The Cello Lesson: 9 Points Toward Unlearning Perfectionism

Recently, I played the cello in front of a couple of hundred people.

Which statement probably doesn’t nudge your pulse up a notch or two, but that’s only because you don’t know the cello.

And you don’t know me.

First: The Cello

It’s difficult to play at all. It’s a crucible to play well.

Second: Me

I’m a striver. I like to reach far and push myself into discomfort. That’s on my best days.

On my not-so-best days, I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist, the personality type marked by the “setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness.”

Thank you, Mr. Webster, for that brisk insight.

(And while we’re here, your dictionary was really never all that perfect, either. So…)

Third: The Cello and Me

Did I mention that until a month ago, I hadn’t laid a bow on a cello string in thirty years?

Four with my first cello.

Four with my first cello. All photos David Dalton archive ©

Fourth: What the…?

Oh, I grew up playing the cello, sure. Thanks to professional musician parents, we kids all sang and played instruments. The result is that all four adult children— everyone but myself, that is — still are, to one extent or another, hardcore (lessons began at the age of four), trained (by the world’s best and in the best conservatories), professional (professors, performers, pedagogues), classical (does solfège mean anything to you?) musicians.

A blessing and a curse. Because that kind of upbringing can cause one to have certain standards regarding music, you know? Like, I know how a cello should sound. No – I know how a perfect cellist should sound. Which gets complicated when you’re to play the cello and remember you can’t do it perfectly. Or really all that well.

Or really at all.

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Fifth: Calluses and Panic

For background: When the musical director in our congregation wanted this lovely cello solo performed during the holidays, she asked if anyone played. I waited for someone else to pipe up. No one did. I waited longer. Still no volunteers. So in a moment of forgetfulness, I said, “I do!”

Forgetful, because I used to play. I really did. Never brilliantly, and with varying degrees of commitment and artistry, but I played for many years. Still, as with tightrope walking or karate chopping through stacks of reinforced concrete with one bare hand, if you haven’t brushed up on your technique recently, best to not volunteer.

Not, at least, unless you expect some pain, both physical and emotional. Physical: aching shoulders; cramped hands; blistered, then bloodied and then peeling fingertips in order to develop calluses. Emotional: nausea; what-have-I-done midday panic attacks; what-were-you-thinking night terrors; tears. Shingles. Hives. Scratching and oozing.

Real cellists have callused fingertips. But calluses don’t necessarily guarantee beautiful playing. And as I kept practicing, finding the notes again, massaging out my jackhammer vibrato, I was increasingly aware that no callus in the world was going to be thick enough to protect me from myself. Here crept those unrealistic demands again. There was the faint whip-whip-whip of self-flagellation. In my lower back was the clenching of a vise grip of not achieving my goal, and– oh brother – that neon blinking “sign of personal worthlessness.”

 Failure. Submediocre. No Yo-Yo Ma.

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Sixth: Oh, No Ya Don’t.

I’m too old for that stuff. I was working through that mini psycho-drama when something shifted one chilly late morning. I was sitting in my bedroom wrapped around an old borrowed cello, running scales and arpeggios. Suddenly, I wanted to cry. Not out of pain (although my fingertips are still recovering even as I type this), and not out of anxiety or despair. I was suddenly moved to near-tears by the pure intoxication of making music. The melody thrummed through me in all its amber-toned cello-ness, making me sway with the sensuous drag of my bow arm. And while the sound was warbled and scratchy to be sure, the basics still worked! The tune was recognizable. Not gorgeous, and a Mahler symphony away from perfect, but just fine. Adequate. Okay. Good enough.

(My Inner Perfectionist winced and smacked her flat hand on her forehead. How she hates those ^ words.)

And then, before the Inner Perfectionist could roll her eyes or pretend to stick her finger down her throat in disgust, a thought swept in:

 “The fear of flaws is not going keep me from sharing what God has given me to share.”

Maybe an obvious thought for you, but a mini-revelation for me. And with it, release, liberty, a trampoline flip of delight.

And then came a whispered little P.S.:

“Play badly. Go ahead. But at least do so lovingly.”

I nearly crushed the cello into splinters as I hugged it like an old friend. “We’ll do this,” I mumbled, “You and I. I loooove you.”

The wooden instrument didn’t talk back. Not because it couldn’t, but because it was wise enough to know I was actually addressing myself.

