Saved from Perfection

adult-annoyed-blur-133021I’ve been beating up on myself pretty hard lately. Judging my business efforts, judging my personal efforts, judging my parenting efforts – it’s been pretty all-encompassing – which is usually a pretty good signal that it’s not really about any of that.

I have been measuring myself anywhere that I can and bemoaning, scolding, raging at the disparities between what I think SHOULD (oh, that word) be happening and what IS happening. I didn’t even really realize I was doing it. A few coach friends and my seminarian tried to tip me off, and I kind of got part of it – the ease up on yourself part, but I missed the point. This is the way that it works sometimes. Sometimes we need to hear a message many, many times before it really gets all of the way in. Those of us who are layered up (oh yes, like an onion) can take even more time.

This Sunday my minister preached on the promises and perils of utopianism. And while he was discussing perfection as a goal for society, he quoted another minister and the message got through. He quoted Elizabeth Nguyen who works for the Unitarian Universalist Association who said: “We are already saved from perfection.”

Now Ms. Nguyen was talking about our society, our culture, our country, our world and the point is that perfection is really probably not possible, because humans. Being who I am, I heard it on the personal level as well.

YOU, you are already saved from perfection…

Especially if what we’re talking about is a perfection that cries out for good behavior, excellent manners, well-dressed children and a spotless home; a thriving business and an engaged community presence; a committed adult relationship that is always supportive, nurturing, and fulfilling.

You are saved from perfection because humans.

Humans are messy.

Humans are complicated.

And so often, humans are scared.

Scared about what will happen when the jig is up and our imperfection is made plain,

Scared about what will happen when we don’t achieve the things we are striving for,

Scared that we will be left lonely and heartbroken when people see what’s inside.

But friend, you are already saved from perfection.

See, I know that you aren’t perfect like that. And really, if you think about it, you know I know it. We ALL know it. There are no secrets about any of us being “perfect” like that. We’re all onto all of it. And that endless effort to get closer to that kind of perfect, sometimes shoots us straight past the realization that we are already good, great even, that the “imperfect” way that we do things brings gifts that are unimaginable in a spotless house with clean children and an overflowing work schedule. When we keep aiming for that magazine perfect, we fail to see all of the ways we are already doing good, being blessed, having opportunities all around us.

How do we get there? How do we get to see all of that goodness? We have to stop being blinded by the perfect. How do we do that? We become, as Christina Pratt calls it, unseduceable. We become so grounded in our own values, our own sense of what is important, and so clear about who we actually are that we cannot be taken in by the glowing perfectionism that gets sprayed at us everywhere we look.

Sounds pretty good, right? How might you do that?

The first step is almost always the same. The first step is breathing. Breathing in and out slowly and letting the stress of chasing the perfect flow out of your mind and out of your body, releasing it. This is a really great step and can make everything a lot better, so it is quite tempting to stay there, especially because the next step is not quite so comfortable.

adult-close-up-eye-946727.jpgThe next step is to see what IS, to see ourselves, to know ourselves – to see who we actually are, which is glorious and perfect INCLUDING all of the flaws, idiosyncrasies, and individual quirks and tics; because of and including the “mistakes” of the past, our bad decisions, the things we’d love to go back and do differently; even with our scars and sore hearts and insecurities. We have to be willing to see all of that and stay with it long enough that we move from discomfort to acceptance, from self-loathing and self-criticism to self-love (or at least self-like).

And I say this is a step as though you do one thing and then you do the next and then you will be done with that, but those of us who’ve been active participants in this particular game know that cultivating self-acceptance and self-love is not a one-time deal, not a one stop shop. It is a practice, a devotion, a way of being in the world that becomes easier with time, but may never become completely reflexive.

back-view-backlit-city-847483But doing that, becoming more accepting of who you are will allow you to see what is important to YOU, what you actually believe in, what you want from this life, and how you want to be in the world. When you can accept yourself and figure out what you really want, the magazine version just really doesn’t matter anymore, at least not very often.

