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AUGUST 1, 2011 8:51AM

Nobody's Perfect, and Neither Am I: So I Quit Trying

Rate: 9 Flag


It has taken years, but I've finally quit trying to be perfect.

Perfectionism is a losing game.  When I failed, I beat myself into a froth of self-loathing.  Stupid. Loser. Bitch. Even when I got what I wanted -- the job of my dreams, the husband, the family, the home -- it was never enough. I'd set the bar higher, and higher.
No matter how wonderful it all was, it was never wonderful enough. 

And while I knew, of course, what everyone knows, that nobody and nothing can ever be perfect, I believed that rule simply didn't apply to me.  

My denial was so deep, that I easily overlooked the philosophical implications of "Some Like It Hot" -- and there are lots of them, trust me -- when Joe E. Brown declares, "Well, nobody's perfect!" to Jack Lemmon, who'd just confessed, "I'm a man," after winning the millionaire's marriage proposal while cavorting about in woman's clothes. "Well, nobody's perfect" seemed to me to be a funny line, a perfectly funny one, in a comedy. 
Not in my real life. Not even while hanging around as I have for years among people whose mantra is "progress, not perfection." That might be dandy for other people, but it never impressed me as something I might give some serious thought to.

So I tried and tried and tried to be perfect, a Job endlessly questing for self-improvement, but try as I might, and I certainly did, it would all just come tumbling down.

And please don't think for a minute that I did not beat myself up for that. 

When I turned 13, I decided that I would be the architect of my own life, no longer defined by what was -- the absent and abusive father, the overwhelmed and sometimes drunken mother, the autistic brother, the poor girl living in a basement apartment surrounded by perfect families in all their perfect castles. 

I decided that even though I felt microscopically insignificant because of all that, I could change it, overcome it all by sheer will. I couldn't change my family or my home, but I could change myself. My mantra became "Perfection Is Perfection" (with capital letters), and I will, I will, I will be perfect.

I vowed that very day to focus all my energy on how I looked, what I did and how my life appeared.  What I was feeling? Who cares! Nothing could matter less.

Fortunately -- or was it? -- I was pretty and smart and generally fun to be around.  That made my job that much easier.  Had I been a boring dumb troll, things would never have gone as well.  

And things got great. I made new friends, I had a flock of boyfriends, I won a scholarship to a college thousands of miles away. When I got there, I acted as if my life up till then had simply not happened. No problem family, no problems. It was easy to pretend.

Things were going my way, and that was good.  When they didn't or when I just felt rotten, I convinced myself that none of that mattered.  Though my hair was shining and my jeans were size 2, the insides of Lemmon's Daphne matched his outsides better than mine did. 

In my junior year, my mother invited herself to visit. The man I would later marry (yes, I felt that he was perfect enough and that I'd snap his imperfections into shape -- ask me later how that went!) came with me to pick her up at the airport.
We sat, watching the takeoffs and landings, while I worked up the courage to say what I'd never said in my new life, and probably never would have said, except that my mother was sure to let the cat out of the bag. The cat being my brother.

"There's something I have to tell you," I said to him, my tone undoubtedly that of a Sunday morning confessor. 

He looked at me expectantly.  What?  I couldn't imagine what he thought, and I never asked him.  Asking him would have made it worse, more real.

"My brother is autistic," I said.

And my boyfriend said the equivalent of, "Yeah, so?"  

I might have gone on to tell him that my mother was crazy, but her presence in the next few minutes was sure to make that redundant.
My problem with my brother was twofold: that I would be judged for his illness and that my judges would believe I could turn into him in the blink of an eye.

I'd been busy establishing myself as the most perfect girlfriend in the world, making sure to wake up before him so I could sneak out of bed, brush my teeth, wash my face, reapply my makeup and brush my hair, and then get back into bed so he would awake to a perfect vision of loveliness each and every morning.

I remembered hearing my aunt say that she never left her home -- whether for the day or to take out the garbage -- without applying lipstick. For that statement alone, she became my mentor.

My apartment was spotless, the meals I cooked -- for others -- were picture perfect (and I took the pictures to prove it) and on top of all that I was making A's.

After amping that all up through graduate school, a wedding (not perfect, damn it -- the caterer sent the wrong food, which continued to bother me until we divorced, not over the food, of which, you can be sure, there is no photographic evidence), a career and children, my obsession to be perfect took over my life.

It would have been bad enough if I kept this all to myself, but my ambitions, like Medusa's snakes, stretched out to grab my husband (get perfect, now!) and my children (A's on tests).

My emotions grew to a fever pitch. A slightly burned chicken would send me sobbing as easily as a flat tire, a missed plane, a friend's death. 

Even I could see something was wrong.

I'd love to say that through my tears I saw the light, but I can't. It took much longer. It took until the constant frustration, the inability to relax, to stop commanding myself to go, go, go and whip myself to the ground finally became too much, even for me.

I started small, still afraid to let go completely. Afraid that if I didn't scour a drop of juice the nanosecond it hit the kitchen floor, I'd be on that week's "Hoarders." And that I'd be the one who drags all the junk back into the house the next day.

But I didn't beat myself up for it. And, bit by bit, by a million other bits, it got better. I got better. I didn't get perfect.

I'd hidden my imperfections so long, but it turned out that I was the one who was fooled.

"Your life seems exhausting," a good friend told me one day. "How do you do it?"

She wasn't after the secret of my perfect life, I later realized. She saw me for who I was, and what I'd been doing.

I was exhausted. I couldn't make myself believe anymore that image was everything. And what's inside was nothing. I was sick of the lies, of my life, of myself.

I started with honesty. When a friend asked how I felt, I'd tell her the truth. The more of myself I revealed, the better I felt. The better I felt, the more honest I became. And the better it all went.

The world did not explode. It became a more pleasant place to spend my time. 

I realized that if I treated anyone else the way I had treated myself, they would, rightfully, kick me to the curb. So why did I deserve to whip myself?
I didn't.

Accepting myself as I am -- and still trying to be the best I can be -- has been my solution. I like to think it's a mature one. It's realistic, and it works every time. My life is better for it. And I've finally thrown that whip away.

And when I stopped trying to be perfect, the more perfect I became. Funny. Just as Joe E. Brown said.  

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Wow, hard to be perfect. As a teenager living with my Dad in LA, I strived for perfection and found it in anorexia. I feel for you.
Wonderful and honest piece. I too struggle with perfectionism, although it's mellowed over the years. Rated!
Oh, do I relate to this...
Perfection is highly overrated.

It wasn't until I had my children at age 32 that I gave up my perfectionism. My house was dirtier but my kids are happy.
Ahh, you've done it again. Perfect.
just when we think we have survived childhood, we have to audition for adultery. congratulations on making yourself the best you can be, and further congratulations on beginning to enjoy it. persevere, with luck you'll be a contented old lady, and a good source of wisdom for any young person in your company.