I’ve developed a practice of jotting down a list of events, conversations and observations at the end of every day, not only as a repository of creative prompts but also to identify patterns in my experience. During the last few weeks, perfectionism has appeared repeatedly in my daily lists, my own pursuit of it as well as my observation of it at work in others.
The first post I ever wrote was about people pleasing . As I draw word maps and play around with the idea of perfectionism, it’s impossible to separate it from people pleasing. They seem to be shackled together. When I think about that duality, it occurs to me perfectionism, like people pleasing, is a total abdication of power.
Trying to please others is always about someone else’s needs, and it’s always attached to a particular outcome I have no control over. Perfectionism feels the same way to me. It’s not about me. It’s not centered in my integrity or intention. I don’t even get to define what perfect is. It’s always about striving to meet the demands of others in order to obtain something I think I need from them.
Perfectionism is an old habit for me. I clearly remember trying to make beds perfectly, trying to sort laundry perfectly, trying to take care of my younger brother perfectly and trying to learn to tie my shoes perfectly. In fact, the entirety of my earliest memories are of struggling to be perfect in order to stay safe.
It didn’t work.
The problem with the concept of perfection is that it’s a chimera, something desperately hoped or wished for but impossible to achieve. Perfection is not static. It’s as elusive as a dust mote dancing in a shaft of light. The second we try to capture, control or define it, it vanishes.
When I imagine a perfect lover, a perfect friend, a perfect house or a perfect day, what I’ve done is pin the butterfly of perfection into a velvet-lined case. In the effort to preserve it, I’ve killed it. To describe perfection as always winning, unchanging, uncomplicated or in any other terms is to limit it, and, diminished, it crumbles into dust.
My best view of perfection is always over my shoulder. Perfection defies my expectation and agenda, but I glimpse it clearly as it passes by me and dances away in the distance. Whatever has been; that was perfect. Whatever is now is perfect. All the nows of my life, strung together like pearls on a silk thread, rippling behind me in the current of my passage, are perfect, including, and maybe especially, the knotted repairs, the frayed silk, and the variations in colors, shapes and sizes of the nows.
Perfection is nothing more than a frame. If perfection means without flaw, what is a flaw, exactly? That’s subjective, too. A flaw is just another frame. Either perfection or flaw can frame a moment, a day, a life.
I’m the only one with the power to define what perfect means in my life. I don’t have to buy in to anyone else’s interpretation. A perfect score, a perfect grade, a perfect 10, a perfect record, a perfect job, a perfect gift and all the rest are powered by competition and outcomes. Even if I win or achieve the outcome I desire most, that moment of perfection is fleeting, a brief second of shimmering wings, and then the butterfly of perfection has once again flown and the current of my life sweeps me into new territory.
Perfectionism, for me, is a compulsion and an addiction. It seduces me with promises of feeling valued and loved, but it never delivers. Practicing perfectionism is practicing self-hatred and fueling my internal critic until I’m paralyzed and beaten. Perfectionism renders me anxious and powerless. I still find myself in its grip occasionally, but I recognize the taste of it now. It’s the taste of futility, of exhaustion and unending effort. It’s empty and barren.
Those who hold us to their standards of perfection are not loving us. They’re controlling us, and people who control others do so because they cannot control themselves. Their expectations of perfection are about them, not us. There is no love there, no success, no safe harbor. Requiring perfection from ourselves murders our ability to live authentically, freely and fully.
My youngest son, wise beyond his years, used to say to me, “Mom, perfection is not a goal.” In those days, the pursuit of perfection still had me by the scruff of the neck and pleasing people was the only hope I had for earning love.
Now I’m older and feistier and I don’t want the pretense of love I have to earn. Perfection doesn’t interest me. I can do much more than achieve perfection. It’s not deep enough, not wide enough and not juicy enough. The false promise of perfection contains nothing I want or need. I want clouds of goldenrod and fields of butterflies and a long necklace of nows I collect, string and knot into place, one perfect pearl at a time.
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