought up in extremely repressive, misogynistic environments. It’s a period of recovery and reclaiming, and I believe it’s sacred, vital work for bringing feminine consciousness back into the world. 

There is also a field out beyond that where a woman knows her power and strength after doing the inner work. She doesn’t doubt what she can manifest. She isn’t afraid to speak her truth. She owns her sexuality. She has clear boundaries. She is less of a student and more of a teacher now. She can hold space for others quite easily, but she must also hold space for herself.

I stand in that field of wildflowers now, asking questions and looking into the well of wisdom with my own face reflected back to me. Who am I now after all that I’ve done? What if I could still accomplish great things with love and acceptance for my human flaws? What would that even feel like?  

One aspect of Goddess spirituality that I find troubling is the tendency to put Her on such a high pedestal that She is completely unrelatable. A depiction of Aphrodite rising from the sea foam might inspire more self-love or it might trigger body dysmorphia. It depends on a woman’s personal history and point of view. In a world that already wants to slice and dice women into unrealistic, commercialized images, it can be difficult to access something true and genuinely feminine. Something divinely human. Something perfectly imperfect. If we are to see the Goddess in ourselves, then what does that really look like? Here’s a hint: it’s probably not something porcelain and immaculate.     

When I consider the Goddess now, I want her to be a lot less celestial. Maybe she’s sporting a messy bun and still in her pajamas on her third cup of coffee, because she’s deep in her creative process. Maybe she has paint in her hair and mud on her feet…or on her shirt. 

Looking back on it all, I know my mother was doing her best to give me a competitive edge, and she did it in the only way she knew how. I can only imagine the fear she must have felt inside at the thought of sending her daughter out into a world that would expect her to think and act like a man in order to be successful. She wanted me to reach higher and go further than she did, and she was trying to prepare me for the fact that my softer, feminine qualities would not be considered assets. I have so much compassion for her, knowing that what she passed on to me was part of the patriarchal illness that affects us all. I’m wide awake to the symptoms, though, and it’s my job to heal myself and to help others if I can.  

Healing means knowing I’m worthy down to my bones because of who I am, not because of what I achieve. I’m finally reaching a place where I can pause and simply stand on everything I’ve learned in my life and put it into practice for the greater good. 

As I was wrestling with perfectionism and beginning to write about it, a friend called out of the blue one afternoon with a message that felt like it came straight from the Universe. 

“I want you to know that what you offer has value,” she said. “You speak the truth and listen compassionately. No matter what I’ve talked to you about, I never felt judged. That’s a rare thing, and I felt like you should know that it’s really needed in this world.” 

Her words touched me deeply. I realized that I did not learn the things she spoke about from a textbook or a professor. They cannot be learned. They are the medicine I carry, and it is enough. 

When You’re Woo-Woo as F*ck and Your Partner Isn’t

It may surprise you to know that despite being a witchy, Goddess-powered kind of woman, I cohabitate with a man who is decidedly non woo-woo. It has come to my attention that there are quite a lot of us out there who maintain some type of spiritual practice that doesn’t involve our partner. It’s like we’re all keeping a holy sanctuary that our most-loved person never enters.

Does it matter? Well, that depends.

For some, it’s no big deal, as long as the partner is respectful and understanding about things like burning candles, wafting incense, reading Tarot cards, and being highly conscious of the moon’s exact phase and astrological transits. As long as love is the foundation of the partnership, it works well enough.

I’ve also known women who relish their spiritual path as their private, inner world, and they have absolutely no wish at all to share any of it with a partner. Doing so would almost feel like a violation, because they have fought so hard to create that sacred space for themselves.

For others, spirituality becomes a sticking point. They want and need their partner to be fully on board and engaged with them and their spiritual practice. Questions can begin to arise like, ‘If my partner rejects my spiritual values, does he/she reject me as well?’ and ‘If I can’t share this part of my life with him/her, then do we really even have a relationship?’

In the earlier days of my break from mainstream religion, I was thrilled if the guy I was dating didn’t bug me about church or try to convert me. It was even better if he didn’t freak out over words like witchcraft, Goddess, and pagan. (Having been raised in the South, I was recovering from the emotional abuse and patriarchal wounds I received from the church. The slightest hints of fundamentalism would send me running).

So, I only looked for tolerance and open-mindedness from potential lovers, and that’s mostly what I attracted. The word witch almost served as a kind of litmus test to see who would stick around, although I have to say that many didn’t care what I believed or practiced. They were far more interested in my body than my mind and spirit anyway.

I thought that men who were spiritually awake, plugged in, and switched on would be too much to hope for, quite honestly. I figured I’d be doing really well just to find one who was stable, reliable, intelligent, driven, and kind. Enter Domestic Partner #3, who has all of those qualities.

I felt that he was extremely fortunate to have parents who didn’t drag him to church or force him to practice any type of religion. I certainly wasn’t going to do that to him, either. He formed his own beliefs, which are pretty close to agnostic if I had to put a label on them. He has always been supportive of me, but we’ll never share the exact same views on the inner-workings of the Universe and the things I feel inside but can’t always explain.

