The enemy of the people

This ginormous eraser is a great reminder that mistakes don't mean failure. National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, Washington DC, June 2014

This giant eraser is a great reminder that mistakes don’t have to mean failure.
National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, Washington DC, June 2014

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life…”Anne Lamott

“I make mistakes; I’ll be the second to admit it.”Jean Kerr

Because I’ve known so many world-class perfectionists, it took me longer than it should have to realize I am one myself.  I was somehow confused by the fact that I have so many obvious deficits.  I couldn’t imagine that a person so admittedly clumsy and hopeless at sports, with so many bad hair days and nervous habits, could possibly be a perfectionist for very long without totally freaking out.

But as anyone who looks closely at perfectionism knows, it has nothing whatsoever to do with perfection, and everything to do with anxiety.  And one can be a perfectionist in some areas while comfortably lethargic in others.  I agree with Lamott that, even when it’s fairly contained and limited, perfectionism is an ingredient in a lot of disasters– especially when it comes to relationships.

Perfectionism is an insidious tendency, because it can masquerade as so many good and desirable traits: competence, diligence, high standards, ambition, self-esteem and excellence.  But it’s really about none of those things.  Instead, it ends up feeding traits such as self-hatred, envy, jealousy, snobbery, disdain, despair, cynicism, scorn, cruelty and maybe even violence.

For me, accepting that mistakes and missteps are sometimes inevitable, no matter how hard I try, has enabled me to be less fearful of the condemnation of others.  It has also undermined the low self esteem that paradoxically causes me to look down on others in a desperate attempt to feel better about myself.

Accepting my own imperfection opens my heart up to others who, like me, don’t always live up to their own good intentions.  It helps me feel a bond with them, a kinship that comes of being human and therefore subject to lots of errors.  You don’t have to condone the faults to look past them, in yourself or in anyone else.

Life is so much happier when I start out liking each person I come in contact with.  If somebody gives me good reason to feel otherwise, I certainly will.  But to a great extent, I’ve found that we can see what we are willing to see, and forgive what we are willing to forgive.  When we look for common ground, we can almost always find it, and it doesn’t have to mean compromising any of our values.  I really believe that.

Have you been sending yourself silent thoughts of criticism today?  If so, talk back to them.  Not by saying “so what?” or “nobody’s perfect” or “I don’t care.” But maybe try saying “This problem is not bigger than I am” or “I’m going to keep trying anyway” or “Little by little, I will get there” or “Thank God I don’t have to get every detail just right to do something well.”

Pay no attention to The Enemy of the People!  Especially not when you’re looking in the mirror.  You don’t have to be perfect to be better.  You know you can be all that you need to be.  You really can.

One year ago today:

Everyone belongs




  1. Ooooh. Profound.
    I have these tendencies myself. For me, I try to remind myself not to take myself so seriously, and maybe make a game of it, where perfect is a ten, but we’re aiming for a C+ today. Something like that. 🙂
    There’s also that saying that if you aim for the moon, you’ll still land among the stars, a reminder that there’s nothing wrong with being among the stars, and that is great to have goals even if you never achieve them.
    I hear you about the bad hair days though – I am certainly the wrong person to aspire to perfection! (P.S. My auto-fill wanted to say “pectin” instead of “perfection,” but I just couldn’t let that one go! )
    Have a great day, Julia!

    • Susan, I agree that lofty aspirations are a good thing, and when we aim high, we probably end up closer than we would if we told ourselves it didn’t matter. I remember hearing a major league pitcher say “I start every game telling myself this game is a no-hitter. When someone gets a hit, then I tell myself I’m pitching a one-hitter, and so on.” I think we are more likely to keep trying if we don’t insist on perfection. Hope you have a great day too!

      • I like that pitcher’s attitude.

        • Yes, that has really stuck with me in all the years since I heard him say it. I think it was Orel Hershiser, but I can’t be sure, it was so long ago.

  2. Sheila

    Julia, what a very excellent, thought provoking blog this morning. It really makes me want to be more concerned with being my best self, even if I fall short in another person’s opinion. I must strive to find my own comfort zone and be content. Age certainly plays a role as we learn to live somewhat differently. I’ll just think of it as a mellow time, and accept it gracefully. 🙂 Thank you, Lord!

    • “Mellow” is a beautiful word and represents a quality I could use more of. I was never a fan of Olivia Newton-John, but I loved her song “Have you never been mellow?” especially the line “Have you never let someone else be strong?” As I age I find that easier and easier to do. Maybe out of necessity. 😀 And yes, Thank You Lord, for all the “someone elses” who are younger, stronger and patient with me.

  3. Jack

    “Make failure your teacher, not your undertaker,” wisely says Zig Ziglar. I’ve long ago recognized the great virtue in taking action, almost (but not quite) any action. I’m troubled by people I love claiming proudly their perfectionist tendencies, for I know that proclamation is just an excuse not to start. Success, said my dad, is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration in any endeavor.