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Seventh: Stressing, Impressing, Blessing

Perfectionism is exhausting, stressful.  Author and lecturer Brené Brown calls it “a hustle.” It’s also a waste. It wastes not only time and energy, but robs you (and potentially those within the reach of your influence) of everything from a good night’s sleep to creativity to ambition to true success. Perfectionism is linked in research to addictions of all sorts and to a lack of true intimacy in relationships, either with others or with yourself, and even, if you are a believer as I am, to a lack of connecting with God.

Why does perfectionism block intimacy, even –or especially – with God? For obvious reasons. Do whatever you want, buddy, to impress others. But you can’t impress God. Furthermore, perfectionism throws up these Plexiglas walls through which you think you are seeing the real thing, or, conversely, through which you think you will be seen. But from a distance, please, because being known implies breaking through walls and being exposed as you really, truly are. Throw up all the walls you want for thick protection, but God wants you as you are, you in all of what I call your irresistable flawfulness.

The unrealistic demands a perfectionist makes on herself often fill her with shame and an unwillingness– a fear, even– to share her sludgy, tired, incapable, at times unpleasant, always utterly human self with others. She’s convinced that only the perfect version of herself is lovable; that perfection in whatever form it assumes is the only version deserving of love.

And so the perfectionist will run herself ragged trying in vain to attain an unattainable standard in order to “earn” adulation, which she mistakenly thinks is love, but which in fact is no more than a cheap and shallow quick-fix facsimile for the real thing. Re-cognition is not cognition, or knowing in the truest sense. Knowing is real contact with the real thing, and the root of true love.

To my point, perfectionism keeps us from being happy and good and plain, or just plain good ‘n’ happy. Who out there is not a little (or a lot) threadbare, floppy, sloppy, but a basically good soul? Who’s not rough on every edge and fractured in parts, but basically means well, wants to do good things? Like playing the darned Christmas cello solo in church, for heaven’s sake?! Then we must learn that…

Cello, viola, violin, piano. Later, sopranos and a bass-baritone

Cello, viola, violin, piano. Later, sopranos and a bass-baritone prince not shown. (All photos David Dalton archive ©) 

Eighth: Le Mieux est le Mortel Ennemi du Bien

The best is the mortal enemy of the good. (It takes Montesquieu, a Frenchman, to nail it. Like so many of the French I know, he knows perfection! ) Always holding out for the ultimate best –for “le mieux”, for perfection – we pass by the daily, hourly, ravishing yet fleeting opportunities to grasp and luxuriate in what’s given us. To take full part in the everyday, mysterious, generic, supernatural human condition.

  • We don’t say the simple, kind phrase because we were hoping to write it up in an Elizabethan sonnet.
  • We don’t call on Dad’s birthday because we really wanted to send him an ice sculpture of Genghis Kahn.
  • We don’t kiss our lover because he has Gandhi’s sandal breath. Or we’ve got shin stubble. Or someone is jet-lagged, crusty, non-glam.
  • We don’t raise our voice to make the comment in class because it’s not brilliant, worthy of general stunned awe, or up for the Nobel.
  • We don’t commit because the man that flips our switch doesn’t have a PhD. (Or condo. Six-pack. Life all figured out. Eyes like Clooney. A list of accomplishments. The perfect background. The perfect anything. Except love, good humor and all else, maybe. But…meh.)
  • We don’t pray because God doesn’t approve of us anyway. (Honestly, who would?)
  • We don’t dive in the ocean because we don’t want anyone to see our stretch marks or that we put on 10 kilos since last time (was that 1993?) when we dove in the ocean. Wearing a full length terry cloth cover-up.
  • We don’t laugh because, what if someone thought we were actually happy and content and not seriously pursuing something grand and unattainable, because underneath the thick lamination of harried ambition, we don’t want others to see that we’re just as much an average slouch –tired and overdrawn and messed up – as the next tired, overdrawn and messed up slouch?
  • We hold back. We keep quiet. We side-step by open doors. We shut ourselves down. We agonize over errors. We live tiny and tortured.

 

In short, perfectionism paralyzes us, as Brené Brown writes, and locks us into a glove box of smallness, or, as Anne Lamott says, “cramped and insane your whole life.”

