I have a chronic condition that routinely strangles me. It is commonly diagnosed, oft bemoaned, and rarely resolved. It is called perfectionism.
The impulse to write about perfectionism came unexpectedly–as do so many of my topics–as I was going about the business of ordinary life. In this case, I was foraging around in my clutter. As noted in a previous entry, my back room houses much my professional career, or the detritus remaining from it. I have stacks of manuals prepared for my counseling course and workshops I gave around the country, each one prepared for a specific group but covering similar material. As a result, they are similar enough to be redundant but different enough to be saved. I saved them because I was going to do something more with them–write a book, perhaps, or create a set of training materials.
I never carried through on those plans. Even though my course was popular and my workshops well received, I stumbled when attempting to go further with my work. I made the task too complex, wanting to incorporate everything I ever thought on the subject. I kept thinking, “I need more than this” or “This just doesn’t seem good enough.” So the manuals stayed there, unused, waiting until I could do something “exactly right.”
Of course, as time passed and the project stayed on the back burner, the profession moved on. What had once been original and unique became less so as others moved forward where I could not. What might have been ideal for one period in my life became out of date. What might have been the foundation for subsequent projects was never realized.
I look at these manuals now and see them as symbolic of my story. At one time they spoke of creativity and innovation, but they became clutter because I held onto them without giving them a way to be alive in my life. I saved them as a hope and a fantasy but not as a reality.
Reality is action. Reality is today, right now.
Perhaps it is just maturity. Perhaps it is just having failed enough to be willing to try something different. Perhaps it is just the psychic shift that happens when we stay conscious to our life. But today I understand something I have not been able or willing to understood before this: the only action I can take today is imperfect or, if you will, incomplete. And the only person who will take that action is me, this self today, whoever I am now (not who I wish I would be).
Perfectionism is about denying who I am today. It is about waiting, saving, saying “I am not good enough yet.” It is about hesitating, holding back, withholding ourselves and withholding from ourselves. It is about refraining from action rather than allowing ourselves to live as we are, now. It is about living in the future (when we imagine we will be more up to the task of being perfect).
Without question, we are sometimes wise to wait or slow down before diving into grand schemes, but that is different from waiting to do what is calling to us today. How many times did those manuals call to me, and how many times did I shove them farther into a corner because whatever I had in mind wasn’t good enough? How many projects have I rejected over the years because I knew that what I would create could never be perfect enough?
Today I commit to active imperfection. I will take the actions that I, this person who the “me” today, is able to take. That said, I am now on my way to recycle those manuals.
Questions for Reflection: Have you ever struggled with perfectionism? How do you decide if your work is good enough? Are there incompletes in your life that are influenced by a desire to be more perfect?
Writing Prompts: “The effort to be perfect is something I ______” (then keep writing); “I have been waiting to do ______” (then keep writing); “If I could accept my limitations, I would do more ______” (then keep writing); “The person who I am today is ready to ______” (then keep writing).