    • I just loved Zig Ziglar. I had never heard that one before, though. And your Dad is right. I have a card from Ashleigh Brilliant that has been posted on my wall for years now: “It’s only because I want everything that I do to be perfect that I never actually do anything.” That one certainly hit home the first time I read it! And I post it as a reminder to myself, not because I’m proud of it.

  4. MaryAnn

    My! What a deep issue. I have been called judgmental many times. Now, wondering where that fits into perfectionism? I totally agree with talking back to the negative thoughts.

    • Mary Ann, long ago my brother Al explained to me what he saw as the difference between honest discussion and being judgmental. He said, “Reviewing the evidence is not judgmental, but passing a verdict is.” WOW, I thought that was pretty wise. I suppose there are times when we all must face circumstances where it is necessary to “pass a verdict” but I suspect it’s far less often that some of us think it is. The Bible has much to say about judgment, but my favorite verse, and one I think nicely summarizes Christian theology, is James 2:12-14 – “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Both a beautiful promise and a stern warning.

  5. I deal with the above, by keeping it simple. When I fail in my weakness, I say; Jesus have mercy on me. And when faced with that which I have no control, I say; Jesus I trust in you. Then move on and do my best.

    • Alan, I think it’s a pretty good way to be. To the extent I am able to master that approach, I start to realize where the “peace that passes understanding” comes from.

  6. raynard

    Julia I use to be O.C.D/Anal Tentative about people touching my stereo and music collection or anything of mine electronic.. While I don’t use a GPS , I just went out recently and brought a old fashion Rand Mc Nally Road Atlas.Route numbers odd are north and south. Even numbers run east and West. FYI be bless

    • Raynard, I get so confused by our roads in southeastern Virginia. When we go from Hampton to Norfolk, it is almost due south in my mind, but the interstate is called “64 East.” For the longest time I could never figure out whether to take the exit east or west when I thought I was going south. I finally just told myself to remember “east is south” which I did by remembering that I grew up in the southeast. GPS systems were made for people like me who have no sense of direction whatsoever. Luckily I also know how to read maps even though highway numbers are still hard for me to remember.

  7. Good stuff, Julia!

    • Thank you, Mechelle!

  8. Ahh…Perfection…who can obtain perfection?
    We’re not to be judgmental but we can be fruit inspectors…as long as we don’t expect perfection…but I’m not into inspecting fruit. I’m not perfect and don’t expect others to be…what fun would that be? 🙂

    • The only time I’m into inspecting fruit is when I’m about to eat it. 🙂 Seriously, though, you have a point. Whenever I was washing windows or glass doors I would always notice that it’s WAY easier to see the smudges and streaks that are on the OTHER side of the glass, not on “my” side. I think it’s that way with our faults and imperfections; it’s often much easier to see the quirks of other people than to see our own. Once we realize that it’s a lot easier to be forgiving, I think.

  9. Carlyle

    Good post! If you have not read it, I would recommend that you and your readers consider ” Who Is My Brother ” by F. LaGard Smith. It is an insightful look at personal relationships.

    • Thank you, Daddy! We have that book, and Jeff has read the whole thing. I have only read parts of it, but everything I read, I pretty much agreed with. I really like LaGard’s writing.

  10. Beth

    My name is Beth and I’m haphazard. I’m not a brain surgeon, so does it matter? I find it impossible to have a perfectionist mind and keep an open loving heart.

    • Beth, I’m also lucky to have the freedom of working in ways that don’t normally involve life and death. I’m glad there are some people who are able to thrive in these environments (I can’t imagine having a job like Jeff’s where there often are literally fractions of millimeters between an acceptable result and one that will cause problems down the road) because, as you suggest, my perfectionist tendencies war with my better nature. I have had many friends whose loving and compassionate approach to life have provided good examples for me when I start channeling my inner Maxine.

  11. Loved this post! Being a perfectionist I can relate very well. But of late I have started giving up the habit, little by little. It’s good for me and others around me. Perfectionists fail to enjoy life. Even a perfectly done task would only leave them unsatisfied. Practice need not always make us perfect but it will surely make us better.

    • Bindu, I think life teaches us to turn loose of our perfectionist tendencies. In my case, it’s a matter of survival; I simply cannot do everything I want to do as well as I’d like to do it, so I will drive myself crazy if I don’t ease up a bit. Perhaps that’s a blessing that comes with age. Those of us who start out as perfectionists learn to relax, and those who start out more relaxed still get better at what they do, just from having done it for years. I have learned that it’s far more beneficial to be content with slow progress than to get impatient and give up altogether.

  12. Michael

    We also have a giant eraser in our downtown Sculpture park in Seattle, and I thought it was one of a kind.
    A quote that has helped me to counter any inner perfectionist I may harbor in secret is one from a Buddhist teacher Tigan Rinpoche to- “live your life as an experiment.” An idea which is somehow freeing. Try it -if it does not work out then try something else. Keep experimenting.

    • I wonder if it’s the same artist? I like the quote about life as an experiment – since that is what it is, to a large degree, whether we like it or not! Plus I like the hopeful tone of looking on something as an “experiment” rather than a “risk of failure.” 🙂

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