A couple weeks ago I was having a serious conversation with a friend. I was feeling burnt out and overwhelmed. My mind was racing with problems I felt incapable of resolving but at the same time responsible for doing everything in my power and not knowing exactly what that meant.
My friend said something that made me stop and breathe.
“You have to allow yourself to be imperfect.”
It may sound simple enough. But to be honest, I don’t know that I really considered this an option. It made me think about the pressure many of us put on ourselves when the stakes are high and we are terrified of letting down people we love and/or letting down ourselves.
And eventually this thought pattern leads to Natalie Portman. I remembered the below article I wrote after watching “Black Swan” last year. This piece originally appeared on the blog, Rumor Control.
As I try to take in my friend’s advice, I found it helpful to remember the lessons I took from the film. Especially since, one year later, I’m still working on applying them.
Black Swan: Perfection Has a Dark Side
“When I look at you all I see is the White Swan. Beautiful. Fearful. Fragile.”
Nina is crushed and deflated. “I just want to be perfect.”
The film centers on the unraveling of a girl who forces herself to go completely against her nature in order to land the lead role in Swan Lake. The audience watches, or in my case winces, as Nina’s mental state rapidly deteriorates until she quite literally loses herself in the tragic and climatic final scene.
Nina practices relentlessly and her commitment to dance is all consuming. But something is missing. Every move she makes during rehearsals is precise and expected. Controlled and empty. Her technique is unfailingly accurate and hopelessly restrained.
How could Nina possibly embody the White Swan’s evil twin sister, the Black Swan? The role demands passion – the one thing Nina can’t acquire through hard work, discipline, and self-deprivation. She is so focused on technique that she’s incapable of letting go and being authentically expressive. Her obsession with perfection leaves no room for passion. Passion is raw and dangerously uninhibited. Passion transcends perfection.
Nina is tormented by crippling self doubt and a chronic compulsion to live up to unrealistic expectations – both external and self-imposed. To her overbearing and fiercely controlling mother (played by Barbara Hershey), Nina appears less a daughter and more like a second chance at stardom. Her mother clearly sees Nina’s lead role as an opportunity to vicariously experience what she herself was never able to achieve as a dancer.
To the ballet company’s lecherous artistic director, Nina is a talent to be molded and manipulated. His only concern is making sure she delivers a flawless performance. The toll it takes on her mental or physical health is immaterial.
In one rehearsal he barks at Nina as she spins on point, her eyes filled with increasing desperation and terror with each rotation. “I want to see passion! Seduce us! Attack it! Attack it!” Nina’s rival (a new dancer who personifies the Black Swan played by Mila Kunis) shuffles into the studio arriving late. Nina falters and violently crashes to the floor. That night she practices the sequence over and over until she twists an ankle and splits her big toe.
My eyes were closed through a good portion of the movie. It just wasn’t easy to sit through watching the physical and mental torture Nina endures for the sake of art. Ballet is this symbol of elegance and grace inducing a feeling of serenity and awe to spectators. And yet it has ravaged the body, mind, and spirit of the prima ballerina everyone in the audience admires. What is on stage is unattainable. You are not watching someone tapping into who she really is; it’s not a beautiful expression of authenticity. It’s manufactured and it comes at a price.
As the credits rolled I felt so disoriented it was a struggle to put on my coat and walk out of the theater. To me the film was a warning about the perils of perfectionism and the consequences of having such a weak sense of self that your identity is completely dependent upon achievement. It made me think about what can happen when someone is motivated entirely by outcomes and external feedback.
My lesson: If you can’t achieve something while being true to who you are at the core, then you probably weren’t meant to achieve it.