the wisdom of imperfection + loving yourself when it's really hard {a personal story}

Last Sunday, I was given the opportunity to sing one of my favorite songs ever in my church (First Unitarian Universalist of Nashville), accompanied by our Minister of Music, Jason Shelton — also my choir director, and a ridiculously talented composer and musician — along with a few other experienced musicians. It was truly one of those situations where the Universe intervened, because I had been thinking for months of mentioning to Jason that if it ever worked out with a service topic to sing this particular song, That Wasn’t Me by Brandi Carlile  that I would love to do it. Then right after my wedding, he contacted me out of the blue asking if I’d be available that Sunday to sing that song. I was ecstatic but also a nervous wreck about it. I wanted to do mad JUSTICE to the song, and also I still have very limited exposure to solo performance in public.

So, I practiced singing it in my car all week (sometimes there are benefits of my hour-each-way commute) and making sure I knew where all the words went, and on the day of, thought, “meh, I could make a printout of the lyrics and that would be okay, but I’ve sung this song a million times and really should’t need it. If I change my mind I’m sure I can make a printout at the church.” Would I go back and change that decision if I could? Not totally sure, to be honest.

I got to church early that morning and we ran through the song twice before the first service, and when my time came about 2/3 through the service, I had already gone to the bathroom probably 3 times in the past hour because of how anxious I was. I got up there and sang it with heart. People loved it, and I felt great. Next, doing the sermon, was visiting speaker, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, also known as the Holy Rascal. Right after I sang, he said in Jason’s direction, “I didn’t know you got Taylor Swift.” The congregation laughed and objected, “No, she’s way better!” I was embarrassed about the attention, but it also felt nice.

We ran the song again once or twice before the second service, since a few other choir members came to help with backing vocals in that service. Again before and during that service, I wondered if people thought I had some kind of health issue with how much I was running to the bathroom. I got up there, sang it with heart again, and then when I got to the last verse, I skipped a stanza. I realized it but it was too late, and looked at Jason (next to me on piano) with a look of somewhat-disguised-panic, and knew I had to Just Keep Going. I sort of fixed it, the best way that I could, and ended the song awkwardly, looking at him and mouthing “DAMN!” before sitting back in the first pew.

My heart was racing wildly. I wanted nothing more than to run out of the church, or at the very least, to appear that I was calmly going to the bathroom again and then continuing outside to the parking lot to cry. I even had old thoughts of scratching myself and pulling out my hair, something I’ve only done once in a moment of panic since I was a teenager (back then it was more frequent.) My self-talk was pretty brutal, and I was so ashamed. I knew that the rest of the song had been good, and that I salvaged the last 30 seconds or so the best I could, but here I was singing one of my favorite songs that has the power to bring people to tears (“when it’s sung RIGHT!!!”), and I’m wanting to cry for a totally different reason.  Even writing about it now, I can feel my pulse starting to pick up again and my eyes welling up a little.

But of course, after I sang, the very next thing was the sermon. And guess what the topic was? The Wisdom of Imperfection. Of Freaking Course. I had really enjoyed it during the first service, and I knew the irony of me beating myself up or escaping during this particular sermon, but I wanted to run nonetheless. When Rabbi Rami got up to the podium after I sat, no Taylor Swift jokes, no anything. And of course I told myself, “He doesn’t want to draw any attention to you because you just screwed up.” The cool thing about Rabbi Rami is that he never does the same talk twice. He brought in all kinds of different anecdotes and jokes the second time around, so ultimately I was glad that I had stayed, but man-oh-man was it difficult.

I listened to him as he referred back to the reading he’d done earlier in the service — Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece, which he deemed “one of the great spiritual texts” (I agree with him). He talked about how we are often taught by religious institutions that on one side we have Life and Prosperity (and Heaven!), and on the other side, Adversity, Suffering, Sin, Death (and Eternal Damnation!). And of course, we want to pick the former — but he argued that it is not actually either-or at all, but And. If we spend our lives trying to “get rid of” our “sinfulness” or our dark sides or our imperfections, we are missing out on the truth of humanity and life. Since this is one of my core foundational philosophies as a therapist (it lines up perfectly with DBT’s Dialectical Thinking concept and also the “Acceptance” of Acceptance & Commitment Therapy), I needed no convincing of this from an intellectual standpoint. During the first service, I sat there with rapt attention, nodding vehemently and going “Amen!” in my head.

During the second service, however, at first I was doing the internal eye-roll, thinking, “sure, perfection isn’t realistic, but ROYALLY SCREWING UP IN FRONT OF HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE ISN’T OKAY!!” Still trying to convince myself to not get up and run.

This was one of those times that I was just as much in need of coping skills as any of my clients in residential treatment right now. So what did I do?

Well, after I was done cursing myself, I just did my best to accept what was happening with me.

I breathed.

I crossed my arms, grabbing my shoulder with my opposite hand, and I squeezed, literally holding myself.

I let my eyes well up.

I listened to Rabbi Rami.

I stared at the ground.

I just let it happen.

And at the end of the service, I did more or less run out to the parking lot, get in the car, and self-pity-cried for a minute. My husband comforted me the best he could, telling me I did amazing and that my flub was not that bad. At first I told him to just drive on to the grocery store, but he didn’t rush, and I pulled my head up a little and said, “maybe we should go back in for a minute.” I dragged myself out of the car and we went back into the social area of the church. Numerous people came up to compliment me, a couple saying “I know you thought you messed up, but it was great,” and one lady saying that plus “It was so powerful I was tearing up.”

I didn’t feel like I necessarily needed these accolades from a standpoint of external validation — it was more about that I was going to allow myself to receive them even though I wanted to run from it because I didn’t feel like I had deserved it at first. But I changed my mind. I deserved to hold my head up high and not run just because I was embarrassed about my mistake. I deserved to be gentle with myself because mistakes are inevitable, and because dammit, Shel Silverstein and Rabbi Rami are right. Perfection is not real. If I want the sweet, I have to also accept the sad, because in embracing both, I am human.

I am me, and I can be loving toward toward myself — flubs and all. And only when I do that can I truly love others and their mistakes, too.

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Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.