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In the car on the way home from work last week, I drove with little attention to the road, my mind spinning with ideas on how I could clear up all the imperfections in one of my current projects.  I had driven ten miles on the freeway before realizing a state trooper was behind me.  Seeing him made me snap out of the work mind trip to check my speed, but my attention quickly went back to my thoughts, only now more personal: why is it that I am so obsessed with perfection?

Perfection – Another Drug

On a daily basis I fight the urge to achieve perfection in everything I do — with my house-work, my work-work, games or crafts with my daughter, everything.  And what has it ever done for me, aside from serving as a point of contention for my coworkers and family, and sucking up unfathomable amounts of my precious time? Every year I think I’ve found the tricks to keep the urge at bay. Yet there still comes a day where I find myself picturing it, yearning for it, clawing for it, as if I am positive it will bring me some immense reward or pleasure.

I recently wrote a comparison between sugar and drugs.  I wrote about how we crave sugar, because we expect it to provide us nutrition, but our bodies are let down after we take in the typical targets of those cravings, such as soft drinks, candy, and other nutrition-lacking foods.  This sounds all too similar to my experiences with perfection.

But if perfection has always let me down, then why does it continue to be so appealing?  How did my brain get so programmed to think it is desirable?  I’ve wondered in the past if it could just be from advertising, but that doesn’t seem like enough to me.  I am not convinced that advertising alone can influence me so deeply.

The Source

A Bad Assumption?

Perhaps it is a mistaken assumption that perfect things will mean a perfect experience? I mean, if all the decor and food and games at my daughter’s birthday party are perfect, than she, her friends, and our family are sure to have the perfect time, right?

But in reality, for me, the exact opposite happens.  By keeping a laser target on perfection, I end up chewing out my daughter for messing up the decor or the games before everyone arrives, stewing over an ingredient I forgot for the food, and crabbing at my husband to do ten more chores around the house so no one can tell that we’re human.  By the time the party starts, everyone is miserable, and I’ve succeeded at neither perfection of things nor experience. Obviously this cannot be a strong enough reason for this addiction. 

A Fear of Vulnerability?

I will never forget my favorite picture of my mother: an impromptu shot of her sitting alone in her living room, right before she and my step-dad headed off to a company Christmas party. The picture is completely fuzzy, so I had no reason to want to keep it, but I could never bring myself to part with it.  This picture means everything to me.

My mom sits there, with her perfectly sculpted hair, in her shimmering, silver dress, sitting perfectly erect on her regal, cherry-wood piano bench, in her pastel living room, with her legs drawn together and slightly off to the side, and her hands delicately folded in her lap.  But she was caught off guard.  I took her picture when she did not think anyone was looking.  And peeking out from the corners of her eyes, was the real her, behind the propriety and perfection, and she is vulnerable and fallible.

I have a few memories with my mother that I cherish more than any others.  As I think back on them now, I realize they all have one thing in common; they are times where my mother had broken the rules, or told me a story of a time when she did something she wasn’t supposed to.  I hold on to these memories as if they are the only ones we have.  Now I realize these are the few times I felt like I truly understood her, connected with her.

I recently listened to a podcast by Brene Brown on vulnerability. At first, it didn’t seem like something I’d be in to, but then she started talking about creating a list of the traits of people who were happy, and traits of people who were not.  The traits that ended up on the ‘bad’ list, as she calls it, were things like perfectionism and judgement.  She said (and I loosely paraphrase) that people who were unhappy try to do it all, do it perfectly, look perfect while doing it, and make it look easy.

The Antidote

Eckhart Tolle – Real Pleasure Comes from Just Being

Eckhart Tolle tries to explain that happiness and meaning come only when one can just be in life, and let things happen as they may.  Not try to control them, and definitely not try to make them perfect.

I am getting a bit more successful at this strategy, but still struggle with it each day.  I used to schedule so much into every day and weekend that I was always in a hurry, always stressed, and never able to enjoy anything that I was doing even though the whole point of all my plans was to enjoy them.  But after my husband talked me in to only planning one or two things during the week and every other weekend free, I really began to get it.  Now that I have all these ‘free’ days, I’m able to do more when I feel like it, able to meet many of the random requests of my kids, and we feel so much more happy and satisfied.

There are two people close to me that I admire above all others I know well: my late grandma, and my mother-in-law.  I had never really been able to pinpoint why I looked up to them so much until now.  They are the two people who make me the happiest to be around, that make me feel good about myself and all I do, and don’t try to make things perfect. They’ve never tried to schedule or control things, but just appreciate being, going with the flow, and letting things come as they may. My dream is to be happy just being, like them.  I am happy to have them in my life.  I am happy to be.