A writing guru, Julia Cameron, adds this:

“Perfectionism doesn’t believe in practice shots. It doesn’t believe in improvement. Perfectionism has never heard that anything worth doing is worth doing badly–and that if we allow ourselves to do something badly we might in time become quite good at it. Perfectionism measures our beginner’s work against the finished work of masters. Perfectionism thrives on comparison and competition. It doesn’t know how to say, “Good try,” or “Job well done.” The critic does not believe in creative glee–or any glee at all, for that matter. No, perfectionism is a serious matter.”

 

When reflecting on the iterations of perfectionism that used to plague my life (the teen years when I nearly died of eating disorders; the spells of anxiety-induced depression that took me to teetering emotional ledges; other forms of the beast…), I mourn.

Fourteen with anorexia. My cello weighed more than I did.

Fourteen with anorexia. My cello was much bigger than I was and weighed more, too. (All photos  David Dalton archive ©)

But I don’t stay mourning very long. I quickly remind myself that those years, they were practice shots! And hey, life itself is one epic practice shot. I can learn from those mistakes and redirect my now-mature energies and gifts and garden-variety normalcy to playing whatever song I can play– not perfectly, maybe awkwardly, and at times outright badly– but at least I’m playing.

Ninth: Play Lovingly

My ear for intonation and harmony and my gut for rhythm and phrasing run through me like my DNA. My eye for beauty, my mind for language and cadence and lyricism in literature are equally strong currents. My passion for people, for the spiritual webwork that connects us all, for the mystical and the unseen that throbs through humanity and propels us forward, upward –these are the drivers I want at the center of my life, not  some “voice of the oppressor,” as Anne Lamott calls perfectionism, “which [is the] enemy of the people.”

No. I want a friend – a loving, merciful, forgiving, magnanimous, all-heart, all-in Friend, or even a couple of friends – at the center of my life. Shouldn’t one of those friends be myself?

These ideas sort of coalesced when, on your average pre-Christmas Sunday at church I took a borrowed cello to my heart, pressed it there lovingly, and then with all the tender self-embracing I have in my bones, I let. that. baby. ring. In that moment, I couldn’t suppress thinking through the text as I played:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Who can ruin such beauty? Well, to be honest, I might have. It was pretty average cello-playing on all counts, I think, and there might have been some outstanding flubs of intonation. But you know, I was so good with that. No one saw the alchemy as it lay total siege on me, but I swear my whole body and soul resonated. As I write this, they’re resonating, still.

 

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24 thoughts on “The Cello Lesson: 9 Points Toward Unlearning Perfectionism

  1. Melissa, thank you for this post. That perfectionism curls us up on our beds, frozen in fear and discouragement. I’m so glad you ventured out and took in the challenge and I would have liked to hear you playing. 😊

      • I began posting video of my incredibly amateur performances in 2006.

        It is difficult to watch them, but my daughter told me that when she was a freshman in college at SUU she would occasionally listen to my songs when she was homesick.

        Post away!

        There is only an army of knuckle dragging critics waiting to deconstruct your performance on You Tube.

        Humbly sharing my Fandalism page: http://fandalism.com/jennyhatch

      • Kudos to you, Jenny! Here’s to the Liberation from Perfectionism! Better a knuckle dragging aspiring cellist than a knuckle dragging aspiring critic!

        (Although… where’s the imperfection here?) 🙂

      • Melissa,

        We have all of eternity to perfect our talents.

        With my Celestial body I intend to become a level ten gymnast, a triple threat broadway star, an opera singer, prima ballerina, and concert pianist.

        And engage in all of these many worthwhile pursuits while pregnant and breastfeeding millions of children.

        Eternity is going to be such a kick.

        Rock on my perfectionist sister.

        My own battle with perfectionism has landed me in a mental hospital…several times.

        I have had to learn how to live as an anti perfectionist to stay sane during mortality.

      • Jenny-

        I’d be honored to learn more about your struggles with perfectionism. Mental hospitals are burgeoning with stories we should read and take seriously.

        Brené Brown has written and spoken wisely on anti-perfectionism. I like her voice, her manner. Do you know her work?

      • Melissa,

        Wow, thanks, I rarely get asked to share more.

        Most of the time people tell me to shut up.

        Here are a few links.

        I have written quite a bit and my healing story has been featured in several books and articles over the years.

