Marilyn, Perfectionism, and Quitting

MarilynBy Lisa Alber

I spend last Friday night with Mom. One of our Friday movie nights. My mom is 85 years old and has dementia. She still lives at home with my sister who lives at home (not because of Mom, she just does) and two caretakers who come and go. We like to watch old movies together. Mom seems to be able to follow them, well enough anyhow.

Last Friday we watched an old Marilyn Monroe movie from before she hit sex symbol status. “Don’t Bother to Knock” (1952), a noir-ish thriller in which Monroe plays a deranged babysitter. I was fascinated by her performance. She was still herself, that Marilyn thing, but she wasn’t yet typecast or peroxide blond or shimmying rather than walking. She played dramatic quite well.

When I think about Marilyn Monroe, I think about perfectionism. It’s said that she was a perfectionist, and that this was one of her obstacles (among many) to getting to the set on time, to knowing her lines, to being prepared. She wasn’t a flake; she was crippled by the need to be perfect. It’s a low-self-esteem, all-or-nothing, kind of thing.

I know about this. I’m on that spectrum, but not extremely so. Thankfully. But just enough that I’ve had good discussions about it with my therapist. I had never considered myself a perfectionist. I mean, come on, I rarely make my bed. In person, I’m the disheveled sort. No perfectionism here!

Yeah, no. That’s not what perfectionism is, though it can look like perfectly coiffed hair and made beds. My perfectionism is more the getting-straight-As thing. The problem with perfectionism is that it is an illusion, and living in the land of illusion only causes suffering. I was thinking about all of this in March for my last post: A Confusing Lesson in Resistance and Illusion.

Perfectionism is all about trying to create your worth because your internal sense of self-worth isn’t the best ever. You think people will only like or love you if you’re perfect. You don’t have the sense that you’re worthy all on your own, just as you are. Isn’t that the sense we get from Marilyn Monroe? That she was chasing this illusion?

How exhausting. For me, like I mentioned, it’s more about getting As. I want to do well in my chosen activities. Novel writing is the activity that causes me the most suffering. Seriously. I could be as perfect as I could possibly be, write the best novel I know how to write, and get no joy — no contract or no sales or no reviews. That’s where the illusion lies: that I need all this stuff to be happy as a novelist, because then it will all be just PERFECT.

So what ends up happening? Instead of having a dream, the dream has us. It owns us. Everything is the illusion of that future place where everything is perfect, if only we could get there. So we strive, and strive, and find no satisfaction in our current place because we aren’t at that future perfect place yet. And, oh the suffering, because no matter how well we write (or do whatever it is) or fast we write, or how well we engage in social media or go on book tours that we have to pay for ourselves, we aren’t on the bestseller list — !

I’m exhausted just having written that. I’ve been in that striving place since 2001-ish. And, as I told a friend last night: “This may sound pessimistic, but I give up. I’m not going to strive anymore. I want to live my life, and I want to write novels as part of that, but I give up on being owned by the dream.”

I’ve decided to quit the dream. That’s it. And that may sound horrid, but it’s not. Because quitting the dream is quitting the illusion and the perfectionism and the unhealthy striving that goes along with all of that. In fact, “quitting” is quite possibly the healthiest thing I could do for myself right now. Quitting isn’t a bad thing even though it has a bad rap.

I’m not quitting writing — no way — and you’ll see a new novel out in August, and I’m working on something totally different right now. I’m just quitting the Marilyn Monroe.

If you’re curious about the quitting topic, check out this NPR “Freakonomics” broadcast about quitting:

And here’s an article I found about perfectionism versus *healthy* striving, which clarified a few things for me:


A Confusing Lesson in Resistance, Ego, and Illusion

By Lisa Alber

A few weeks ago, I happened on a funny little book at the New Renaissance bookshop in Portland. After scoffing at a book about how to analyze my issues by observing my dog’s behavior, my gaze stopped on a title that read, I Don’t Want To, I Don’t Feel Like ItHow Resistance Controls Your Life and What To Do About It.

If I believed in the metaphysical, I’d have said it was a sign from the book gods. I knew I had to buy the book when I opened it and read at random:

“If you recognize this trap [i.e. nasty internal voice naysayers], perhaps as a result of years of failed self-improvement plans, you’ve most likely spent a lot of time and energy trying to figure out why this is happening. “Why do I keep failing?” And, you’ve probably heard plenty of internal “advice” about what you should do differently, usually amounting to “just try harder.””

It’s as if the author wrote to me personally. Having grown up in a positive-thinking, self-improving family, I am the Queen of Failure when it comes to self-improvement plans. Sometimes I despair of myself, and I do ask myself why I keep failing, and I do have a voice that always demands that I “just” try harder.

“Just” — such an awful little word.

I’m no stranger to pondering the notion of resistance. I’ve talked about it enough in psychological terms and in terms of creativity. This little book comes at it from a Buddhist point of view. The book defines resistance as an ego-identity maintenance system. It’s all about how the “I” maintains control and its status quo.

Our egos want to survive above all, and when we set out to change the status quo, the ego brings out the nasty little internal voices that rationalize, accuse, blame, shame, taunt. So, we fall back into old patterns and feel rotten about ourselves.

OK, I can see that, but then the book talks about illusion. As in, what the ego presents to us is illusion: worries, anxieties, shoulds, coulds. All these thoughts about how our lives would be better if X. These are just stories. They aren’t real and the thoughts behind them aren’t real. It’s all illusion.

We tend to believe our thoughts, don’t we? But our thoughts are just thoughts; they’re not indicative of any kind of truth about ourselves. But we believe them and we suffer.

I know I suffer a lot. I feel like I’m always striving, trying to outdistance my voices. Try harder, try harder.

The galling part is that the more I read this book, the more I realize how ego-driven I am. MASSES of ego. Ego all over the place. Oozing ego almost every waking moment — and maybe while I’m asleep too.

Thing is, I’m reading this book and gaining insight, but I’m not sure what lessens the resistance … Awareness? I think calling out the thoughts as the unhelpful beasts they are and taking a few breaths to bring myself back to the moment could be helpful.

Of course, the most interesting thing about delving into a book about resistance is that all the while, I’m resisting my writing. So my quest to lessen resistance is itself resistance?

Hmm … Seems confusing, this Buddhist philosophical stuff. Oh wait, is that resistance again?  That is, was that a naysayer thought about reading the book, just to get me to quit reading the book?

And is this tendency of mine to overanalyze yet ANOTHER example of the ego’s resistance tactics?


What do you do to lessen resistance?