Sunday, September 22, 2013

On (not) being perfect

In spite of evidence to the contrary, I was not raised to be a perfectionist.  I wasn't raised in such a way that I was told to try harder, or do more, or do better.  In fact, I wasn't supposed to try at anything.  I wasn't supposed to work too hard, or do too much, or strive to be anything.  Being a perfectionist is a bad thing.  Being a perfectionist means you're anxious.  Being a perfectionist means you have to try so hard to be perfect.

See, I was just supposed to be perfect.  Effortlessly, beautifully, simply, articulately perfect.  I was not told how I was supposed to behave, or what I was supposed to achieve, or what I was supposed to do.  I was just supposed to do it, and I was supposed to do it in an effortless and perfect manner.  It was just all supposed to fall into place.  If you let people know you were trying too hard, it wasn't perfect.  If you let people see that you were anxious about it, it wasn't perfect.  Perfection wasn't something we were supposed to seek.  It was just something that was supposed to be.  Perfection was just something that had to happen, automatically, without trying, because to try would indicate that you weren't inherently perfect.  And that is what we were supposed to be: inherently and ultimately perfect. 

By that logic, I couldn't be a perfectionist.  Being a perfectionist means, inherently, that you're not perfect, so that couldn't be me, right? 

Unsurprisingly, a by-product of this environment made it such that I had no choice but to be a secret perfectionist.  Our public family face was one of perfection.  Any imperfections happened behind closed doors and were never mentioned to others.  I was (and by some, still seem to be considered to be) perfect.  It is still the image I am supposed to present.


I'm not perfect.  I have been failing at perfection since forever, and not for lack of trying.  I'm still really bad at failing at perfect.  Even after all this practice at trying to be perfect, perfect still doesn't come easily.  It doesn't come naturally.  In fact, it doesn't come to me at all.   

Failure, however, is even less natural.  It's just not an option.  It's not supposed to even be on my radar.  Failure is a devastation and disappointment that I'm just not supposed to contact. 

But you do sometimes.  Or, I do.  Or I did.  And it feels like the world has caught on to 27 years of pretending.  It feels like, finally, that which I have been trying to avoid has been made known.  It feels like I have been called out by Life.  Life has finally caught me, ripped off the ill-fitting mask of perfection I've been trying to mold to my face, and shown "everyone" who I really am. 

It's so bad, in fact, that I even feel like a failure because I don't know how to fail perfectly.  I want to be able to fail and bounce back quickly.  I want to be the perfect person who has such strong self-esteem that a little failure doesn't send her for a loop.  I want to maintain a cheerful, beautiful, strong, effortless position on failing, and I want to write something motivational about how to fail in the best possible way.  If I can't be perfect, which we've established I can't, I at least want to be able to be a perfect failure.  Not perfect feels not lovable.  Failure feels unthinkable.

This is some fucked up shit, y'all.  And it's really hard to write about.  It's really hard to write about.  In fact, I totally see myself deleting this post after I post it (which will be problematic, because then I won't have a post for every day, which means that I failed at posting every day which I set out to do, so maybe I'll just edit it or something else, because...failure makes me anxious).

It's hard to separate out "that thing I failed" from "I am a failure."  I mean, there are some mornings that if I burn my toast or spill my coffee I spend the rest of the day obsessing about the fact that I'm a failure.  Real failure -- something beyond burned toast -- it makes my bones hurt.  I realize that sounds melodramatic and silly, but I'm not kidding.  It makes me feel unable to eat, and it makes my bones hurt. 

Have you read Jonathan Safron Foer's amazing book "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"?  It's a gorgeous book.  The movie doesn't do it justice.  At any rate, in the book the main character says, "Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I'm not living."

I hear this.  My bones feel like they're cracking under the weight of all the perfect I'm not obtaining.  Failure weighs heavy on my bones.   Perfect weighs heavy on my bones. Their combined weight is breath-taking.

Anne Lamott reminds us that "perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor."  I need a freaking emancipation.  The tyrant in my head is unrelenting. 


  1. At a point when my perfectionism was causing me a tremendous amount of anxiety, I decided to start being imperfect on purpose. My first act of rebellion was when my brother came from Nashville and brought a friend to my house for a visit. They went to a concert first, and I was in bed when they got in. I had cleaned the entire house from top to bottom -- all 3300 square feet of it. Not a speck of dust anywhere. When my daughter went to bed, she left her paper and markers in the middle of the living room floor. And so did I. I left them right there and went to bed.

    Did my brother notice? Hell, yes. Did he care? No, he laughed at me. (He has a bit of that himself.) After that, I found other ways to flip the bird to being perfect. I've gotten pretty good at imperfection now.

    You can too. ;-) Hang in there.

    1. That's funny, I have a client who is afraid of making mistakes. We have a regular "accident practice" at home and in session that we run where we make mistakes and do embarrassing things on purpose. I didn't think of doing this for myself...but it could work. I'd need one hell of a reinforcer to get through that, though.

    2. All you have to do is start somewhere.

  2. One time I said to my dad, "Nobody's perfect"
    He replied, "Well why aren't you, imperfect one?"

    To the day he went over the rainbow to see Dorothy & Toto he still considered me w/ out much intelligence or ability to manage my own affairs.

    1. Anonymous, thanks for the comment. So much of the way we think can be related to and/or stemming from messages we internalized from people we respect/love. It's hard to reprogram those voices once they become internalized, isn't it? I believe it can be just takes time and perseverance.

  3. This summer, for some reason, I made a list of all the things I feel I'm supposed to know how to do just to live an adult life. It was one of those times when I felt like I wasn't doing anything right, so I just kept listing as I came to something else I didn't know how to do, but felt I should be competent at. Some of the things on my list were maintain a food garden and a flower garden, manage children's behavior with loving discipline, have a cleaning schedule, improve my self-care, be a cook that can make healthy food from just about anything, make sure learning is a priority for the kids, blah, blah. In the end, I actually felt better, I laughed even- because for one, I realized my grandparents, older neighbors, and my Latter Day Saint friends (those women really have it all figured out!) have spent a life-time learning these things, and at 41 years old, I feel I'm really just getting started. I either wasn't taught this stuff, or I've forgotten it, so somethings I've figured out, and others not yet. I also realized that there are different seasons in life- and some are just plain overwhelming for everyone, so I let go and did the best I could. And I only went to Pinterest for the funny stuff :-)

    1. Only going to Pinterest for the funny stuff is a good idea. That thing can make me feel so incompetent it's ridiculous. It's funny how we put a time-stamp on things, isn't it? And, that time-stamp of "should be done by" is seldom realistic (at least for me). This realization: "I also realized that there are different seasons in life- and some are just plain overwhelming for everyone, so I let go and did the best I could" awesome.

  4. I lived frozen a long, long time, figuring doing nothing meant I couldn't fail. Not failing = success, right?

    So, so wrong.

    Thank you for writing this.

    1. I'm glad it was meaningful, Jen. Thanks for reading! :)