41: Aspiring to be imperfect
A colleague told me something the other day that felt truly profound. During a moment of reflection after an intense leadership development program, they explained, the class was asked to share one word that described the leader they hoped to become. My colleague struggled with this for a while. Most of the others said things like, “I want to be more inspirational,” or “influential,” or “intentional,” or, especially popular in the recent past, “inclusive.'' These are all fine and good, but they also ring hollow. They feel like words that describe what we should aspire to be as leaders but they don’t feel authentic to the person who is spouting them. What occurred to my colleague as she listened to her classmates was that she aspired to be an imperfect leader. She was tired of the self imposed pressure to be perfect as a representative of her race and her gender. She wanted to allow herself the freedom to be human, to have flaws, to make mistakes and to learn from them.
This idea really struck me. I think as far as my professional life goes, where I have been in leadership for over a decade, one of the reasons for my success is that I am comfortable being imperfect. In fact, I talk about my imperfections and often share stories of times I messed up with my team. I own my mistakes. I apologize. I take accountability and thank people for helping me learn. For me, work is the easy part. I have no doubt that my status as a white, cisgender man plays a big part in this. As such, I’m starting with a leg up and I have less to lose. People are more forgiving and accepting of my mistakes than they are of my colleague’s (who is a Black woman).
Where I struggle is in my own self acceptance as a person. What inspires me about my colleague’s aspiration to be an imperfect leader is the idea that I could aspire to be an imperfect human. Not just to accept my imperfections, but to aspire to them.
As a late diagnosed autistic person, I spent most of my life wondering what was wrong with me. This, I’ve learned, is a common experience for autistic people who struggle to “fit in”, to maintain friendships, to understand the motivations and reactions of others. I felt at odds with many aspects of human behavior, especially when it came to what other people considered normal or acceptable ways of interacting. This might be too simple, but lacking a diagnosis - or a legitimizing explanation for the challenges that I had - I turned on myself. I thought I was stupid, ugly, “uncool”, weird, and many other things.
Other people seemed to think that too - my brothers, my uncle, friends and schoolmates, the fathers of some friends, and various other people I would encounter, all, at times, would let me know that I was doing something wrong, or that there was inherently something wrong with who I was (I should say that I reciprocated in kind). I remember the father of one friend yelling at me so loudly one day while I played with his son that I peed in my pants. I remember another time a friend’s dad, during a sleepover, almost dragged me out of my sleeping bag and drove me home in the middle of the night because I didn’t want to take off my pants (he was worried I would make the sleeping bag dirty with my dirty jeans). Again and again, at different stages of my childhood and adolescence, I would lose friends, find myself on the “outside” of a group, and feel rejected and inadequate.
It’s hard not to internalize these feelings. Eventually, for me, they manifested in disordered eating, alcohol use, and a tendency to leave situations when I felt I had overstayed my welcome, shutting the door firmly behind me. This would include moving suddenly across the country, abandoning apartments without even taking my belongings, ignoring letters and phone calls from people I had left behind, or even telling people I didn’t want to communicate with them ever again. Whenever I pushed someone out of my life, I felt confident I was doing them a favor, assuming that they would be relieved at not having to encounter me ever again. This behavior, of course, only exasperated my sense of “otherness” - it became a self fulfilling prophecy. During a period in my early thirties when I was dating after years of being in a monogamous relationship, I remember telling someone I had been spending a lot of time with and who seemed to really like me that it was just a matter of time before she realized I was a jerk, or a “bad person”. She looked at me with surprise and skepticism, seeming so confident that I was mistaken. It was easy for me to be the person other people wanted me to be, for a short period of time. But once I grew tired from the act of pretending, I would become irritable and grouchy and want to be alone.
As I write this, it occurs to me that I don’t need to aspire to be an imperfect person - clearly I have plenty of imperfections already! The thing about aspiring toward imperfection, and the reason I am so grateful to my colleague for sharing her revelation with me, is that the root of my challenges, I believe, has been my inability to accept my imperfections (which, really, is an inability to accept my normal human flaws). When I meet someone new, someone who it seems like I could be good friends with, I go into it assuming it’s just a matter of time before they discover they don’t really like me and don’t really want to hang out with me or be my friend. When I think about the few friendships that I have been able to maintain, years go by with no interactions between us. I feel that either we aren’t really friends (if we were, wouldn’t they have reached out?), or that I’ve ruined the friendship by not reaching out myself (disappearing again, as I’ve so often done). I tell myself friendship is mutual, and if neither of us have reached out to the other, then we must not be friends anymore. What if, instead, I relaxed into the idea that we are both imperfect, that there is nothing wrong with our friendship, and that the other person will be there when one of us reaches out?
My unwillingness to accept my imperfections seems to lead to:
Assuming that other people don’t want to see me or spend time with me, which makes me feel and behave awkwardly in their presence (self fulfilling prophecy)
Engaging in or insisting on behaviors and routines that give me structure and comfort but that make it harder for me to relate to or be with other people (dietary restrictions, odd sleeping hours, rigid exercise routine, reluctance to alter my routine which makes it hard to engage in activities that others enjoy)
Ruminating on negative thought patterns that impact my ability to form connections with other people (harsh judgment of the behavior and choices of others, feeling guilty for my behaviors and actions, ascribing motivations and negative assumptions to other people because I feel defensive and under attack)
There are plenty of moments when I ask myself, “Why can’t I chill out?” or when I yell at myself to JUST RELAX. But the only thing I have found that reliably and consistently enables me to calm down is alcohol. That is, when I am drinking, I am able to put aside my insecurities and to act “normal”. I believe that alcohol makes it more fun, or at least easier, for other people to hang out with me. I’ve actually had several people tell me that they prefer hanging out with the “drunk version” of me. That comment was meant as a joke, and I thought it was funny, but there is certainly truth to it. When I don’t drink in social situations I’m stiff, hesitant, reluctant to engage in conversation, and in a hurry to be done with it. Guests don’t feel particularly welcome in my house, and hosts experience a guest who seems unhappy to be there and is eager to leave. When I’m drinking, though, I can temporarily forget some of my discomforts and discontents, I can relax about what time it is, I can settle into the idea of just “rolling with it” and enjoy myself until the gathering comes to a natural end. But then, of course, I have to deal with feelings of guilt and remorse the next morning for the drinking I did the night before.
Through my writing, I think I’m able to process and increase my understanding of what is happening in my head. I can see a goal that I could aspire to - accept my imperfections; work on relaxing in social situations without using alcohol; allow myself some grace in changing my routine (sleeping later, skipping a day of exercise); give other people grace for their imperfections and use that as an opportunity for empathy rather than judgment. This is all, of course, much easier said than done. That’s why it is an aspiration. Despite the clarity of these words on the page, and their obvious appeal, the idea of embracing these things feels like I’m standing at the bottom of a sheer cliff, wanting to climb to the top, but knowing that I have no idea how to rock climb (not to mention no equipment to do it with). It doesn’t just feel like it would be hard, it feels like it would be impossible, and also dangerous.
Writing this down, and posting it, feels like a first step at least.