Community//

The Problems of Perfection

What does it really mean to say, “anything worth doing is worth doing badly?”

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123rf50919576_mJuly 25 2020
123rf50919576_mJuly 25 2020

“You know that quote from G.K. Chesterton?” a client asked me recently. “You know the one that goes ‘anything worth doing is worth doing badly?’” I nodded and waited for him to elaborate. “That never made sense to me. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth putting a lot of effort into it and doing it right, doing it well, is what I always thought. But I finally get what it means. It’s what we’ve been talking about in my therapy, isn’t it? I’ve always thought that I needed to do everything perfectly. And you’ve helped me see that perfection’s not possible, so I’ve become more accepting of working my butt off to do things extremely well.” He grinned. “But that’s not the point, is it?”

He was so right. For me, the Chesterton quote had always captured the paradox that if something is important to us, it is worth doing it, no matter how well or how badly we do it. In fact, as my own analyst used to tell me when I was in training to become a psychoanalyst, “Perfection isn’t humanly impossible. If you want to do something, you might have to begin by doing badly, because trying to be perfect makes it impossible to learn or to get better at something.”

I learned this in my own work, both as a therapist and as a writer. As a beginning therapist, I felt completely inadequate. As a beginning writer, I felt the same way. But I wanted to learn how to do both. Over and over again I have discovered that the only way to learn how to do something well is to start by doing it not so well. Studying, practicing, and getting supervision were the tools I used to get better at these professions. I got degrees in clinical social work and certificates in psychoanalysis, during which time I had some wonderful supervisors and teachers who encouraged me to continue my training and my work. “You’ll get better as you go along,” one supervisor said to me. “But the thing to remember is that you can only be as good as you are in any given moment. It might not be as good as you were yesterday or as good as you will be in a few years; but it’s what you’ve got right now. And you will only get better if you give it what you’ve got now. You can’t sit back and just wait to get better, or to be good enough.”

I took writing classes with teachers who said that the only way to learn to write was to write. Which often meant, although they did not always spell it out, to write badly. I have learned some of my most valuable writing lessons from editors who criticized the writing I crafted so carefully before sending it to them.

And I have learned to be a better therapist from my clients.

Like many of my colleagues, I have been contacted during COVID by former clients, some of whom I have not seen in many years. It has been one of the joys of this terrible time, to hear from people with whom I had worked long ago, to find out how their lives have unfolded, and to learn, to my surprise, that sometimes despite my fear that I had not been good enough, they felt that I had helped them.

I am certainly a better therapist than I was when I started out, and I would not have gotten better if I hadn’t allowed myself to begin, even though I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be. But I have also learned, as I’ve gotten older, that beginning therapists often have something to offer that we don’t have as we get more experienced. For instance, Yvonne Agazarian, a group psychotherapist I studied with, used to say that it is important to be confused, because it is in those times of not-knowing that we are able to learn and grow. Young therapists don’t always have a choice when it comes to confusion. We simply don’t know enough to think we have answers. Older therapists sometimes have answers that dispel confusion; but in the process, we may also close off some important areas of possible exploration and growth.

I was therefore quite pleased when the client who was telling me about his new understanding of the G.K. Chesterton quote said, “I’m confused about what to do now. I thought I was trying to accept my imperfections. But now I’m trying to figure out if I can allow myself to do something that’s important to me, even if I do it badly. I mean, what if I mess things up? What if not doing it well enough gets me fired from my job? But you’re saying that if I try to do it really well, I might not really be doing it right? This is all very confusing.”

I nodded. “Yes, imperfection is often confusing. But it’s the place where we learn, get better, and get stronger. So it’s okay that you’re confused. No, it’s not okay. It’s good. We’ll be confused together. And we’ll see where we go from here.”

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