This dress was everything. It fit me just right, hugged my curves without being too tight or revealing, and gave me visions of dancing the night away with the perfect guy on a perfect date in my perfect dress.
And yet it hung in my closet for more than a year because I was afraid to waste it on a date or a guy who didn’t fit the criteria.
That dress came to represent my life. There I was, waiting for the perfect career, the perfect relationship, the perfect guy and the perfect me. I had a checklist of personal and professional goals I wanted to accomplish by age 35: be a successful author, a wife, and girls’ foundation president, to name a few. I had a checklist of attributes a guy needed for me to date him: someone who was ambitious, attractive and goal-oriented, who was busy but not too busy for me, who loved sports, who could glide seamlessly between a boardroom and a basketball court, who understood the importance of giving back to his community. And I had a checklist of what I had to show him about me to prove that I was just as perfect as he was.
It was exhausting and unfulfilling, and I felt as if I hadn’t made any meaningful changes in my life in years. But I didn’t understand why I felt that way until I heard professor and author Brené Brown speak about why perfectionism hinders us from being more loving to ourselves and others, which can make it harder to forge meaningful connections. In an Oprah Lifeclass, Brown said that perfectionism was “the 20-ton shield we carry around hoping it will keep us from being hurt when in truth what it does is, it keeps us from being seen.”
That quote struck me, forcing me to realize that my perfectionism had held me back; it was why I hadn’t worn that dress yet.
I’d been aiming so high in the hopes that the perfect date with the perfect guy would mean I wouldn’t get hurt. In my mind, if the guy didn’t meet my expectations in some way or check off every category on my list, I had no reason to get my hopes up about him.
If my hopes weren’t up, he had no way of letting me down. It was easier to date without excitement than to risk disappointment. This led me to date several guys who were great “on paper” but never stood a chance, because I didn’t let myself get excited about them.
In a similar sense, I’d been trying to be perfect because I didn’t think people would like the uncensored, unvarnished, unpolished version of me. If they never saw the messy, imperfect, insecure, snorts-when-she-laughs, falls-when-she-dances, ugly-cries-when-she’s-angry side of me, I never risked getting rejected.
But that meant they also never really saw me. This was true in my career, with my friends and in my pursuit of love.
Soon after seeing Brown on “Oprah,” a guy from my past asked me out to dinner. This guy was not perfect. We had a complicated history, he didn’t live near me, and I wasn’t even sure whether it was a date. Had he asked me two months before, my answer would have been no. But with Brown’s words in mind, I said yes.
And finally, a year and a half after buying that dress, I wore it.
Once I stopped aiming for perfection, I found something much better. I finally felt good — just being me. It was freeing to share my imperfect self with someone else who was just as flawed as I am. I didn’t worry whether every statement I made was analyzed, nor did I pick apart what he said to see how much he was really interested in me.
On the night I finally wore my perfect date dress, I wasn’t worried about whether I was with the perfect guy on a perfect date. I was so busy laughing and talking over dinner that my cheeks hurt when I got back home.
The first chip got chiseled into my perfectionist’s shield that night.
And the dress looked pretty great, too.