An honest take on life and parenthood

Little Miss Imperfect

on August 26, 2013

I am a recovering perfection addict. In the middle of writing this post, for instance, my husband called me. I told him about the topic. He joked, “I bet you’ve been working on it for 94 days.”

I started laughing.  I realized that I wrote my first draft of this post nearly four months ago, and this is the third pass.

Guilty as charged.

If you are a perfectionist, you know that perfectionism brings benefits. It certainly paid off for me.

As a child, my quiet, obedient ways won me the approval of teachers. I did all of my homework, neatly and thoroughly, and was rewarded with excellent grades.

Perfectionism helped me get into good schools and helped me get good jobs, and even keep a few of them. Occasionally, I would irritate people who perceived me as holier-than-thou or slightly superior, but in truth, it was never about that. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

When I turned the pretty rock of perfectionism over, there was some nasty stuff on the underside, as well as a heavy price to pay for the privilege.

I realize now that it was a shield that I developed and used to protect myself.

My perfectionism was (and is) a prettified self-defense mechanism. My perfectionism disguised the fact that I believed I was stupid, inept, and never good enough.

Growing up in an authoritarian household where criticism was in the water and the air, and rage for minor infractions was not uncommon, I spent my formative years as a little girl who tried desperately to do things well to avoid becoming a target. I kept my head low and stayed out of trouble as much as I could.

In this way, I could avoid the pain of rejection and criticism, as well as the pain of physical punishment.

I was good at following directions, but feared deviating from them.  I was an obedient follower who did not question authority, even if it didn’t make sense or seemed unjust.  I wasn’t good at directing other people, since I believed that I was not smart enough to do so. Although I was often tapped to lead a group, I was rarely effective, since I lacked the confidence to think for myself and trust my own judgment. I needed someone to tell me what to do. If the path was uncharted, I became mired in inertia, terrified of making a misstep and failing miserably.

Perfect people do not fail.

Growing up, I concluded that if I were perfect, I would win the keys to the kingdom. I would be accepted and liked by everyone; I would get good grades; I would have a great job; I would be considered pretty.

This approach worked for a long time. Until it all started collapsing on me.

As I matured into my 30’s and started to realize that perfectionism did not deliver the benefits I expected, I started to doubt myself in a different way. On my own, without the structure of school or family, I foundered. I could not seem to find a job that I did well. While I could get a boyfriend, most of my relationships did not last, and were unhealthy besides.

I suddenly realized that I had been disguising my deepest fears for a long time.

Over the past decade, I have worked to dismantle my worship of the false god of perfectionism.

Now, when I am doing something new, I take a breath and acknowledge that I will make mistakes.  For example, this blog has taught me that it is better to release a piece of work in its imperfect state, because otherwise, it might never be released. If I polish the apple endlessly, I lose the moment and it never returns.

A writing professor told me last week that perfectionism would hamstring my writing, since no piece is ever perfect. Some years ago, another writing professor told me that my perfect good girl voice was uninteresting, and if I chose to keep it, no one would want to read my work.

Pretty compelling reasons to let go of the crutch, no?

This new way of living means that I am happier. I am not striving for an impossible ideal from myself or others. Now I accept that no one and nothing is perfect, though some days are easier than others. Friends and family members and children are human, not storybook creatures. Not only is perfection boring (writers know that perfect characters and perfect lives will ruin even the best writing), but it is a deeply subjective assessment.

As I raise the Pooh, I am conscious of perfectionism’s long shadow.

Now that the Pooh is three, she likes to pick out her own clothes, often with amusing results. Earlier this spring, she wanted to wear a pale aqua dress with a wide tulle skirt, purple socks, and sparkly red mary janes. My younger perfectionist self would never have let her leave the house. Instead, I smiled inside and helped her get dressed.Image

We decided to take a walk around the block. As we went outside, she put on pink sunglasses and I gave her a small container of bubbles. She toddled along in her mismatched outfit, blowing bubbles, singing a little song to herself.

To my amazement, five different people in the span of 15 minutes stopped us. Cars slowed to admire her. Neighbors introduced themselves to the tiny diva in a princess dress and ruby slippers, blowing bubbles in the sunshine. No one seemed to notice that she didn’t match.

The Pooh’s jaunt around the block was a living example of the power and charm of imperfection. If I had stopped to insist that her clothing matched, we would have ended up in a terrible fight. I doubt we would have gone for a walk. I would never have known that magnificent 15 minutes with her.

As she grows up, I hope that I help her understand the difference between excellence and perfection.

If she ever asks, I will tell her that once I stopped worshipping at the altar of perfection, I suddenly started to breathe and began to live.

One response to “Little Miss Imperfect

  1. jen groeber says:

    Thank you, Wendy. My kids killed the perfectionism in me when they outnumbered me yet I have to admit, following 4 year-old Reid around yesterday in her brown polka dotted skirt, faded gray t-shirt, blue striped leggings and cowboy boots gave me heartburn. But as I tell the kids when they get frustrated, cry, whine, fight etc., “Exhale. Just blow those candles out. Exhaaaaale.” 😉


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