My best friend from residency once told me that she knew a lot of people who dreamed of having a house on the beach but only one (me) who ever achieved it. The photo below shows my home in Bay St. Louis, MS before Hurricane Bitch swept the whole thing into the sea. Hurricane Bitch was my name for Katrina once I got to the anger stage of my grief….
My office was on the top floor of the blue house, in case you’re wondering. The title for today’s pondering is something I’ve said many times to people in psychotherapy. It came to me out of an experience in my first beach house,the “Wave House,” which had a small room with a big tub and a large mirror that reflected candlelight in the best of all possible ways for a meditative soak. The mirror had a crack in it. The saying came to me one day as I pondered how interesting it was that the crack did not detract from the pleasure of the space. Since I was in my writing-on-the-wall period, I painted the title of today’s piece on the mirror above and across the crack and it was soon in heavy rotation in my therapy office.
“Perfect is the enemy of good,” I’ve heard people say. I once had a bit of a debate on this point with an accomplished man I admire a great deal. Very much the perfectionist, he believed that not being a perfectionist encouraged mediocrity. I understood his point but took (and take) issue with it because of the harm I’ve seen perfectionism do.
Women and girls, in particular, have been damaged by the notion that they must be perfect in every way. Women with eating disorders die in the service of this impossible goal. Yes, I’m familiar with ‘shoot for the moon because even if you miss, you land among the stars.’ That’s fine for some things. (Greeting cards come to mind…) Dream big? Sure. But there’s a difference between having a big dream you work hard to achieve and thinking you have to be perfect in every single thing you do, every minute of every day. That’s what I call toxic perfectionism.
Perfect body, perfect clothes, perfectly groomed and turned out at all times, with the perfect husband, perfectly behaved children, perfect performance at the perfect job, perfect hobbies, perfect pets… it’s ridiculous. It’s also impossible. What happens when this mythical “perfect woman” misses a deadline, eats a piece of cake or finds out that “perfect” husband is having an affair? What goes through her mind? That he’s a cheating SOB? No. What she thinks is that she screwed up (i.e., wasn’t perfect) so, of course he cheated…. Look around in your life. Is toxic perfectionism hiding somewhere? Fairly often, in residential addiction treatment for women, there are women who are so focused on appearance that they can’t address the real problem–the illness that is apt to kill them. We sometimes ask these women not to wear makeup for a week just to practice letting something go. (The ruckus that often ensues is a story for another day.) Look around your life. See any toxic perfectionism? Pick something and practice letting it go!
Oh, and remember: Practice makes better, not perfect!