We all have something that dogs us throughout our lives — self-doubt, a temper, anxiety, depression. I’ve had most of those things, but the one thing that has nipped at my heels ever since I remember is perfectionism.
My parents like to tell the story about when I was two and brought them a page from a coloring book. “Is this perfect, Daddy?” I asked.
Both my parents have a background in psychology. And Dad said something along the lines of, “No, sweetie. It’s not perfect. But it’s good enough.”
And scarred me forever.
Because of them I like to say I’m a recovering perfectionist. Everyday, I’m working on trying not to be so darn perfect.
It’s tough, trust me.
In an interview, when asked the (HORRIBLE) question, “What’s your worst quality?” … I don’t say perfectinoism. Even though I think it is.
You know why?
Because I know that “they” know that when an interviewee cites that as her worst quality she’s totally BSing the interviewer by giving them a positive-negative quality. You know, one that makes her seem like a hard worker. Ergo, answering with “perfectionism” would be a less than perfect move.
And so I don’t.
Messed up, right?
I can’t even begin to imagine why I felt the need to be perfect over the years. Oh, wait, I can. Society. And maybe even my darling parents, although they tried to talk me out of it. Or maybe it was just me. But mostly, society.
Practically the moment we’re born we’re taught how to be more perfect. To hit all the “perfect” benchmarks and then to get “perfect” grades in school.
We’re shown advertisements for the right makeup and clothes, diets that can make us thin thin thin until what? We disappear? Air is perfect. That’s good. Death is perfect, too.
As adult females, that nebulous societal beast expects us to (takes a breath) get married, have children, find a career, work full-time AND cook AND clean the house AND be a mother AND a schmexy wife. You know the drill.
I’m not complaining. I’m thankful to live now in this society where women have opportunities and education and all of that. I can’t imagine living in any other time. But maybe we can work on dialing down the perfection and dialing up other, positive qualities. Like self-love, and being kind and compassionate to others.
Perfect is Boring
My parents had the right idea when I was young in telling me that I didn’t need to be perfect. Because, my friends, perfect is boring and, at the same time, somehow elusive. You can never to get perfect. Why would you want to?
Symmetry is perfect, right? And yet some of the most beautiful people have asymmetrical faces.
Take Cindy Crawford, for example:
Gorgeous. You can’t deny that. And imperfect. Beautiful in her imperfection. Maybe some would call her “perfect” according to this definition: “Conforming absolutely to the description or definition of an ideal type.” Cindy Crawford is an ideal type. But she’s not perfect according to this: “Entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings.”
None of us are. And that’s what makes us interesting. Human.
Perfectionism is Fear
It’s amazing how sometimes signs appear when you most need them. In the past six months or so I’ve found that they’re also much more apparent when you’re actually looking for them.
I’m reading (almost finished with) Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic,” a book about creative living. I am a little bit (okay, a lotta bit) in love with this woman. She writes:
“I think perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, ‘I am not good enough and I will never be good enough’.”
Brilliance. Just brilliant. And so true.
Last night I led my first meeting and was terrified. It didn’t go poorly; it went just about as well as it could have given the events leading up to it. But it didn’t go how I wanted it to go. I wanted to seem perfectly collected, articulate, and on-top of things.
But I didn’t do all those things. I didn’t do any of those things. And when I got home, I fell apart. My perfectionism made me fragile. I mean…the meeting DIDN’T EVEN GO POORLY! It went well! But it didn’t go perfectly.
It’s so deeply ingrained in my brain that I don’t even realize it when it’s happening. I only see it after. The struggle continues.
Perfectionism in my Fiction
Now, you might be saying, “Well, Sarah, your books certainly aren’t perfect.”
THANK YOU, I know.
For one, I don’t think that the perfect book exists. And for another, it took me a long time to get to the place where I felt okay about publishing books. I wrote three novels before I actually published one (the fourth). And I’m only just now starting to tell people in my “real” life about my books.
And for another, I’m proud of what’s out there. By the time it’s been published the books have been written, rewritten, rewritten again, and editing multiple times through by multiple people. And even after that there are still typos and grammar issues in them.
And that’s okay.
A few years ago, I decided not to let fear dictate my life. And that’s exactly what I’m doing, for the most part. I’m jumping in with both feet, hoping the pool is deep enough that I don’t break my legs on the bottom, but not so deep that I drown.
My characters aren’t perfect, you’ll notice. Grace in Home of the Dead has a bit of a drinking problem to start, and is not the most personable person.
In the romantic suspense I’m working on right now, Tess is a convicted murderer. Not perfect at all.
Maybe someday I’ll write from the perspective of a recovering perfectionist, but not yet. It still hits too close to home. Writing deeply flawed characters who are still worthy of love after all the bad decisions they make is a kind of therapy. And I plan to keep doing it for a very long time.