Opening the door

It seems everyone I know these days is reaching that milestone of adulthood where it’s time to buy a house. This phase is similar to the one when everyone was getting married and, more recently, the one when everyone was having their first child. My friends seem to struggle to take on these new aspects of their identities, trying to make things perfect before letting anyone see the big life changes that have occurred.

With the marriage phase, that perfectionism was, and still is, manifest in the form of obsessing over getting the perfect engagement photos, micromanaging every detail of the perfect wedding, or taking a “selfie stick” to the beach to get those perfect honeymoon photos.  With the kiddo phase, it was more of the same— images of Pinterest-worthy nurseries began to emerge, followed by precious black-and-white photos of newborns swaddled in crocheted things. Then came the saturation of social media with photos of smiling babies surrounded by loving parents. The pictures are never-ending.

As far as social media are concerned, everyone in my life has been seamlessly transitioning through these milestones with photogenic grace and style. Every detail has been perfect. Life has been beautiful and full of smiles.

We all know that life is messier than the images we’re seeing and sharing, but we take the pictures anyway. We understand the perfectly normal conflicts that surround planning the seating chart and choosing who will be in the wedding party, but we don’t want anyone to see them.

I believe all of this focus on image is just an expression of a deep-seated fear. It’s not about getting the perfect picture; it’s about appearing to be the perfect person. We’re afraid to let anyone see our imperfections or to make ourselves vulnerable; we’re afraid to admit to our own humanity.

In this new home-buying phase, the metaphor is even more obvious. We refuse to open the door to allow our friends and family inside until we feel complete. We imagine we aren’t good enough until the remodel is finished, the paint has dried, and all the books are arranged neatly on the shelves.

A friend of mine, who recently purchased his first home, told me this morning that he couldn’t believe how much time he’s been spending on his new house. I teased him that I was expecting him to disappear from his social life soon and he insisted that he wouldn’t. I tried to suggest that he invite people over to his new place and include them in the process, even if including just meant letting them see what was underway. I thought people would love to be invited, to see his new place come together over time. Maybe I was just speaking for myself: Don’t shut me out. I don’t care what the floors look like. But understandably, he said it was hard because he wanted to finish getting everything settled first.

I empathize with my friend. The last time I moved, I spent months on the interior design and wouldn’t invite anyone over while it was underway. I’m one of the most social people I know and I love to entertain, but I wouldn’t have anyone in my home to see all the boxes that hadn’t been unpacked, or to sit on the balcony where I hadn’t bought any furniture yet. I didn’t want anyone to know how much chaos and clutter I was living with every day. Deep down, I knew that my friends were not interested in my friendship because of my penchant for organization and interior design; they were interested in me. But I couldn’t let go of my obsession with getting everything perfect before letting anyone inside.

I know that the way I acted with respect to my apartment is exactly how I conduct myself in interpersonal relationships sometimes, too; if I can’t put forth a polished, composed, and prepared version of myself, sometimes I just don’t put forth anything at all. The version of me that I want the world to see has her act together and she’ll tell you that. She works out regularly and usually eats healthy. Her outfits are coordinated and her accessories are carefully selected. She can hold a fascinating conversation.

But the real me has messier moments. If the real me were an apartment, there would be emotional “boxes” stacked in the hallway because I haven’t gotten around to unpacking them yet, and I don’t know when I ever will. There’d be whole rooms of myself that haven’t been painted yet, areas where I just haven’t figured out what to do with myself. And admittedly, there are parts of me that only come together once “company” is coming. If someone is paying attention to a particular part of my apartment-self, I might scramble to paint and furnish it, just to keep up appearances.

I’ve been thinking a lot about authenticity lately. I read Brené Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection and it resonated with me on this point. Brown says,

Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.

In other words, authenticity is letting people into our homes, no matter whether the boxes have been unpacked or the paint has dried.

It’s not just a matter of letting friends see our clutter and chaos.  I believe that when it comes to authenticity, the stakes are high. I believe that authenticity is the gateway to some of the things that matter most in life, like friendship and love. As Brown says,

We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.

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