I honestly do not remember when I first believed it.
I don’t even remember when I first heard it (or thought it?). Somehow it made its way deep down low into my heart and soul and life and latched onto something at my very core, so that I didn’t even know it was something separate from me- something I could choose to get rid of.
Tracing back, even now I can’t find its origin. It was so deeply imbedded by the time I was a fellowship trained military physician that it almost destroyed me. During fellowship it was the source of some intense pain. In residency, it’s what kept me always going, never stopping, constantly striving (that along with true compassion for my patients of course and a super-nerdy love of learning. Oh, and the pre-40-hour-work-week-mentality. I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. Please forgive me any residents who might be reading. I love you and am so glad you are more rested than we were! Honestly).
In undergrad it manifested in a crazy obsession with working as many jobs as possible in order to be entirely self-sufficient, debt free and a non-burden. It was a constant companion in high school where no matter what I did it was never quite enough.
Before that, I don’t remember much. My family moved as I was starting sixth grade. It’s possible that was such a traumatic/BIG event in my life I just don’t remember much before it in general (which is true, and another subject entirely), or it’s possible it started in some relation TO the actual move and the super-stress of an introverted, insecure, OCD perfectionist (even at 12) being crammed into a small town Junior High where friendships began during pregnancy. I’m not sure.
But somewhere along the way, something put the idea into my brain, that I am not good enough unless I am the best. And by “the best” I mean “THE BEST”. Hands down, no argument, no contest, not even a close runner up in sight- THE BEST. (If I were using PowerPoint I’d make this fly in and out while flashing fire-engine red).
The scary part is, this quest was not restricted to one thing (say the best Army Pediatric Infectious Disease doctor or the best saxophone player in the band (yep, it’s true) or the best Red Lobster waitress (also true)). It crossed all levels of life and manifested in this intense, ever-present all-encompassing drive to be THE BEST AT EVERY SINGLE THING I DID, TRIED, LIKED, SAW, STUDIED OR BECAME. Like a bad movie where the lead character’s very LIFE depends on maintaining the status of “curve setter” in every aspect of life, else she be sucked into oblivion in some unknown SciFi mystery land. (Are you understanding how (silly yet incredibly) desperate I was)?
I am not naïve or self-centered enough to think no one else has felt this way, but that kind of insight is not immediately available prior to the recognition of this problem. I am also sure that there are people who actually function and thrive on this; I even know a couple of people who SEEM to be ok in this role, although you never really know someone I’d guess. But the truth is NO ONE CAN BE THE BEST AT EVERYTHING, and only one person can be THE best at any one thing. So that means for the GREAT majority of us, we will NEVER be the best at ANYTHING. (Don’t you like how I bolded those incredibly OBVIOUS points/words).
It’s impossible to relay what an absolute proponent of counseling I am (again, another post) but I owe my amazing counselor a whole lot of reclaimed years of my life for saying some very simple words in her usual unassuming “so what I’m getting as you’re talking is this” way that made me stop dead in my thought tracks. As I was explaining to her one day how I wasn’t REALLY good at anything- giving her all the necessary data to back up my claims, she asked me very simply if I thought I was “above average” at anything. I couldn’t really say no to that (since I knew it was a rhetorical, there’s-a-profound-lesson-coming question), so I sort of threw out some non-committal thing about how I had really nice penmanship when I wanted to (though not like my friend Michele who writes in the neatest and TINIEST print that you EVER did see- but see I just did it again).
As I waited for her to tell me all the things I was great at, she surprised me by saying “Well if you are above average at anything, that’s better than average. Most people are just average at any given thing.” (I know profound, right).
Ok seriously, this changed my life. There were already A LOT of other forces at play that were leading me up to this moment, but to go back to the movie theme- it was as if the skies opened up and beams of blazing light shone down into the room and banging orchestral music announced this monumental moment in my life. Ready for it?
“IT’S OK TO BE AVERAGE”. Oh. My. Gosh.
The relief. The tears, the release, the realization of truth when you know it’s truth you’ve just heard. The fear and anxiety emerged but were quickly smashed out by the other part of my brain that saw that second of release from the pressure, for whom there was no going back!
It’s ok to be average.
It’s OK to be AVERAGE!
I really can’t explain what this did for my life (including leading me to what ultimately has begun to define my life- but you’ll have to wait for part 2 of this post for that). I immediately gave up on about 15 projects that I gave myself permission to completely forget about forever. (Let’s just say “arts and crafts are NOT my forte’. My sisters make fun of my wrapping of gifts. It’s true- aren’t they mean?). I cleaned out several garbage bags full of things from my closet and I cancelled plans to attend an upcoming conference that I was DREADING going to. I sat down with my schedule, marking through obligations with big broad stripes and IT FELT GREAT. I began a complicated ongoing personal process of reinforcing this lesson to my brain hourly. Scary at times- even panic-inducing- but that part of my brain (see above) that had glimpsed this chance at freedom turned out to be one strong fighter.
The thing that most dramatically changed however was the way I could now interact with the people all around me. Suddenly it was ok that all these amazing people I know do really amazing things! I could celebrate their amazing-ness without turning it into a barrage at my “less than perfect-ness”. All of a sudden Cristin’s yard and amazing organizational skills were beautiful and impressive, as they’d always been, but that’s all. Seeing my sisters be amazing moms, while remaining beautiful and funny no matter what was no longer an excuse to beat myself up for enjoying dinner or not having children. Robyn’s amazing baking/cooking/wife-ing skills were no longer a way to convince myself I missed out on the “wife-ing” gifts. Mandy’s ability to maintain a beautiful garden, while creative child-rearing and resident-investing, all while working on a Masters degree while in Fellowship, was something to support, encourage and celebrate instead of compare myself to, always falling short. My colleagues’ abilities to be amazing clinicians, parents, researchers, volunteer-ers, writers and leaders was something to learn from, not run from, be overwhelmed by or worst of all, try to imitate.
Realizing I was ok with being average allowed me to truly celebrate the AMAZING group of people I get to share this little slice of the world with, and all the AMAZING things all these AMAZING people are doing! It made me realize there are ways to support and encourage them and in so doing, to find something I am maybe above average at: Encouragement and Gratefulness.
So if you are connecting in any way with what I’m saying, let’s all make an effort to remind each other of how amazing our unique gifts are. You can be an amazing average mom, or an amazing average teacher, or an amazing average cook or an amazing average scuba-diver, runner, trombone-player, electrician or cartwheel-turner or yogi or deal-finder. Let’s celebrate each other’s amazing average-ness!
I’ll take that over a life of beating myself up for not being a Paul Farmer-Martha Stewart-Anne Voskamp-Rachel Ray-unhappy imitator anyday.
(Stay tuned for Part two of Amazing Average People- where I tell you how meeting some other “average” people changed my life.)