"OK everyone! We have now arrived at the Antonella Hotel, and I believe there are just two of you getting off here?"
I looked hopefully down the coach, 45 faces blankly stared back at me in the dark. A few people looked around. No one was getting up. They've probably just fallen asleep or they can't hear or something. Oh no, please someone get up. I looked for the names on my iPad; "I believe its the Jacobson party? Do we have the Jacobsons!? This stop is for you!”
Silence. More blank faces, many of them now looking around to see where the elusive Jacobsons were. Well this is awkward .Oh no. Have I actually just left two lovely elderley people wandering the car park of Verona airport at 9 o clock at night?! Oh god and the whole coach knows too. Oh Sophie. you plank.
I frantically reached for my phone, about to call the airport and ask them to send out a search party, when a piece of paper caught my eye. It was the hard copy of my coach manifesto and right there, in bright red pen, that I had actually written myself - was 'own transfer'. Phew, excellent, I hadn't left them behind at all. They had gotten their own luxury minibus and were most likely checked in, sipping on a spritz and enjoying the incredible Lake Garda sunset I could now see from coach window. A lovely wave of relief spread over me - right until I remembered I still had a coach full of people still in front of me. Everyone had now started to peer anxiously over their seats, or into the aisles, murmuring to each other about 'those poor people who've been left at the airport!!.’ I really was living up to the classic "our rep was totally useless' stereotype. Oh dear.
I had no choice but to get back up on the mic, brimming with smiles and false confidence and tell them exactly what had happened, nodding all the way through - because of course this was actually a hilarious story and "oh isn't it just the funniest thing that I thought I’d nearly left a couple of you at the airport!!? hahahahaaaa"
*please find it funny too*.
Yes, ok, I was a little embarrassed.
I didn't wait to see anyone's reaction before sitting straight back down in my seat. Next to me, my driver resumed our journey, silently laughing and muttering away to himself in Italian. Well I'm glad you're entertained Marco. Later on though, whilst getting off the coach, a few people said they had enjoyed my 'performance'. If I wasn't going to get it right it was good to know that at least I'd been entertaining. Truthfully though, it hadn't really bothered me that much - not as much as it would have done a few years back.
It wasn’t that I didn't care about my job, just that in a couple of hours I knew full well I’d probably be sitting in restaurant knocking back far too many limoncellos and laughing about it. I could also pretty much guarantee most of my guests had forgotten about it already.
This was just one of many times I made a fluff of myself in front of confused, yet often unfailingly polite holiday makers during my time in Italy. Public speaking was abig part of my job and my ability in this arena ranged from extremely awkward 15-year-old girl to overexcited Butlins rep. I really wasn't very good at it to begin with and spent the first couple of months trying not to spontaneously combust or have a mini-heart attack before every speech. Ironically however, it had also been one of the main reasons I had wanted to do the job in the first place.
If you'd told me 3 years ago I would be standing up and talking in front of a load of people almost daily, I would never have believed you. Yet 4 days a week I was public speaking for near enough 18 months and, if I wanted to keep my job (and its outrageous perks!), I had to do it in pretty much whatever state I found myself in: hungover, tired, sad, happy, homesick, sunburnt, still in last nights clothes, pissed off, in stormy rain, glorious sunshine, whilst trying not to vomit as your coach drives around 30 hairpin bends, snowstorms, still drunk from the night before (those were always my better performances..), sometimes in front of rude, judgemental customers (who mocked me), my old chemistry teacher, eye-rolling 50 year old Dads, screaming children, and even someone i'd definitely once kissed a few years back - who was now on holiday with his fiancée. Whatever state a person can be in, and whoever happened to be in the crowd, I still had to do a bloody speech on the sights of Venice, sell you a lift pass or ramble on about how good the snow was and where to get a decent cheese fondue.
During my time as a holiday rep, I did rather a lot of questionable public speaking and rather than destroying my confidence, it really just knocked my inner perfectionist out cold.