You are saved from being perfect, or at least you can be, if you choose it.

 

If You Can’t Do It Right…

Why bother?

Forget it.

Delay.

There’s no point.

It will be terrible.

Don’t do it at all.

Really?

Don’t do it at all?

I’ve seen this so many times – in myself, in clients, in former students…

what do you give up for perfection?I had a student many years ago in a World History class. We were studying Medieval Europe and I had asked them to draw a castle. The castle had to have a list of features labeled and explained, the point being to understand the true military function of castles and let go of romantic ideas of what castles were all about. I got a variety of products (as was always the case). The artistic students went to town. The less artistic students focused on the parts of the assignment that appealed to them (detailed descriptions, adding architectural features, 3 D effects). One of my students didn’t turn one in.

It wasn’t a huge surprise. He was not a stellar student. He frequently missed assignments and struggled on exams. I was working with him on these things, suspecting some reading issues. I was disappointed that he didn’t turn the assignment in because he’d been making progress. In my mind: “Here we go again.” I pulled him aside and asked what happened. He said he wasn’t done with it. I told him to bring it to me. He reached in his backpack, where he apparently was carrying it around all of the time. He had a piece of poster board carefully rolled and tucked into the corner. He pulled it out gingerly, careful not to catch the edges on anything.

He then unrolled the board, revealing that he had burned away the edges to make it look like parchment. And as he lay it down and carefully placed books on the edges to hold it flat, I was astonished. It was beautiful. The artwork was amazing – pen and ink and so detailed. The features were carefully rendered and labeled. I couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t turn it in, and then I noticed the size of the stones he was drawing. They were so small, a sort of pebble castle. And there was a big section that he hand’t completed. I can’t imagine how much time he had put into this piece of work. I wanted to frame it.

“Why didn’t you turn it in?” “I didn’t have time to finish it.”

“But Tommy, it’s amazing.” “But it isn’t finished, and it’s not all that good anyway.”

We went on to have a conversation about grades and how some grade is ALWAYS better than a zero, even if the grade reflects being turned in late. I told him I wanted to hang it up; he made clear that that was not an option he would be comfortable with.

It took everything I had in me to get that young man to let me grade his work. I don’t remember what he got, but I know it was WAY better than zero. I also know it was probably the only time he ever saw a teacher (besides an art teacher) be amazed with his work. It was probably one of the longer conversations he’d had with a teacher who wasn’t threatening to prevent him from playing football, his other great love. He talked me through the work he had done, so I got to see how much of the material he really was taking in at a deep level – and he got to demonstrate mastery. So much he and I both could have missed out on had I let him go through with his plan of simply bypassing the deadline. In his mind it was better to get the zero than to turn in something that was not perfect. It became clear to me how much strength he showed when turning in other assignments, especially given what I suspected about his reading ability. What a risk he took every time he gave me his work. He wasn’t playing to his strengths, though, and maybe that’s why he could tolerate the imperfection in those other assignments. And he knew he had to keep his C to play football.

These are the corners perfectionism puts us in. We don’t even try, or we try but give up before anyone can benefit from our efforts. We don’t invite people over because our house isn’t clean enough. We don’t host holidays because Pinterest pictures make us think we need homemade napkin rings (Homemade?! Napkin rings?!) We don’t take the solo because what if we mess it up. We don’t take the risks because we might not get it right.  We see every family gathering as a nightmare because of the amount of preparation we will do to get things just right. We believe that if we don’t do it perfectly, we might as well not do it at all.

And that right there? THAT is a thought. And it’s a b.s., life-stifling, procrastination producing,  gift-hiding, intimacy preventing, joy avoiding bummer of a thought.

Accepting what is good enoughWhat would you do if you didn’t have to do it perfectly? Who would you see more of? What would you be less nervous about? What risk would you allow? What could be good if you didn’t need it to be perfect?

Maybe it’s just me, but it’s always nice to have a little more of the good.

All we need is a new thought. How about this one: I and the things I produce are good enough, and that’s pretty great.

xo,

j