So I got this question via email and it gave me an excellent opportunity to address a topic I’ve been wanting to cover--- Black women really need permission to be imperfect!
I know you're an attorney and not a psychotherapist, but what would you suggest to someone like me who has struggled with being the horrible/character flawed person who's trying to live above the the craziness? How would I go about making a difference if my character is flawed? - Horribly Flawed Reader
Dear Horribly Flawed Reader,
Congrats! You’re human. The truth is that all of us have character flaws. As we should, we are works in progress.
I’m going to assume that you are in your 20’s so you are right on track. In your 20’s you worry about what other people think about you. You try to meet other people’s expectations. In your 30’s you try to figure out what your expectations for your own life should be- you start looking around and wondering whose life you should be living. Though I am not there yet, I suspect that in your 40s, you just don’t give a rip. Death is knocking at your door and you’re trying to grab as much out of your remaining days on the planet - you don’t have time to worry about other people and their expectations. (Awaits angry letters from the 40+ readers.)
But let’s assume for the sake of argument that you are the anti-Christ, the right hand of Satan, the evilest of evil- you are a terrible, horrible, no good very bad person - you can still “make a difference.”
The truth is that most people in need aren’t going to ask for references. They really don’t care all that much about who you are or where you came from. They need help and they’ll gladly take it from someone as horribly flawed as you.
Somewhere in your community this weekend, there is an event that needs volunteers. I’m an introvert so I have literally volunteered in places where I didn’t speak more than a dozen words from the time I left my car until I returned. The people weren’t interested in my thoughts or ideas or character they needed very specific things done and they needed me to do them. There are groups who don’t care what your motivations are, they aren’t interested in your resume, they just need a warm body to lift a spoon, hand out water, direct people where to park, hand out t-shirts, enter data, etc. I suspect that after you do more work making a difference, you might discover that you might be slightly flawed, but not horribly flawed.
So here’s a reading list you might want to consider as you work this out in your own brain.
- You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life by Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding - I suspect a great deal of your issue is your perspective and you brain. I suspect that your ideas about right and wrong, good and bad, perfection and flaws were formed during your formative years--- ie when you were a child. You are no longer a child and holding on to the coping skills and judgements of the adults who raised you is just DEADLY as a fully grown adult. You are who you decide to be, not who those people said you are or would become if you weren’t perfect. This book really helps you diagnose negative thinking and silence those thoughts. Your brain is probably deceiving you. I know- it’s crazy right? But it’s true. This book teaches you how to make your brain work for you instead of against you. The greatest health crisis in Black America isn’t AIDS or Cancer or diabetes, the greatest “health” crisis is actually a mental health crisis of having TERRIBLE or nonexistent coping skills. This book helps you develop coping skills that are appropriate for the young woman you are today, not the child you were a few short years ago.
- The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brene Brown. It’s a little bit touchy-feely, but it’s short and easy to read and the 10 Guideposts in her book go straight to the heart of your assessment that you are not enough. In fact one of the earliest chapters is Exploring the Power of Love, Belonging, and Being Enough. You don’t think that the person you are now is enough to help make a different. That’s not reality. I know this because the fact that you could email me means you have a computer, you speak and write in English, you know how to browse the web and you know who to send an email- do you realize that there are millions of people in this country that would love to know how to do any one of those things and would be happy if you took time out to teach them? Brene also has another book called I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't): Making the Journey from "What Will People Think?" to "I Am Enough" Do you see a pattern here?
- Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust - I mention this book all the time because of the impact Immacule Ilibagiza’s story had in my own life and the life of this blog. When you read this book you, you will discover that as flawed as you are, there are people who are far more flawed- downright evil. You will see the capacity for seemingly “normal” people to commit horrific acts of violence against their own neighbors. But you’ll also see the acts of incredibly flawed people save lives. Immaculee’s savior wasn’t perfect.
My heart softened toward the pastor. Sure, there has been many times during the past few months I’d been furious with his behavior, and some of the things he’d said were insensitive, ignorant, and cruel... but he had risked everything for us, and he had saved our lives. Left to Tell.
Permission to be Imperfect
Black girls often get saddled with the coping skills of our grandmothers and great grandmothers. Where do you think our mothers got their coping skills? Unfortunately, the coping skills of those women were developed during segregation and in some rare cases slavery.
A Black woman who thought too highly of herself or was “uppity” might have found herself in mortal peril. So many of us were raised to covet FALSE humility. Don’t get too big for your britches. We were also raised with the idea that EVERY imperfection was high stakes imperfection. Every screwup was catastrophic. Every misstep would lead to death. And our grandmothers and great grandmothers weren’t wrong- they lived during a different time where “standing out” from the crowd might have brought some dire consequences. They were raising daughters to survive during that time. Their choices and decisions were rational--- for that time.
I suspect that the expectations and standards you have for yourself were passed on by people born in a different time who had to cope with life under different circumstances. Where there was no margin for error. So any perceived error in your own character is devastating. Except your flaws aren’t devastating- they might even be a feature.
So before you being a renovation on your life to repair all of the flaws you think you have, you might want to get a second opinion. I bet you aren’t nearly as horribly flawed as you think you are.
If you want to make a difference, you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be willing.
Yours in Imperfection,