Ok lets talk about what it means to be a 'perfectionist' because in my experience, it can be a bit of a dichotomy. Most people tend to know it as a term reserved for that ultimate interview humble brag; the 'safe' response to the question 'So tell me your biggest weakness?' 'Oh i'm just such a perfectionist - everything has to be perfect or im just not happy." *vomit*. - the implication being that if they hire you everything will always be perfectly executed because you have such incredible high standards. It seems like a good thing on the surface - who wouldn't want to hire someone who wants to do their job very well, so well in fact, they want to do it perfectly? That would be a logical business move, but being a perfectionist comes with its own set of problems and when you dig a little deeper, its not all that mentally healthy.
There’s also the common (mis)assumption that if you're a 'perfectionist' - then your life must be pretty perfect...right? Well, no. I used to look at my friends with tidy bedrooms and bank balances above zero and neat relationships they've had since they were 16 and think they were the perfectionists. Well wasn't I wrong. Those people weren't perfectionists at all, in fact they were far from it. Rather than the relentless pursuit of 'better and perfect', they had simply managed to master the art of gratitude, patience, self compassion, and the ability to nurture what they had.
Perfectionism, is generally (albeit incorrectly), perceived as a positive trait. But when you examine it, is it really that mentally healthy to have such high standards for yourself and other people that you procrastinate, moan, compare, criticise, pick and need to control, constantly? Often people pride themselves on having the mindset of: 'If I can't do it perfectly, I just wont do it at all'. Yet this mentality can also be damaging, stressful, unnecessary and incredibly miserable.
To throw in a bit of science, perfectionism is a behavioural response, often found in those possessing the 'fear of failure' and 'never good enough' internal narratives. A powerful driver in its antagonism to the feelings of satisfaction, peace and contentment - with the self, others, and the world around you - it is a catalyst for illnesses like anxiety and depression. And if we're going to go really deeper and look at its origins, you can bet that raving Perfectionist Pete from work grew up with some pretty critical care-giving to end up behaving the way he does.
When I had a therapist say to me a few years ago 'Sophie do you think that maybe there is a bit of perfectionist in you?' I was like 'erm no..have you seen the state of my life???' but she was absolutely right. I did have that underlying belief of 'do it perfectly or not at all' - with the 'not at all’ paralysing me into inaction in several areas of my life. In short, I was really bored - yet really afraid to try anything new, so hearing this enabled a lot of things to click into place.
I am a huge fan of self-improvement, but I have had to learn that the important word here is improvement. There is nothing wrong with wanting to improve, physically, mentally, professionally or otherwise, but you have to not fall into the trap of confusing improvement with perfection. The thing I didn't know, and I think many people don't understand is that Perfectionism is not that things are perfect, its an inability to be happy unless they are - it’s the whole 'never satisfied' thing. It’s when you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of no matter how good something is, you still believe you can find a way for it to be better, ergo preventing you from appreciating what it is.
You will never be perfect, your life will never be perfect. There will always be missed opportunities, mis-matched socks, broken biscuits, rain when you've straightened your hair, family tensions, flaky friends, un-requited love, failed exams, a spot that turns up when you have an important date, regrets, late payments and really nice trousers in the sale that just don't quite fit right. But that doesn't mean it still can't be completely happy and brilliant. The false belief lies in thinking that happiness and perfection are somehow positively correlated -they’re not. Your happiness wont increase in correlation to how 'perfect' your life becomes, it will increase in proportion to your ability to appreciate it anyway.
I very rarely did a perfect speech on that microphone and as a holiday rep I made a lot of awkward mistakes. It was a brilliant teacher as it was a job and a lifestyle where so many things were regularly out of my control. There was just no way I could get it perfect - or even just right - all the time. Obstacles were inevitable so the only choice you had was to do you best and realise that whatever the outcome, that was enough. Incidentally, 18 months of standing on coaches and being eyerolled at turned out to be one of the happiest times of my life.