Our relationship works, as long as my witching and priestessing takes place on the outskirts of our daily life. It works, as long as my woo-woo conversations are limited to friends and members of my community. It works, as long as I don’t connect the dots between sexuality and spirituality. It works, as long as I don’t care if he ever joins me in my inner temple. It works, as long as I keep this immense part of myself, which informs so much of my writing and all that I do, separate from all that we do as a couple.

Sometimes I do care, though I try hard to release any expectations. I’ve learned that having expectations of anyone is always a recipe for disappointment. Knowing that is one thing; putting it into practice is another. Sometimes it’s lonely. Sometimes I feel we are speaking a completely different language, and there is no translator. Sometimes I follow the flowchart back to the beginning and find that the heart-centered medicine men and sages of this world are still in short supply.

I’ve never felt that my partner rejected me personally or even my spiritual outlook directly. It’s more that I question how deeply a relationship can go if one of the most important aspects of my life can only be experienced with others.

Emotional Currency and the Receipts We Carry

Cleaning out my purse is a weekly ritual for me, because I can’t stand digging through unnecessary items to reach the one thing I need (usually, it’s my car keys). Receipts tend to accumulate more than anything else. I buy something and shove the receipt down in my purse, as I’m grabbing the handles of my reusable tote and zooming out the door to the next task on my list. I forget about the receipt, unless I happen to need it for a return. It just stays there as a reminder of what I purchased, until I do my weekly purse purging.

When this subject came up in a Facebook group, I shared my routine and wished out loud that getting rid of emotional receipts could be so easy. Suddenly, those annoying slips of paper took on a much deeper meaning.

Let’s unpack this idea a little more.

When we buy something, we’re exchanging our time and energy. We convert work into currency, and then we use it to pay for things. We also have “emotional currency” that we exchange all the time, although we’re not always conscious of these transactions. Sometimes they are subtle, and sometimes we are keenly aware of what we’re giving and receiving from others. Either way, we pick up “energetic receipts” that remind us of what a choice or an experience has cost us…until we’re ready to let them go.

It is astonishing how heavy a purse can get when left unattended. It becomes a black hole that keeps taking on junk until it throws off your gait, ruins your posture, and causes your back and shoulders to ache. Curious things, these purses we carry and all that we store inside them. They are much like our wombs that also house more than we realize, literally and emotionally.

After learning the art and practice of womb centering from Diva Carla of Orgasmic Alchemy, I began to understand that the womb has a natural capacity to take things on. Its ultimate goal is transmutation—changing something from one form or state of being into another—but that process gets very muddy if we’re not properly trained. And how many of us are? How many are even speaking about the womb in this context? Few indeed. So things get stuck. We have energetic receipts hanging around there in the dark recesses of our womb space until we make a conscious effort to deal with them. If we don’t, then the weight of it all will be felt as depression, anxiety, PMS, shame, sexual dysfunction, chronic pain, fibroids, heavy periods, and the list goes on and on.

I’ll share one of my energetic receipts, because I know this is an abstract sort of thing that needs a concrete example. I also like to practice what I preach, and I’m okay with being a little more vulnerable these days. So here goes.

I stayed in the same job many years longer than I should have, mostly out of fear. It’s like I couldn’t see beyond the walls of my cubicle, even though there must have been at least a hundred other jobs I could have done and a hundred other places I could have lived at that time. I was divorced with no children. The only person keeping me there was myself, and still I had this tunnel vision when it came to my livelihood.

People asked me why I didn’t just write a book at night in my spare time. Sure. Right. After 5 p.m., I had exactly enough energy to make a meal, do the dishes, and catch up on some laundry before falling asleep and doing it all again the next day. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. There was no room for creativity in such a caged existence. Still, I told myself that this was survival, independence, and how the “real world” operates. I believed that being creative also meant starving and struggling, and that seemed even worse than the cubicle farm. I also believed that one office was the same as any other. So I paid my energetic currency to the devil I knew. I racked up a long receipt for 12 soul-crushing years, and the itemized list included:

  • eating antidepressants like candy for a year after my first divorce, because there was no time and space to grieve
  • meaningless sexual encounters that became an outlet for the creativity I could not express in any other way
  • entering a second marriage for all the wrong reasons, and divorcing three years later
  • having two master’s degrees and still earning less than $50K annually
  • feeling disgusted with myself for not using my education and abilities in a more meaningful way
  • trying to function inside of a broken organization, and feeling powerless to change it
  • feeling like a victim of workplace gossip, jealousy, and the good ol’ boy system
  • believing it was impossible to have a career and a family at the same time after seeing how working mothers were treated

That was the price of my decision to stay there for a paycheck, even though it was clearly very painful to do so. I was not keeping a conscious running tally of what the job was costing me (that came later), but the soul (and the womb) registers everything. The receipt was always printing in the background.

Truth be told, I am still working through issues related to money and sexuality, because they are both tied to the second chakra. It’s just that now I refuse to suffer in silence. I refuse to bury “the things we don’t talk about” under layers of shame and oppression.

The past year has been illuminating…and overwhelmingly dark at the same time. As this Mercury retrograde cycle continues, I will be looking at more energetic receipts that need to be emptied from the purse of my womb and soul. If you are doing the same, then know that I see you, sisters, and you are magnificent.

Blessed Be

Copyright © 2016 Jennifer R. Miller. All rights reserved.