Resident Killjoy and the perfect storm
Dear Future Self,
It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Having fun. So why is it that having fun can be such hard work?
I think, maybe, I’ve always been like this, but I’m only now recognising the true extent of my ability to ‘kill the fun’ in my life. I’m not talking about the spontaneous kind of fun that happens on a Saturday night after a few drinks with friends. I’m talking about the ‘fun’ I tell myself I’m going to have by taking up some new creative pursuit, hobby, or sport. I’ve been heard to say things like, “I’m going to start a band/join a basketball team/start writing a blog—this should be fun!” Yes, it should. In fact, I tell myself that’s all that matters: it doesn’t matter if you make any money, score any points, or if anyone reads what you write—the main thing is that you have fun doing it. Right? And it sounds like the simplest thing in the world. But it’s not. I start out with the best intentions of having all this fun, fun, fun, fun (like I’m going to ride around in a convertible with Rebecca Black), and then the logical, perfectionist part of my brain kicks in. And just like the police rocking up to your house and switching on the lights in the middle of your birthday, the party’s over.
If it had to have a name, I’d call it my Resident Killjoy. I’m not sure I ever invited it to live with me, in my head, but it’s here now, it has set up camp, and it likes to remind me it has squatter’s rights. It’s that horribly annoying, beastly, ‘voice of reason’. It’s the Hyde to my Jekyll, the Punch to my Judy, who pops up to tell me that what’s important is perfection, success, and notoriety, and that these are the only things that matter. Fun is the pursuit of children, after all. And with that, the fun is gone, dead, and in its place an obsession with results, achievement, and an uncanny ability to dwell on what I haven’t managed to do, rather than what I have. And seriously, ain’tnobodygottimeforthat.
Until recently I’d never thought of myself as a perfectionist before. I’d always imagined a perfectionist to be someone who was wound up so tight that their anus could crush rocks. But me? No. I’m easygoing. Those perfectionist and OCD traits belonged to ‘other people’. Sometimes I even felt sorry for them: I could see all these habitual addictions (for things that weren’t really important) restraining them, holding them back. I had no idea I was doing that to myself, in my own way.
If I think about it, I’ve been sabotaging fun for years. When my first rock band, Iron On, folded after eight years, I was pretty excited about starting a new band—a band of my own. It was going to be so much fun! Right? I was going to write songs, record them with a friend, tour the country, perform live shows, sell some CDs, and get our songs played on the radio and TV. All of that happened, all of it except for the fun. Writing and recording the songs was enjoyable, but the rest of it? Not so much. I figured out, for example, that I didn’t actually enjoy touring—at all. (Think about it: a musician that doesn’t like touring? It’s a pretty hilarious thing to admit to yourself after ten years.) So what’s not to like about being in a band? Well, I didn’t like the pervasive romance of flying and driving all day, playing late at night, eating KFC at 1am, and ‘sleeping’ in half-a-star backpackers. (Particularly that one time they double-booked us into a dorm room with a Mexican drug dealer who I was sure was going to stab me in my sleep and steal my guitar from under my bed, and maybe remove and sell my kidneys for good measure.) And I didn’t like having to do all that to play for forty-five minutes to tens of people, only to get up the next morning—or in most cases, the same morning—to do it all over again. It’s easy to see it now, from the comfy couch of hindsight: I liked the idea of touring, the idea of being a musician—not what the day-to-day reality looked like. Of course, it still totally beat the time I cleaned toilets for a living, but that was never meant to be fun now was it? For me, it’s the things that are ‘supposed’ to be fun or perfect that are sometimes the hardest to enjoy, and the hardest to swallow when they don’t turn out that way: like Christmas, birthdays and, you know, any board game ever. With these things, the weight of expectation has a habit of squashing the fun right out, like a giant shoe connecting with a rogue grape on a supermarket floor. And I’m sure a lot of musicians loved being on tour, and loved living the lifestyle of a transient homeless carnie, but I didn’t.
You know what it was like, Future Self—I had dreams. Everyone that starts a band does. And despite the fact that they mightn’t have been realistic or even appropriate (like my feelings about touring), I was so sure I was going to have fun chasing them. But no matter what I did, what successes we had or what the band achieved, it was never enough. I always wanted more. I wanted ‘the dream’. I wanted it to be perfect. And, tellingly, when the moments came along that showed me the reality of the chasm between where I was and where I wanted to be, I wasn’t thinking, “Yeah, you know what, I don’t care, I’m having fun, and that’s the main thing”, no, I was thinking about how long it was going to take to pay off my band’s bank loan, and if a career detour into male prostitution might help.
So I’m writing to you, Future Self, because I think sunlight can be the best disinfectant. I’m shining some light on this grimy little secret in the hopes that by seeing the full extent of the problem I can begin to deal with it. And eventually, like the scum and miscellaneous CSI fluids in a share house bathtub, it’s washed away.
It’s true that my Resident Killjoy has made it hard for me to have fun while doing anything I deem to be important, but I also know that I need to stop trying to have fun, and just let fun happen—let it find me.
I was once told that “the moment we stop trying to do something brilliant, something perfect, we might just do something amazing”. And when I thought about this I realised something about perfection—it’s not perfect at all! In fact, it’s downright problematic: it’s a perfect storm. Because, for most of us, what we know about perfection we inherited or learned from somebody else when we were growing up: “this is a perfect life”, “that is how you be perfect”. And although perfection is subjective, we often adopt someone else’s interpretation as our own. It’s much harder to listen to the quiet voice inside whispering our own ideas about perfection because it tends to get drowned out by all the white noise. So we grow up and try really hard to be perfect, and ironically, in the process, make ourselves just like somebody else: we trade the unique for the mundane; we assimilate; we conform. And that’s the tragic paradox of perfectionism: in trying to be perfect, we can only end up conforming to someone else’s idea of perfection. And in the process we can completely skip over, even repress, our own truth and its authentic imperfection, beauty and purpose—basically ignoring the only thing that sets us apart from everybody else.
So, Future Self, if you’ll be my ‘perfectionists anonymous’ sponsor, this is my rehab pledge to you: my goal is to let go of perfectionism and the expectation that anything should be fun, and you never know, this might just make some space for actual fun. I’m going to accept my imperfections as perfectly suited to me, and that I am enough, just as I am. I don’t need to be anybody or achieve anything. I just need to live my own truth. I just need to be. And in doing so I’m going to evict Resident Killjoy and begin to feel like there are endless possibilities for joy in my life, without the need to force any of them. Because I’ve learnt that fun, like wizards, has some sweet-sweet disappearing spells up its sleeve, and as soon as you start looking really hard for it—poof!—it’s gone.
Yours forever in the here and now,