In all of this, the most uncomfortable thing to learn was that allowing perfectionism to dominate also hinders your ability to be grateful. I did not like finding this out - no one likes to think of themselves as an 'ungrateful so n so', but the constant focus on how things could always be better means you miss out on how good things actually are . So if you don’t check up on it, perfectionism might just turn you into an arse; (Yes, I maybe was one of these.) If you’re that person constantly picking at what is wrong with yourself, your life, your job, your body - how long before you start to project that on to other people? The relationship we have with others is only ever a reflection of the relationship with have with ourselves. So, with this in mind, if you were ever to trace the psychological processes of the most critical people you know, you'd probably discover their critical tongue began in the way they first learnt to speak to themselves.
We see it on memes and inspirational quotes and all that empowerment stuff about 'keeping your standards high' - which is great (and i'm fairly sure I've posted stuff like that myself before...) - but again, proceed with caution - because the constant pursuit of better can stop you from seeing that who you are, what you have in your life and what you've achieved and overcome really is its own kind of brilliant - just as it is.
And what about compassion? There is no space for compassion if you're in the pursuit of perfection. Not only for yourself, but for others too. Humans are not perfect. We've got thousands of years of history that demonstrate how much we get a lot of things right, yet the same history also shows we're a pretty stupid bunch sometimes too. But how can you be a truly kind and compassionate person to yourself, and others, if you're always picking at what is wrong and what can be improved?
We don't become friends or fall in love with people because they are perfect, or because they have their lives 'together' or not, that's just simply not how it works, we love people anyway - and often we actually love them more for their imperfections, odd bits, quirks and individualities - so why exactly have we become so interested in being perfect?
Since being back in the U.K., I have recognised more than ever how we have become so swamped by the media, through Facebook, Instagram, Reality TV and Advertising. Living in a city, there is so much perfection shoved in our faces on a daily basis, something I had a nice break from living outside and away from a desk in the mountains and a lakeside village in Italy. Perfect bodies, flawless faces, holidays, jobs, lives, houses, relationships - with that ever present narrative of '#goals' graces so much of what we see. As if it MUST be something we should be all constantly be aiming for. Yet when you scratch the surface, none of it is really real or true - or what makes life rich and fulfilling. Happiness is much more personal and convoluted and so much of this flawless-ness (is that a word?) is designed to feed the inner perfectionist that likes to tell you your life isn't good enough simply so you'll keep buying stuff.
There is a saying I recently came across;'The grass is always greener because its fake'. I don't know who said it but I'd say its a pretty brilliant analogy of todays world.
Although perfectionism was paralysing, giving it up also felt like giving into some sort of mediocrity, or 'settling' - which I see is the fear that keeps a lot of us so attached to that perfectionist drive. If we stop, wont we be letting ourselves down? But that's an entirely false belief. Learning when to give it up only made space for compassion, gratitude and the ability to not take life (or myself) too seriously. If you've enjoyed this blog at any point, I promise you there is no way I could ever have had the guts to publish it had I not given up the need to do it 'perfectly.'
I have a perpetually untidy life, I'm naturally disorganised, pathologically late, prone to talking far too much and I don't always make the wisest decisions (particularly not financially..). I'm definitely not perfect about being imperfect either so I do still regularly fall into the uptight perfectionist trap, stressing about the ridiculous and unimportant. But that I have to think so what? The happiest times in my life have never been the most neat and organised, in fact they've been the exact opposite; full of chaos, messy hair, inappropriate comments, falling off bikes into flower beds, falling for the wrong people and having rowdy (but real) friendships.
So if you find yourself reflected in what you've read in this post, my advice to you; stop trying to fix it, do it perfectly and get it all right first time. You just don't have to, and anyone that says otherwise isn't 'right' or 'knows better than you'. Don't let them get a seat in your life, or worse, your mind. Just do your best. You might not win any awards, gain any praise, or manage to please everyone (or even anyone at all!), but I can guarantee you'll get a whole lot happier, grateful and more compassionate - and for those things alone, it will be entirely worth it.