Friday, April 1, 2011

The Fivefold Path to Imperfection

I have spent much of my life striving to be perfect.  The psychological why's and wherefore's are not so relevant -- we all have our reasons (a difficult-to-please father, the need to control the uncontrollable, feeling "less than" and trying to compensate, blah blah blah).  Since, of course, we can never actually be perfect, this is a fool's quest, doomed to failure.  When we try to be the best, to make no mistakes, to make or do or be the most excellent whatever-it-is there ever was, we will soon come face to face with our own failings, our own ineptitude, because even if we appear to be perfect on the outside, we know the real truth and so discount all  those accolades and rewards and so on.  Thus the Impostor Syndrome is born, the nagging little voice in your head that says, "Yeah, they think you're great, but if they really knew you . . . ."


[link back to LEM Photo Challenge]


I've spent a lot of time trying to work my way around this bind, the need to be perfect, the knowing I can't be, the feeling that I'm therefore not authentic or good enough, even the rebellion that says the hell with it, I'll show them how flawed I am (this has never lasted long).  Along the way, I've learned a couple of things that might be helpful to others caught in this cycle:


1.   Be a learner.  One way my perfectionism manifests itself is by leading me to think, "If I can't be the best at something right away, I don't want to do it."  The path of my life is littered with remnants of endeavors begun and then tossed aside -- piano, French, needlepoint, a business making chutney (seriously), jewelry-making, a young adult novel, on and on.  At this late moment in life, I have finally accepted that being a learner -- during which time you have to obviously be imperfect -- is a path to doing things that you really enjoy and might someday do well.  Pushing through the discomfort of being "less than" can lead to the joys of having a new hobby or activity that you really derive pleasure from.


2.    Learn to do a "good enough" job.  One of the problems with having a challenging job is that there are never enough hours in the day to do the kind of work your perfectionism leads you to want to do.  Trying to do everything to the very best of your ability leads to endless anxiety and stress.  I had a co-worker who also suffered from the need to be perfect, and though she was extraordinarily good at what she did, her need to have everything be the best that anyone had ever done led her not to be able to meet deadlines or, on occasion, not to get the job done at all.  Since not meeting deadlines will affect other people and put a gigantic ding in your crown of perfection, learn to do a "good enough" job.  You will discover that people will be much more happy with a 75% effort that is completed on time (or early) than a 110% effort that's two weeks late or that has to be reassigned to someone else.


3.    Practice saying "I'm sorry."  Stand in front of the mirror, and say it 10 times:  "I'm sorry, I . . . " forgot, messed  up, overlooked that one little point, left my papers at home, whatever it might be.  Constantly trying to be perfect often means that we become overly concerned with our inevitable mistakes, and in the worst cases, try to cover up the mistakes or shift the blame to someone else.  Learn to say "I'm sorry," openly and honestly, and you will discover that having been so close to perfect so much of the time, you will have built up a store of goodwill that will carry you through the difficult moments.  Just focus on making whatever-it-is right, and people will say "Oh, no problem, don't worry about it."


4.    Forget about what other people think.  While I was growing up, I was aware that, like most people, my mother cared what the neighbors thought, always wanted to make the best impression, worried about our collective reputations, and so on.  But I remember clearly that once she passed her 50th birthday, a change came over her and she stopped caring so much about what other people thought.  She started living for herself more, doing what she wanted, and became happier as a result.  If you forget about what other people think and just do what is right for you (which may or may not be perfect), you will quickly discover that people care a lot less than you think they do, and this can be very liberating.


5.    Strive for imperfection in some part of your life.  I recently did a wonderful workshop on watercolor journaling with Christina Lopp and Gay Kraeger.  It was great fun, and the mantra of the day was "strive for imperfection!"  They were very accepting of our mistakes and feeble attempts, and kept the mood light-hearted throughout the day.  I'm sure I can't convince you to be imperfect in every aspect of your life (I surely can't), but find one or two areas in which you'll allow yourself to strive not to be the best, but to just do it and enjoy whatever you get as a result.  I may never show my watercolor journal to anyone else (I have yet to post one of the pages on Christina and Gay's flickr group), but I enjoy doing it, and I wouldn't enjoy it at all if I were trying to be perfect at it.


There you have it.  The Army used to run commercials that said, "Be all that you can be," and when I think about that, I try to remember that all that I can be includes being not-perfect, something I'm working on, day by day.  Like the flower above, being imperfect can be beautiful, too.

10 comments:

Kristy Hom said...

Thank you Elise- I needed to hear this today! Have a gleefully happy, imperfect weekend. Cheers!

Elise Ann Wormuth said...

Thanks, Kristy -- I'm glad we connected!

Natalie said...

I love that photo! It's an awesome entry for a different perspective!

Elise Ann Wormuth said...

Thanks very much, Natalie --

mdawnt1 said...

Great post that I could certainly relate to.

Teagan said...

That's a stunning photo! I love your first "lesson" - the Be a Learner. I could use more of that...

Tara said...

Gorgeous capture! Thanks for linking up!

Elise Ann Wormuth said...

Thanks, everyone -- I really appreciate the comments.

julochka said...

this is such important and lovely advice. i am constantly amazed at how i find and read exactly the thing i need to "hear" at a given moment. i have a day ahead of me of finishing all kinds of things for my first market and since i awoke, i've been lying in bed, my mind whirling with how much i didn't manage to do. such a waste of energy! and i've actually done a lot, so i need to take a deep breath, stop worrying about it all being perfect. and just appreciate it for what it is.

xox,
/j

Elise Ann Wormuth said...

Thanks very much, Julochka -- that's a lovely compliment.