I’ve been known to say that I’m not terribly ambitious.
But what I just as often don’t admit is that I am actually terribly competitive.
In a weird twist on the expected manifestation of competitiveness, however, I tend not to redouble my efforts to get better at a thing in order to rise to the level of whoever I perceive as cramping my style; I usually just abandon the endeavor altogether. It’s all a very bitter “fuck you, I’m taking my toys and going home” kind of sad snottiness.
My perfectionism, delightfully, doesn’t just force me to want to be the best at a thing; it twists the knife even deeper so that I also kind of want to be the only person doing it. I want people to look at me and think, “aha, the singular Allison! She is just so incredible and unique, truly the source of inspiration for so many of us. We are all mere footnotes in her personal expression of excellence.” Or, as Carrie Fisher brilliantly put it a couple years ago: “I want to explode in the night sky of your approval.” When my explosion threatens to be dimmed by a nearby city skyline, a simultaneous fireworks display, or, heaven forbid, the very stars themselves, well . . . what’s the use in exploding anymore anyway?
The beloved Henry Van Dyke quote “Use whatever talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best” I know is meant to be encouraging, to inspire persistence and joy in the act of creation for the sake of itself, but my stupid, competitive brain always reads it and thinks, “but someone’s got to be the best bird; why not me?!” Ridiculous.
The other complicating factor in this competitive streak is that I’m still in many ways living out my father’s failure narratives. As he got older and more depressed, he became increasingly mired in that stereotypical middle-class male regret of feeling like he wasn’t a good enough provider for his family. It’s interesting, though, that I don’t think I ever heard him express any self-doubt about his talents as a musician. That was one of the few aspects of his life he never seemed to question. In fact, his artistic standards were so high and exacting that he would become enraged when he could tell a person playing with him wasn’t giving a 100 percent effort. Multiple people told me at his funeral that, despite his temper tantrums and profanity-laced tirades, they were grateful to his prodding, that he turned them into better musicians.
Perhaps having lived with that attitude for so many years of my life contributes to my instinct to abandon a task when I can’t be the best at it. Perhaps it’s a way to dodge the possibility that I’ll be excoriated for a less than immediately stellar effort. Or perhaps the sense of failure in our family is like a heat-seeking missile, homing in on wherever our personal weaknesses may live: for him, his masculinity; for me, my sense of self-worth as an artist. Then again, one other possible way of interpreting my struggles in this area is, as one of my clairvoyant teachers once suggested, that I carry the burden of his failure inside myself in a way that prevents me from ever becoming “too much” for him to deal with.
When I graduated from Indiana University and was invited to give a student commencement speech to a small gathering of fellow graduates from the English department, he found a way to crush my high spirits afterward, when he bemoaned the fact that he didn’t get any of the poetic references the professors were making during their speeches. I remember feeling stunned, and then of course hurt. Wasn’t this what he’d always wanted of me? That I would excel in my field, that I would be the cream of the crop, that I would travel in a world of excellence? Why had my moment of triumph suddenly become about his intellectual insecurity? Clearly this was, if not my being too much for him, at the very least it was him expressing his feelings of not being enough for something I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time.
But, I’ve also come to realize recently that my impulse to abandon projects, or entire communities, is connected to that very sense of feeling like an underdog. Though I am proud to align myself with all manner of freaks and dirtbags and losers, I am also beginning to recognize the place where this sensibility obviously, directly clashes with my perfectionism. How can I be an underdog while also being the star? And this isn’t the Hollywood-style “against all odds, the biggest loser comes from behind, through sheer persistence and pluck to score the winning point for the team” variety of underdog narrative. It’s my adoption of my father’s class inferiority. If I perceive people as getting too fancy or too big for their britches—or if I feel insufficiently esteemed in the context of any given group or organization—I’ll usually find a way to extricate myself and move on to something else.
And so, as in Van Dyke’s silent forest, I’ve found myriad ways over the years to silence parts of myself that weren’t the very best.
In college I silenced much of my natural inclination to perform, both as an actress and as a musician, because I thought I wouldn’t be able to hack it in IU’s world-class theater and music departments.
After being rejected for an internship at a well-known entertainment magazine in New York City, I eventually turned to the then relatively low-stakes world of blogging. But after about six years of that, when my readership was no larger than when I began, and as I seethed with jealousy over newcomers to the scene who were finding ways to make a living from their online writing, I closed up shop in order to devote myself to the development of my psychic abilities.
And now that websites like The Numinous are cropping up, and as more and more people are openly talking about their own paranormal experiences, I find myself thinking, “what’s the point? The fact that I do aura readings and can give healings on people’s astral bodies doesn’t make me special anymore. I should just give it up.” Why is this the first place my brain goes? Why am I not celebrating this mainstream resurgence of interest in all things mystical and feeling excited to be part of this growing movement? I’m not quite sure what would fix the problem for me—if suddenly everyone else abandoned their séances and guided meditation classes? Or if the world took a vote and unanimously decided, “yes, Allison, in fact you are terribly special. You can’t give this up. You are the very best of the best.”
But, on the other side of these fits of pique is usually the saving grace of my voracious curiosity. Now that I’ve achieved a certain level of proficiency in one school of psychic techniques, I’m hungry to learn more, to know more, to explore more. So, I’ve signed up for an entry-level reiki class. I’m tremendously excited to learn about this modality and am looking forward to adding the techniques to my spiritual toolkit. It would just be nice if my ego could give me a break for a while, so that I can allow the night sky to shine without my input.