I often dread looking stupid in front of other people. I think most of us do.
Early in life, I somehow picked up the message that it was really important to look smooth, polished, pretty, and in control at all times. I thought that if I presented myself this way, people would admire and love me more.
Maybe you have internalized this message, too.
It is not too surprising that we think this kind of thing. When we are surrounded by social media (and regular media) images that constantly portray heroes and heroines as polished, beautiful, cool, collected individuals, it is easy to believe that if we just try hard enough, we can always look beautiful and cool—and if we don’t, it is somehow our fault.
I think women especially face this pressure.
The Pain of Perfectionism
I also came to believe the flip side of this message: that if I looked foolish, goofy, awkward, unattractive, or ridiculous that I had failed in some profound way and was a disgrace to myself and others.
Maybe you have this fear, too.
These beliefs caused me to push myself really hard all the time, and people often referred to me as a perfectionist. Unfortunately, I took this as a compliment. I knew my perfectionism caused me anxiety a lot. I pushed and criticized myself harshly constantly for any perceived failing. I worried what people thought of me all the time.
I hated any kind of mistake, and since mistakes are a normal part of life, I was frequently miserable. I was either ruminating over some mistake I had made in the past (sometimes years in the past), or I worried about the mistakes and awkward moves I would inevitably make in the future.
I knew at some level that all of these worries were a result of my perfectionism, but I didn’t know how to live differently.
Leaving Behind Perfectionism for Good
Through a series of events, I realized vividly one day that mistakes are actually totally normal, completely acceptable, and actually to be encouraged: they mean that we are living our life. This means that looking awkward and even stupid and ridiculous sometimes is actually a normal part of a life well-lived.
I do not mean to suggest that we need to go out of our way to try to look awkward and ridiculous. Rather I mean that if we are living our lives fully, mistakes, goofs, gaffes (and their accompanying awkwardness) will naturally happen. The awkwardness that comes from mistakes can actually be extremely beneficial to us.
I recently relearned this truth.
Adventures in Bombing Zumba
A few weeks ago, my sister-in-law asked me if I wanted to go with her to Zumba class.
I hesitated. I was once really into aerobics and jazzercise, but my early professional life and six years of grad school have taken a toll on my cardiovascular fitness. To be honest, I have felt pretty lethargic and uncoordinated lately.
Not only that, while I am pretty familiar with jazzercise dance routines, I have only take a Zumba class once, and those dance routines are a whole different ballgame.
Still, my sister-in-law told me this instructor was really inspiring and creative. I was afraid of looking stupid, but something inside me said, “Go for it.”
I went to class. I was totally awkward. I looked stupid for a good portion of the time. I loved it.
Me and my Chucks about to rock Zumba class.
The instructor had created a highly innovative dance routine inspired by Latin American dance moves, as well as ballet, burlesque, hip-hop, and South African dance. She was incredibly energetic and graceful.
She also had crazy complex dance moves. We were constantly dancing up, back, side-to-side, and jumping and pirouetting—all the while doing choreographed hand movements.
At the beginning of the class, I jumped in with full-hearted exuberance. I will do it all, I thought. To be honest, a bit of my former perfectionism took over, and I had visions of tearing up the dance floor and amazing everyone with my dancing fluidity and grace.
This was not to be. Part way through the Zumba class, I gave up on mastering the instructor’s complex dance arm movements. I will just focus on getting the steps right and do my own hand motions, I thought.
But this proved difficult, too. I kept stepping at the wrong time and in the wrong direction.
Partway through the class, I thought, I just want to make it through this class without hurting myself or anyone else.
I was barely hanging on. I looked ridiculous half the time. Actually most of the time. My former perfectionist self would have probably stopped halfway through and quite possibly gone outside to wait for my sister-in-law and escape my embarrassment.
In terms of my former height of fitness when I was really into aerobics and jazzercise, I totally bombed this class. I was definitely out of step. My reflexes were slow. Most of the time, I was waltzing towards the profoundly ungraceful side of the dance spectrum.
But I kept going. I gave up trying to look perfect, and I just enjoyed myself. I loved the music. I loved the instructor. I felt empowered. I was proud of myself that I got over my fear of needing to look right or controlled or polished.
At one point, the class broke into freestyle dance to Prince’s “Kiss”. I let go. I was surrounded by a room of beautiful, energetic women, and together we got caught up in a moment of ecstatic dance. It was a whirlwind of joy, exuberance, sensuality, and pleasure. It was amazing.
