Fighting My Man-Evil
Taming the internal evil of perfectionism and being present
I was born with a cursed trait of perfectionism. I tend to cling onto permanence and fixate on idealism. Everything I touch or see must be orderly, expected, and rid of entropy. I would easily get rattled by uncertainty and chaos, no matter how small they are. I was the poster child of rigor.
My experience during late childhood to teenage years hadn’t been helpful. At the ages where most teens discover themselves and have the fun of their lives, caught between a struggling working middle class family of Chinese descendants, I was put under pressure to fit into the mold cast by the broken society, strengthening the perfectionism in me. Basically, I did not know exactly who I was, and I developed an emotional dependence on the surroundings, which, of course, are constantly changing and letting me down.
So, I began to shut out the system — the parents, school, and social norms. I figured if I can only do the opposite of what most people expect, then I won’t be let down. I started skipping classes regularly and mostly dwelling in my own reality. I was rarely any teacher’s favorite from high school to college.
Fast-forward twenty-something years later. I’m eight-thousand-miles away from home and the environment that I detested. I’m doing okay by all means, living in the most expensive place in the United States and a paycheck most have never seen. Apparently, choosing to be different and pushing myself had paid off. However, the ghost of perfectionism continues to haunt me, and it is mostly taking a toll on my most beloved people — my family.
In one of my favorite film of all time, the Shining (1980), Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson), a desperate writer, found a gig as a seasonal caretaker at a remote hotel named the Overlook in the Rocky Mountains during the winter when the hotel was closed. Thinking it was a good opportunity to escape the city to unblock his writer’s block, he decided to bring his family to spend the winter at the hotel. During the stay, the paranormal force influenced the already rattled Jack Torrance to become meaner to his family, descending to an extremely egocentric maniac who only thought about his obsession and eventually went on a murderous rampage to rid his family.
Needless to say what happened in the story was unspeakable. But I’m drawing the comparison here because there is a little of Jack Torrance in every man. There is something about us and our ego that has equally built and destroyed civilizations and lives, including women and children. Men tend to carry internal baggage or complex that can easily be pushed to the tipping point by external influences and become either destructive to himself, his family, or both. Jack Torrance was a twisted, dramatized example with a paranormal spin.
Family is Not for the Perfectionist
We all know that having a family with children means welcoming chaos in every aspect of your life. Your home will never be as tidy as you’d like it to be. No matter how much work you put into it, it would explode again the next day. You won’t get enough rest, and your wardrobe will wither into a bunch of old tees, boxers, and a few pair of trousers and jackets to wrap the ugly inner daddy outfits that in turn loosely glaze over the dad bod. And as you are just about to get in the zone, your little one would, in a very precise and timely manner, break your flow as if she had been plotting against your productivity.
It is no surprise that I had constantly lost it. I felt no control over my feelings, my surroundings, and people in my life. So I figured the best I can do was to distant myself rather than losing my temper. I began to draw a line around myself, with my family outside of it. Very often this line did not wear off even after a long work day because I didn’t want to come out and face the uncertainty and unpredictability of life outside of the domain I had control of. I built up an invisible wall between myself and my family that was preventing me from being in the present and be aware of what’s happening in full detail. In short, I became an irritated ogre locked in a small closet office, stomping out and about noisily just when I needed more coffee or food. I became Jack Torrance, with all his lurking suppressed fury ready to obliterate all livelihood at home at the first sight of an uncertainty.
One day, during one of the usual “work” episode, waiting for the coffee to boil impatiently (“Why is the pot so messy with coffee scum?”), I felt a gentle tug on my pants. There she was, my little girl, standing next to me without myself even realizing, her left hand still clinging on my pants’ pocket while handing a piece of paper on her right hand to me.
“This you,” she said.
It wasn’t hard to guess that it was a drawing of her father, considering she had drawn mostly just us parents and herself. But this time, I fashioned a pair of hideous fangs and obviously was summoning some kind of black flame from both hands. The innocent face, one could say, could easily be linked to this Jack Nicholson’s most famous mugshot ever:
One thing about kids is they are always in the present, observing and drenching every moment down to the gory detail, unlike most of us grownups. So when my daughter’s view of me was a man with fangs and some fiery hands, that was all I needed as a wake up call (from hindsight, I’m glad she didn’t draw me holding an axes. But maybe that’s because she didn’t know one yet).
The Road to Redemption
I began to seek all help and resource I could find. I attended groups on anger management and began to meditate for at least 10 minutes everyday (here is my Calm 30-day guest pass for you to try out). The goal was to be able to embrace the present and be mindful in every minute of my day, letting go of things outside of my control and become more spontaneous and humanly erroneous. Because, in a way, being controlling is about over-preparing to evade all the surprises life has in stock for you. You lock your office’s door because you don’t know how to deal with your child surprising you in the middle of a meeting call. You avoid eye contact with a stranger walking toward you on the sidewalk because you don’t welcome the possibility of meeting new people. And that, I learned, for my case, was mostly because my terminal fear of being imperfect.
Being mindful is about being conscious of simple things like how laborious it is for us to breath and how relieved it feels to exhale. It is about accepting of the impermanent and chaotic nature of all things (Mono-no-aware or 物の哀れ, もののあはれ) and starting to appreciate the ephemeral now. Ultimately, meditation is never about perfecting anything. It is a practice to be mindful of where your thoughts wander to and bring them back closer to the moment without punishing yourself. And for me, the now is where my family is.
I’ve been on a 30-day meditation streak so far. It hasn’t been a smooth progress, but it is progressing. There were a few bumps down the road, including a melt down. But they were milder and shorter. Breaking habits is hard, but breaking attitudes is almost impossible. That’s why I’m taking it one day at a time, breaking small bad habits and behaviors and enforce those I’d like them to stick, like taking mini breaks with my family every time I brew my tea and forcing myself to initiate surprises in our routines, like announcing an impromptu dine-out or throwing a pillow fight. Eventually, as new habits form around elements of surprise and chaos, hopefully, my attitude toward perfection will subside.