        Blog Post from 2008: http://jennyhatch.com/2008/01/19/post-partum-psychosis-and-depression-a-few-thoughts/

        An excerpt from my book:

        http://jennyhatch.com/2015/01/15/book-excerpt-a-mothers-journey-by-jenny-hatch/

        My book on Amazon:

        http://www.amazon.com/Mothers-Journey-Healing-Partum-Psychosis-ebook/dp/B002KAO6V2/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1421255937&sr=1-1&keywords=a+mothers+journey+jenny+hatch

        My story is the final chapter in this book.

        http://www.kathleenkendall-tackett.com/dnm-2.html

        And the author Kathy really zeroed in on my perfectionism in the text of her book on depression.

        I had never heard of Brene’ Brown until just now, but after a ten minute Googling of her work, I can see that she has written some powerful thoughts on this topic.

        I believe LDS women are particularly vulnerable to mental illness because of our striving culture and I also believe that Feminism has messed with all of our minds in an unrelenting fashion.

        I am a proud anti feminist.

        You may notice my moniker in various places around the web often contains the catchphrase, “in my Kitchen…”

        My quiet message to anyone who notices is that I grasped my mental health by eating whole foods.

        I nourished myself to wellness with what happened and is happening in my kitchen every day.

        Whole grains, beans, and seeds- organic and non GMO – have been a solid foundation, a staff of life, for me to rebuild my body and brain.

        Few people want to hear my message because they are experimenting with the drug of the month from Big Pharma, but the food and natural healing has been my ticket to a better life, not necessarily an emotionally perfect life, my last hospitalization was just four years ago, but a life that NOBODY could have predicted for me when I was melting down in sleep deprived new mommy psychosis 27 years ago.

        Thanks again for your interest.

        Jenny

  2. This is a perfect piece on imperfection. (But don’t let that go to your head!) Thanks for slogging/singing through your cello commitment and for doing the same with this gem of true and fabulous writing. You are a true and fabulous human being. Thank you for sharing such valuable wisdom and lite. (That’s me practicing imperfection.)

  3. Perfection. (Sorry!) Truly, though. Thank you, Melissa. I wanted to re-quote my favorite line here–but they’re all my favorite! I love you and hope I’m one of those friends at the center of your life. You are for me.

  4. Thank you for this post. You are so kind to your readers by opening yourself like this. Perfectionism is a massive problem for me as well. Bringing up children who were born with the same destructive proclivities has taught me a great deal about this issue- ( combatting it in myself so as not to be a bad example and guiding my children toward the joys of ‘easy breezy best’ while not abandoning the concept of standards). However- it has never occurred to me that one of the reasons I find prayer extremely difficult lies in my self-loathing. I figured I had not studied and practiced praying hard enough! Thank you for this transformative insight.

    • Tasha-I’ll be quoting you for years to come: Easy Breezy Best. When I work with youth, especially young women, who (like older women, we need to note), tend toward perfectionism far more than do men, I’ll sing those words to them. And I think I’ll add, First Your Worst. I’d like to coach them in the value of ‘flailure” – flailing, wrestling, blowing it big time – if that’s all we can do for the moment.

      And about self-loathing: How can a written voice as clear, compassionate and kind as yours belong to someone who is not brimming over with self-love? Don’t get it.

      🙂

  5. I am reminded of the words of Adam S. Miller in his wonderful book, “Letters To A Young Mormon.” He talks about un-coupleing our desire to be loved from our desire to be great. He says,“ Pursue love and pursue excellence – pursue them with abandon. But you will spoil the joy native to each if you spend your life wanting to be loved BECAUSE you are great. Love is for its own sake. It only works as a gift and never as a reward.” He talks about loving to play basketball as a child for the sheer joy of it. But then in high school when he played in front of people he says, “ My ambition became to use basketball as a crowbar for leveraging love. And this, win or lose, is no way to play basketball. In fact, it is no way to do anything…Do what you can, do it better than your’e able, and let things happen as they may…the outcome is not your concern. If God is going to show himself to you in the work that you shoulder, he will only do so if you’ve stopped craving an approving audience and, instead work out your own salvation…Unencumbered by a fear of failing, secure in the perfect love passing through you, you put your shoulder to the wheel, you whistle while you work, and the work itself becomes a more perfect expression of an already perfect love.”
    2 Nephi 32:9

    • Anne,

      Adam Miller is a treasure and gift! Would that the whole world were devouring his writings! I had marked this very passage you’ve quoted in my own copy of “Letters” (right here on my desk), and enjoyed, too, his “Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan.” The man writes densely, with razor-fine acuity, but without parched academic sterility. And oh, this idea, “ambition as a crowbar for leveraging love” – who has never felt that? And who doesn’t need to unlearn that? I know the tiniest bit of that sensation he describes of love working right through you, and know it is enough to change our behavior, and in turn our relationships, trajectory, worldview, even our DNA.

