“I want it to be puwfect,” my daughter says, patting the tea napkins into place, and stacking the wooden delectables on their miniature plates.
“Well, nothing is ever perfect, though, is it?” I ask her. She nods without looking up at me and continues to fuss with the goodies.
This is not my five year old’s first time hearing this from me, and it won’t be her last. She knows better than I did at her age that perfect isn’t real.
I used to wear my perfectionism like a badge of honor. I was a martyr, giving up the messy human parts of myself in the name of predictability, order, and control. My allegiance to perfection fueled me to hustle harder, and some might even argue that it was the driving force behind most of my accomplishments. Therein lied the most dangerous part of my devotion: It paid in ways that our society considers valuable, which heavily reinforced it. Earning a high GPA gave me options in my career, which meant securing a high-paying job. Looking like I had it all together gave the illusion that I was self sufficient, as opposed to someone who ever needed help.
The act of hustling is any perfectionist’s equivalent to living. Without the blurry mirage of perfection on the horizon, it’s likely my desire to hustle would have been lost completely, leaving me, or so I feared, lifeless. So I kept believing it was attainable, kept slogging towards it to stay alive with the hope that once I eventually reached it, all of my sacrifices would be justified.
It took me years before I was willing to pay attention to the whisper of a question “is this really all there is?” that presented itself to me regularly in spite of my having a beautiful family, the security of a high-paying job, and so many other blessings. I was grateful for my life, but I wasn’t in my life. I was also getting tired of the hustle, but was still afraid of what would happen if I stopped in my tracks.
What I’ve been learning in the couple of years since that time is that perfection, like high blood pressure, is a silent killer of what really matters. It’s paralyzing at best, and destructive at worst when it comes to meeting our deep human needs of connection, acceptance, and being seen and valued for who we truly are.
When we aren’t willing to accept our own personal best in lieu of perfection, it’s impossible to accept ourselves as worthy. And when we aren’t living from a place of worthiness, we can’t be present fully in our lives. We’re so busy reaching higher that we can’t embrace with both hands the gifts we’re being offered here and now. Maybe we feel relief in that, because in failing to realize what we have, we’re also failing to acknowledge what we have to lose.
Perfectionism isn’t a badge of honor. It’s barbed wire we wrap around ourselves to keep out the fear of loss. We stay lonely and tired in our hustle. We stay disconnected, detached, and cold. But if we allow ourselves to listen hard, we can hear ourselves asking not if it’s possible to get closer to perfection in life, but if it’s possible to get more meaning from it. And the answer is always yes, as long as we’re willing to risk getting hurt.
I’d classify myself now as a recovering perfectionist. I’ll own that the act of recovery is an ongoing one. I’m still guilty of falling into hustle mode or of having lofty expectations that are sure to keep me distracted from meaningful engagement in my life from time to time. The difference is that I don’t live there anymore. I’m more willing to sit in the mess to find the beauty and to let go of the illusion of control to embrace the gift of the unknown.
Grace can be defined as a disposition to or an act of kindness, courtesy, or clemency. It is also defined as a virtue coming from God. Living in grace rather than in pursuit of perfection is how we root ourselves deeply into a meaningful existence. Grace, not perfection, is how we honor ourselves, each other, and our innate struggle as human beings. In honoring these things, we are also answering our deepest yearning for connection.
Of course, for now, my 5 year old will carry on and sip her perfectly imaginary tea, all the while knowing that perfection is a myth. Whether that knowledge will stop her from chasing after it like I did for so long remains to be seen, but I can be hopeful.
In the meantime, cheers.