Remember that old song by Fairground Attraction? The one from ancient times the ‘80s?
“It’s got to beeeeeeeeeeee perfect. It’s got to beeeeeeeeeeee worth it. Too many people take second best, but I won’t take anything less. It’s got to be peeeeerrrrrrrfect.”
It’s catchy, but I bet the lady in that song is still single.
Merriam-Webster defines perfection thusly, and it sounds pretty darned unattainable:
per·fect adjective \ˈpər-fikt\
a : being entirely without fault or defect : flawless <a perfect diamond>
b : satisfying all requirements : accurate
c : corresponding to an ideal standard or abstract concept a perfect gentleman
The perfect relationship is what you find in fairy tales and really awful fan fiction.
And in other areas oflife, seeking perfection is not a noble quest. It’s quixotic at best and paralyzing at worst. Perfection is for people who can fold fitted sheets; it is not for us mortals.
I know this, okay? In my logical mind.
However, Logical Mind is not usually the one in charge when it comes to managing myself. Logical Mind and Compassionate Mind get together and have lovely, sympathy-filled chats about other people. They are doing their best. And they are broken and beautiful. We love them for it, the poor dears. But when it comes to my personal performance review, Logical Mind and Compassionate Mind shuffle their papers, clear their throats, and scuttle from the room without making eye contact.
Instead, I get Catholic School Nun Mind, and she is deeply disappointed in me. I am beyond redemption. Eternal detention hall for me, with lots of clapping dusty chalkboard erasers in shame.
“Let me get this straight,” my therapist says, after I’ve just explained how uncomfortable I am receiving compliments for things I know I did with a shitty attitude. “Not only do you expect yourself to do everything right, but you think you have to do it with a perfect attitude? You take points off for your thoughts?”
She is at this moment obviously thinking what fun it must be to be married to me. (It is. I am a treasure. Ask my husband.) I can only shrug sheepishly. I mean, now that I hear the words out loud, yeah. It sounds pretty nuts.
Catholic School Nun Mind is so hard to ignore, though! She says everything I secretly believe about myself. She notices all the things I mess up, jotting them down for future reckoning in her notebook. It’s the fear of her purse-lipped frown and knowing tsk-tsk that has me stuck in the corner. I’m afraid to start things unless I can do them perfectly and I’m afraid to finish things because they aren’t perfect yet. It’s exhausting.
Side note: I talk a lot about therapy and therapists. A lot. Too many of us need therapy and too few of us seek it. And frankly, I prefer to live in a world of mentally healthy people. If I were Oprah, I’d hand out therapy like free cars. “You get a session, and you get a session. Everyone gets a session!”
Where were we?
Oh, yes. I was about to say why I’m willing to give everyone else a break except me. I have no good reason, but why sully this discussion with logic?
“What if,” my therapist persists, “you allowed yourself credit for your actions and stopped punishing yourself for having feelings? After all, you can’t control your feelings. You can control your actions.”
DAMN YOU, LOGIC!
“Also, what is the worst possible thing that happens if you make a mistake or don’t do something perfectly? You learn from it and you move on, right?” I don’t know. This all sounds suspicious to me. This way lies chaos and damnation.
Then, so softly I barely hear it at first, another voice pipes up. She sounds a lot like my daughter, or a young version of me before I turned into a ball of anxiety. “Let’s try. I want to be able to play and be messy. I want to do stuff.” My therapist is watching me. She laughs. “Listen, you can’t do everything badly ALL the time. Ease up.” I laugh, too, and I write that down – well, I type it into the Notes app on my phone – so I don’t forget. Even I can’t screw up all the time.
So, here I am, timidly agreeing to practice self-love. I’m adjusting my mental equalizers because I know the voices that come through loudest and clearest are the ones that affirm all the bad shit I like to say to myself. I can’t help it – I love being right, even if it’s about how short I fall as a person. I know I have to let go of “right” and “perfect.”
I’m trying things. I’m letting myself think terrible thoughts from time to time. And I’m moving forward. This is as perfect as it gets.
A version of this piece was first published on Sweatpants & Coffee, here.