  6. I’ve been saying for the last few years that someday I’d like to learn to play the cello. Maybe for a 50th birthday new pursuit? Well, now I think I was completely naive to even consider such an undertaking! But I’m so very happy you played, learned so much in the process, and shared it with all of us. I love reading and recently felt such a rush of gratitude for all of those writers like you who have done the hard work I’ve not yet managed to do and have blessed my life with their writing. You are an inspiration. Xoxox

  7. Hello Melissa,

    This is so well-timed for me. Especially since I recently finished Global Mom (over Christmas break, while in Austria), and have been intending to write/comment here, but was waiting until I had composed something ‘perfect’ to write to you. Instead, I will write something now, no matter how imperfect it is. I love and admire you. I thank you for sharing your story, your example, your grief, your wisdom in your writing. Thanks for inspiring me, thanks for being my mentor.

    I want to write books and articles. But I read books by other authors, like you — or like last night when I finished Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis — and think, “How could I ever write anything so genius?” So I don’t. But this article has inspired me to simply do it anyway, no matter how imperfect it is.

    I think I’ll also pick up the flute again… I haven’t touched one for 8 years.

    All my love!

    • Rachel, hello, neighbor! And I so admire you. Please: write, write, write. There are no perfect writers. There is no perfect tome. There are rewriters and editors and critics and writing groups and peer edits and drafts and drafts and drafts. And drafts. I often tell aspiring writers (which is what all writers are, forever) that no writing is lost. Save everything. Journals, correspondence, notes on a napkin in the park. Save your wordsmithing. And then read like you breathe. Reading is the lifeblood of writing, feeding your voice with a distinctive cadence and melodiousness. Onthat subject: I’d watch out for what you read first off in a day. If I go right to social media (instead of literature-literature, or best, scripture), I find my written voice during that day reflecting the chatty tone that fills much of social media. In fact, it’s death for my written voice. Just a tip from someone who’s aspiring, like you! Much love-Melissa

  8. Melissa,

    Wow, thanks, I rarely get asked to share more.

    Most of the time people tell me to shut up.

    Here are a few links.

    I have written quite a bit and my healing story has been featured in several books and articles over the years.

    Blog Post from 2008: http://jennyhatch.com/2008/01/19/post-partum-psychosis-and-depression-a-few-thoughts/

    An excerpt from my book:

    http://jennyhatch.com/2015/01/15/book-excerpt-a-mothers-journey-by-jenny-hatch/

    My book on Amazon:

    http://www.amazon.com/Mothers-Journey-Healing-Partum-Psychosis-ebook/dp/B002KAO6V2/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1421255937&sr=1-1&keywords=a+mothers+journey+jenny+hatch

    My story is the final chapter in this book.

    http://www.kathleenkendall-tackett.com/dnm-2.html

    And the author Kathy really zeroed in on my perfectionism in the text of her book on depression.

    I had never heard of Brene’ Brown until just now, but after a ten minute Googling of her work, I can see that she has written some powerful thoughts on this topic.

    I believe LDS women are particularly vulnerable to mental illness because of our striving culture and I also believe that Feminism has messed with all of our minds in an unrelenting fashion.

    I am a proud anti feminist.

    You may notice my moniker in various places around the web often contains the catchphrase, “in my Kitchen…”

    My quiet message to anyone who notices is that I grasped my mental health by eating whole foods.

    I nourished myself to wellness with what happened and is happening in my kitchen every day.

    Whole grains, beans, and seeds- organic and non GMO – have been a solid foundation, a staff of life, for me to rebuild my body and brain.

    Few people want to hear my message because they are experimenting with the drug of the month from Big Pharma, but the food and natural healing has been my ticket to a better life, not necessarily an emotionally perfect life, my last hospitalization was just four years ago, but a life that NOBODY could have predicted for me when I was melting down in sleep deprived new mommy psychosis 27 years ago.

    Thanks again for your interest.

    Jenny

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