Lessons for the (un)Perfect Life

Lessons for the (un)Perfect Life

Perfectionism, according to Wikipedia,  is “a personality trait characterized by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards.”  Psychotherapist Ann Wilson Schaef offers a simpler definition: “Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.”

Anne Lamott on PerfectionismMy own perfectionistic tendencies revealed themselves very early in life.  In fact, my parents like to joke that perfectionism runs through my blood because even my blood type – A positive, or A+ – would settle for nothing less than a perfect grade!  At times, being a perfectionist has been an asset: my strong work ethic, attention to detail, and desire for success are all facets of my perfectionism that have led me to high achievement at points in my life.  But more often than not, my perfectionism is a burden, preventing me from trying . . . from truly living. . . because I am so afraid to fail.  Like many perfectionists, I tend to procrastinate because I am daunted by the prospect of having to accomplish a task perfectly (and in my mind, a task is not worth tackling unless it will be completed to my unrealistically high standards).  Being a perfectionist also impacts my relationships, keeping me from being completely vulnerable with others for fear that they will become privy to my innermost flaws.  My perfectionism took its biggest toll in my teens when it manifested itself in an eating disorder that threatened my life and that I still struggle with today.

Because my perfectionism is so all-encompassing, I marvel at those who are unhindered by this “disease.”  They breeze through tasks that would take me infinitely longer to complete.  They jump at the chance to try something new, even if they are almost guaranteed to fail.  They are not reckless – at least not usually – but they live their lives with a freedom that is nearly incomprehensible to me.

Though I have known adults that are unencumbered by perfectionism, this quality is most apparent in children.  As part of my job teaching enrichment classes to homeschoolers, I facilitate a weekly art lesson.  My role is to assist the students (ages 7-10) as they copy the steps of the art teacher.  The pieces these students are creating are quite complicated, so early on I assumed that I would be kept extremely busy helping each child get his or her artwork looking just right.  I could not have been more wrong!  These students approach their drawing and painting with complete abandon, unquestioningly following the instructor’s steps with little concern for how well their own artwork corresponds to that of the teacher.  Amazingly, their artwork usually turns out looking great, but what I find most heartening is that the students are ALWAYS happy with their masterpieces, even in the rare instances when they are total flops!

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A 7-year-old’s beautiful (not perfect!) painting of the Mayflower.

What if we all approached life the way these kids approach their artwork?  What if we set aside our insecurities and fears and simply did the things that we wanted or needed to do?  I’m sure there would be a lot more mistakes, and possibly even more heartache, but there would also be more accomplishments, more authenticity, and more peace.  Life would not be perfect, but it was never really perfect to begin with.  And life doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful.