The enemy of the people
“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. Even when it’s fairly contained and limited, I agree with Lamott that 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: