Why being imperfect can be the perfect way to be

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It felt like old times: standing in a bar in Madrid with my friend Paul, chatting about everything and anything over beers and tapas* and then discussing the football and life in general with the locals.

Until Paul said: “Your Spanish is much better than when you lived here. You been studying?”

I made a joke about it obviously being the beer and thought nothing of it until a few days later, when I went to lunch with my Spanish friends Laura and Javi**.

Having not seen each other – and Laura and Javi being incredibly interesting and friendly people – we talked all afternoon.

When their little girl Azu came in, I teased her in the way you do with children and tickled her and talked some more.

Barely a word of English was said.

I lived in Madrid for eight years, so you’d think my Spanish must be excellent. Sadly, it’s not. My work meant I both wrote in English and talked in English. All my Spanish friends spoke some level English and wanted to practice or were happy to translate when I got stuck. And, of course, I talked English with my husband and English-language friends.

When I did speak Spanish, my mouth was always faster than my brain (no change there). So I’d make mistakes – mixing up the gender of words or calling the Pope a potato and asking if there were condoms in the bread.

And I was crushingly aware of those mistakes, especially with the (not-so) charming manner Spaniards have of showing they can’t understand you.

“Neeeeehhhhhhhh?”

My Spanish was good. I could talk on the phone or meet bureaucrats or go to the doctor’s with no worries.

But it was never perfect and after eight years, I felt it should have been. And that stopped me talking because I didn’t want people to see I wasn’t fluent yet.

So why was I talking so well and confidently after six years away?

I thought about this a lot on the journey back to the UK. All my life, I’ve worried about making a fool of myself by doing something imperfectly.

I saw/see mistakes in myself almost as a moral failure.

“They must think you’re stupid,” my mind says. “You’ve just proven them right.”

Menopause and all the paranoia that has come with it has amplified this. Now I beat myself up even more when I do something wrong. I prefer to save myself the anxiety and so take a back seat in things that before, I would have pushed myself forward for (including roles that I know I can do in my sleep).

Wanting to be perfect in everything has stopped me doing so much. I have 20,000 words of a book written. I read it back at times and it surprises me – did I really write that? Because it’s good. It’s made me laugh. That line was really funny.

But then I get to the last scene, where I wrote my characters into a corner (or rather, under an office desk) and it’s not good.

I know exactly why it’s not good, too. I started caring too much and wanted to make my book grand and worthy and perfect – even on the first draft.

So I stopped because it won’t be any of those things. Especially not perfect.

Instead of persevering and working through the problem, those 20,000 words are hidden in a folder on my desktop for the last ten years and I look with envy at my published friends.

If I waited for perfection... I would never write a word Margaret Atwood quote at 50Sense.png

It’s the same with 50Sense. It took me many years to pluck up the courage to put my words out there – mistakes and all – and I still hesitate to share some posts. (This one has my fingers trembling as I write.)

I dread to think how many opportunities I’ve let slip by because I knew I wouldn’t be perfect in them. How many answers unsaid because it might not be the perfect one. The ruined nights out because I wasn’t as pretty or as slim or as witty, conversationable, intelligent as someone else.

Worse are the times when I did speak up – after practising the perfect answer over and over in my mind first, of course.

Aware of the momentous occasion, the earth-shattering effect this perfect phrase was about to have, how me and this wonderful person would be best friends forever, I’d invariably screw up, stumbling over my words because I’d put so much pressure on myself.

So why was I speaking Spanish more fluently than ever after six years away…

By the time I’d got to Gatwick, it hit me – it was because I no longer had to be perfect.

Not expecting to be perfect – or rather, not expecting other people to expect me to be perfect – had freed me from worrying about mistakes. Which meant I no longer agonised about what I was about to say or rehearsed it first. When I slipped up, I merely laughed and corrected myself.

“It’s been six years,” I’d say. “What do you expect?”

My favourite was when I excused myself, without thinking, with: “Me cuesta hablar.” Literally, this means: “It costs me to speak,” but really it means: “It’s an effort to talk.”

The truth is, it wasn’t.

Because I no longer felt I had to be perfect, I could relax. And ironically, this meant I made fewer mistakes. Even when I did, people were more than happy to help me or repeat what they’d said in another way if I didn’t understand so the conversation flowed.

There is so much pressure on us – women especially – to be perfect. We wear the perfect shoes for the outfit, even though they destroy our feet, or we stress about being the perfect mum and now, on social media, showing everyone we have the perfect life.

But perhaps the real answer is to accept we’re not perfect and relax knowing that’s okay. That it’s fine to make mistakes or have an untidy house or wear the comfy shoes (mebbes going too far – at least carry them in your bag for the end of the night!).

Because by accepting that we will never be perfect, we can become better than before.

* Tapas are a free snack you get with your meal. If you pay, it’s not a tapa.

** Laura is María in my piece on New Year’s Resolutions. I showed her the post as I sat cuddling her beautiful little boy in the family home and she gave me her permission to name her. After a year, her son is out of hospital and doing well. Laura has even adapted an Ikea trolley so his machines can go on them and they can carry him around the flat with them. If I was full of admiration for her before, it exploded seeing this. Os quiero, guapos.

Do you strive to be perfect? Does it help or hinder you? I’d love to know. Leave me a comment below.

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Elizabeth Carr-Ellis