“If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.”
– Leo Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina
When we think of perfectionism, we usually think of trying to be perfect. But perhaps the most dangerous element of perfectionism is the expectation that others should be perfect, as mentioned by the Unitarian minister Rev. Penny Rather:
Being a perfectionist is not about being perfect; it’s about trying to be perfect or expecting perfection from others. . . And even as we are intent on seeking perfection and improving ourselves, we also seem bent on doing the same with others. Our neighbors. Our partners. Our children. Shouldn’t they enjoy the benefit of our wisdom when they are deciding how to live their lives?
Expecting perfection usually means we expect someone to fit into our model of what we think they should do and be. When they don’t fit our model, either because they made a mistake or are simply being themselves, then we focus on their “imperfections.” This attention to what we label as “imperfections” then becomes the basis for how they should change, and, quite often, drives our efforts to “fix” our partners, family members and friends.
For many years I was driven to try to “fix” my mom. She seemed to complain about everything and never see anything positive in the world or her life. One day I was visiting her in Chicago and we were driving home from an afternoon at the horse races (her favorite pastime). She was complaining about something and I interrupted her and said,
“Do you realize that you constantly complain? Can’t you ever look at the good side of anything?”
She looked at me sideways, with a rather frustrated expression on her face and said,
“Maybe I like complaining.”
In that moment I had an epiphany. She was being who she was. She was doing a perfect job of being my complaining mother. The mother that also changed my diapers and encouraged me to play the piano. There was nobody else like her in the whole universe. She didn’t need to change at all. I NEEDED TO CHANGE. I needed to stop judging her and stop trying to make her become someone else. From my perspective, I thought I was helping because it seemed like she was miserable so much of the time. But I realized that my attitude and actions towards her WERE ADDING TO HER MISERY.
I couldn’t make her happy, but I could certainly stop adding to her suffering by trying to make her something she wasn’t.
In the brief essay below, Kaaren Anderson comes to a similar conclusion about her grandmother, after her grandmothers death:
Best described as stout, there was nothing unhurried about her. The skin under her arms swung in pendulum force when she moved. My grandmother. Far from a slave to fashion, she nonetheless cared about her appearance, wearing a full-corseted girdle daily. She wasn’t ugly or beautiful, yet she sported a quick, one-sided mischievous grin that always kept you guessing as to her womanly guises. She was a klutz of enormous proportions. . . . A woman who looked like a grandmother at thirty.
My grandmother was a misfit of sorts. When I was a child, she was my icon of paradox. On one hand she was the mother of comfort. Her house always smelled of overcooked vegetables and well-used wool. When feeling out of sorts, she would promptly offer you her favorite food: Cheese Whiz on toast. On the other hand, nobody could embarrass me as a kid like she could. She would be deep in conversation with someone while concurrently and unabashedly scratching her large bosom, oblivious to the obvious misstep in propriety.
This odd woman could weave beauty into lives like no other. An avid, voracious quilter, she was a binder of pieces and parts. . . . My grandmother died ten years ago now. I miss her oddness and her quirky character. The older I get, the more I realize she had a lot to teach me – not in family history, or in how to be a quilter, or how to make carnage out of fresh vegetables. No, the older I get, the more I think she was perfect. She wasn’t a model with flawless features. She wasn’t a Nobel Laureate, distinguished, astute, or brilliant. She wasn’t even the nicest, kindest, gentlest person I knew. She was perfect because she knew how to be her – Sylvia Anderson. She knew how to be human, not a facade of one. There was no pretense about her, you got what you saw. She fit into her skin, and her skin fit her.
~ Kaaren Solveig Anderson, Ms. Perfect
Thank you Kaaren, for reminding us how to appreciate another human being for who they are. Thank you mom, for tolerating my arrogant efforts to fix you all those years and still loving me. Thank you Abbie (my daughter) for being such a free spirit, which I too often label as disobedience or inattentiveness.
Once we cease trying to make everyone perfect, perhaps we will get a glimpse of what perfection really is.
Your relationship deserves your attention, if you want it to thrive. Join the ToDo Institute’s upcoming course, Renewing Your Relationship, for a fresh new approach to a healthy, fulfilling relationship. Starts February 17, 2012.
Gregg Krech Author, Naikan: Gratitude, Grace and the Japanese Art of Self-reflection (2002)| Author, A Natural Approach to Mental Wellness (2004, 2011)| Author, A Finger Pointing to the Moon (2000)| Editor, Thirty Thousand Days: A Journal for Purposeful Living (1993-Present)| Director, ToDo Institute (Vermont) (1992-Pr......