(By the way, this guy recently wrote about being the lone Zumba guy in class, and it is a great post. Check it out.)
Ecstasy, Letting Go, and the Benefits of Looking Stupid
I love the word ecstasy. It derives from the Greek word exstasis, which has the connotation of standing outside of one’s self. When we are ecstatic, it is a moment in which our ego falls away, and we are no longer worried about how we look to others or worried about our appearance. We just LOVE being alive in the moment.
Ecstasy requires letting go of being in control and letting go of our fear of looking silly. When we are controlled, when we know completely what is going to happen, we are firmly entrenched in our self–in our well-trod thought patterns, habits, modes of being, cultural expectations.
When we try new things, we definitely risk looking silly and unprofessional, we step out of US—we step into a clearing—an open space where the new, the open, the ecstatic is possible. This ecstasy, newness, and liberation is one of the possible benefits of allowing ourselves to look awkward and ridiculous.
More Adventures in Awkwardness
It is not too much to say that my ecstatic Zumba class, despite the fact that I was extremely awkward, rekindled a fire in my spirit. I wanted to move more, to dance more, and to try new things more, even if I wasn’t great at.
I think this is what caused me to conquer my volleyball fear at my family reunion.
I have some pretty awesome volleyball players in my family, and every year at our reunion, they play long, energetic games of volleyball.
I used to play all the time, too, but one year at family reunion, I tore my calf muscle while playing. It was the most serious and painful injury I have ever had, and it took me about a year and a half to be able to walk normally again.
Because of this, I became terrified of volleyball. For seven years, I went to family reunion. I watched volleyball games, but I did not play because I was too scared. I had all but decided that my volleyball days were over.
But this year, while I was watching the volleyball players, I heard a little voice say to me, more or less, “It’s time to get back in the game.”
So I did.
I decided to play. And, wow, did I ever bomb it. If I thought my Zumba awkwardness was bad, my volleyball awkwardness was ten times worse.
I used to be pretty good at volleyball, if I do say so myself. I played for a while in high school, and I prided myself on my quick reflexes, my jumping ability (I’ve had a couple memorable spikes, and I’m only 5”6 on a good day), and a mean overhand serve.
But a torn calf muscle and seven years of not playing any volleyball whatsoever pretty much destroyed all of that.
My reflexes were basically non-existent. I completely failed to respond to balls that were absolutely mine. I misjudged balls that were clearly going out of bounds, and tried to return them, which always turned out badly. Most of the balls I did hit careened wildly in the opposite direction they were supposed to go.
I was a total team liability.
Only a few points into the game, my former perfectionism reared its ugly head. I was really embarrassed. I looked so stupid to myself. I wanted to quit.
But I suddenly thought, Who says you have to look good playing volleyball? Who says you can’t miss balls and hit them in the wrong direction? Maybe there are more important things right now than you looking like a professional volleyball player.
So I stayed in the game. And I finished.
I actually had a couple of good hits and one admirable save.
What is most important, though, is what I learned. I learned that my volleyball days are not over. I learned that my torn calf muscle was definitely a setback, but it is not the end of the story. I learned that awkwardness and success often go hand-in-hand.
And I also had a great time. I bonded with my family who were incredibly gracious to me, encouraged me, and tried not to hit too many hard balls in my direction.
Reflections on Awkwardness and Looking Ridiculous
Once again, I am not suggesting that we purposely set out to look awkward and ridiculous because we think it is some kind of magical formula for life. Rather, I suggest we live our life wholeheartedly and not worry about looking awkward or ridiculous too much.
To be human is to be in a constant state of not knowing, of not being in control, and of being a beginner. When we engage fully in our life, we constantly encounter situations we have never experienced before. In fact, no one has ever experienced them before because no one has ever been us before living our lives with our unique personality, our unique bodies, and our particular strengths and weaknesses.
Awkwardness is Our Natural State
Because we are always beginners, awkwardness and a lack of perfection is, to some degree, our natural state as human beings. I used to resist this and fight it as much as possible, but now I believe that if we can make friends with and embrace our awkwardness, we can experience a great deal of peace, wisdom, and the gifts awkwardness has to offer. Like ecstasy. Like dancing joyfully with others. Like bonding with our family. Like overcoming our fears.
Dear Friend, if you have recently looked awkward, stupid, and ridiculous in pursuit of living your life and trying new things, good for you. You are doing awesome, and you are an inspiration. Keep up the good work.