Present Imperfect: Giving Up On My Best Self

Present Imperfect: Giving Up on My Best Self

Riding In Cars With Boys

My best self has more shoes and thicker hair, even though I already have lots of shoes and plenty of hair. She’s slippery as mercury. She’s a tease. A mirage. My best self exists in the flawless future, while I live in the imperfect present. In other words, my best self is a lie.

I write this from Carpenteria, CA, just off Highway 1, which I’ve been driving down for the past few days on a (carefully budgeted) holiday road trip. The other day I threw my head back to take in the full magnificence of towering redwoods and squatted down low to the ground to examine a turgid banana slugs. I watched countless elephant seals basking beneath the winter sun who certainly appeared to be living their best life.

I’m on the type of semi-off-the-grid trip where my best self should flourish. But instead of focusing on breathtaking views, I’ve spent too much time complaining about how ugly I think I look in photos, how terrifying coastal mountain driving is, and how I’m just not trying hard enough to find the best restaurants, the absolute best views, the best of the best to make this great trip even better. Even on vacation, I’m always falling short.

But tomorrow, in 2016, I vow to stop chasing my best self. In part, I’m sick of my best self’s false promises. Over the years, she’s promised different forms of salvation, different paths to becoming fabulous, flawless her: Becoming really thin, moving to New York, finding a loving boyfriend, publishing a book. Some of these things have transpired, others haven’t. But — shocker — I’ve never felt like my best self. I’ve come to resent the way she makes me keep chasing her, and I picture her like a skating rink right after the Zamboni smooths the surface: sleek, monotonous, and ice cold.

I don’t blame myself entirely for falling prey to this illusion. There’s an entire Enlightenment-Industrial Complex built upon our collective failure to become our best selves. The self-improvement market is recession-proof and ever-expanding. It gobbles up new trends (remember The Secret?) and thrives on conflating “best” and “perfect” — even when rhetoric tells us it’s okay to mess up now and then. The Enlightenment-Industrial Complex includes New Year’s resolutions, juice cleanses, fad diets, and listicles of the top ten ways to be more productive, less anxious, more mindful, less angry, and so on.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against self-improvement. I’m against the superlative-driven form of betterment we’ve come to accept as the norm, the kind that flourishes in a society where everything from energy drinks to makeovers to soul-building is modified by the words extreme or intense. I’m against the landslide of self-improvement, which starts with tentative steps toward letting go or getting in shape, and cascades into a competitive race toward the unattainable “best” self.

The problem with the idea of my best self is that by definition, she’s always the woman living one of my myriad parallel lives, not the woman I am.

In the coming year, new personal and financial challenges await. I’ll be joining finances with my fiance when I get married this spring. Before that, I have to budget for a wedding, figure out the requirements for claiming my mother as a dependent, and continue to negotiate the monetary and emotional boundaries that come with those responsibilities. I don’t want to slip up. I want to be my best financial self, but I know I’ll fall short.

I felt this way in the past, when I’ve dealt with financial challenges: by 34, I’ve executed my father’s will, sold a condo and co-purchased property with my sister, and managed to siphon stability out of the roller-coaster that is a freelancer’s income. Each time around, I keep thinking that previous challenges should make me well-equipped to deal with future ones. I fall for this mind trick again and again. But I know the gulf between who we are and who we’d like to be is vast, and instead of trying to zip-line to the other side, I’m just going to let myself dangle over the chasm. Maybe then she’ll realize she’s far more interesting than my best self could ever be.

Alizah Salario is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn. Her reportage, essays, and criticism have appeared in Money magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Daily Beast, The New York Observer, New York Magazine’s Vulture blog, Narratively, at The Poetry Foundation, and elsewhere.

This article is part of The Billfold’s 2015 end-of-year series, “Our Best Selves in the Coming Year.”

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