The perils of ‘perfection’

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“The perfect wife or husband!” … ”The perfect butt!”… “The perfect weight!”…“The perfect boss!”….“The perfect tan!”…”The perfect minority!”…. “The perfect __(fill in the blank)!”

How about a show of hands from those of you who consider yourselves perfect?

Waiting…waiting…waiting!

Hum, let me see now. Very interesting. Not a single hand went up. Maybe you didn’t hear me, so I’ll kick the volume up a bit, italicize, capitalize and repeat the question; HOW ABOUT A SHOW OF HANDS FROM THOSE OF YOU WHO CONSIDER YOURSELVES PERFECT?

Waiting…waiting…waiting!

OK, still no hands. Which suits me just fine because your no show of hands makes a strong case for my main point … nobody’s perfect! 

Now while you may be wondering if I’ve gone bonkers, forgotten to take my medication – or both – I’ll pause and say this: I’m all for perfection in my surgeon and in the person in the cockpit flying a plane I happen to be on. And my guess is that so are you.

But I’m not for absolute perfection in all people all the time. That’s impossible. That’s absurd. That’s a recipe for high blood pressure, a prescription for drug abuse, domestic violence, troubled teenagers, suicide and divorce.

Now why on Earth am I ranting about “perfection” of all things? How blasphemous of me to even suggest anything short of perfection in people, you may also ask.

Well, my answers lie in some self-debasing comments and a post. Here’s a snapshot of those comments:

  • “Hey, what do I know? I’m just an old forty-something-year-old, graying fat, white woman.”
  • “English is not my first language, so I realize that my communication is so very bad.”
  • “I’ve been here 12 years and have not made it to a supervisory position while many of those I joined the company with have achieved that and more. I feel like a failure and worry about what others think of me.”

And then came a sobering post sent to me by a friend from the Canadian Office of Human Resources Policy, Province of New Brunswick. Here are excerpts:

“There’s a serious pandemic of ‘Perfection’ spreading, and it needs to stop. It is a sickness that I’ve been trying to put into words for years without much success. It is a sickness that I’ve personally struggled with. It is a sickness that at times has left me in dark corners and hating myself. ‘Perfection’ infects every corner of society. It infects our schools. It infects our neighborhoods. It infects our workplaces. We live in communities where people feel unconquerable amounts of pressure to always appear perfectly happy and perfectly figured. ‘Perfect’ is a hideous monster with a beautiful face.”

The post lists the following examples from experiences in his personal life, from confidential sources and from his circle of friends and loved ones. The disease for “perfection” is…

… a daughter with an eating disorder who keeps it hidden for years because she doesn’t want to be the first among her family and friends to be imperfect. She would give anything to confront it, but she can’t because “perfect” people would hate her as much as she hates herself for it.

… a couple drowning in debt, but will still agree to a cruise with friends because the words, “we don’t have the money” are impossible to push across their lips.

… a man feeling small because his neighbor just pulled in with a new boat.

… a child hating herself because the boys at school call her fat and when she goes home she tells her mom that school was fine.

… a wife who feels trapped in a marriage to a lazy, angry, small man but at soccer practice tells the other wives how wonderful her husband always is.

… a man who everyone heralds as perfect, but inside he’s screaming to be seen as the faulty human being that he knows he always has been.

… a dad hating himself because he can’t give his kids what other dads do, and then hating himself further because he takes his self-loathing out on his kids behind closed doors.

… a high school senior hating himself for letting his parents down by not getting into a select college

So how do we exorcise the demon of “perfection?”

Advises the Canadian: “Be real. Embrace that you have weaknesses. Everyone does. Embrace that you have things about you that you cannot control. Here’s a list of “You’re not the only one” thoughts that could help free you from the trappings of the disease to please:

You are not the only one who…

… fears public speaking because you may not speak “perfect” English.

… stares in the mirror and hates some aspect of your body.

… pretends that you’re in a job or have a boss you like.

… feels guilty about not being at home as much as you’d like or need to be.

… has a troubled child who has not lived up to his/her full potential.

… has questions about your religion

So what else can we do?

My suggestion is to go eyeball to eyeball with the face in the mirror and say to him/her: Enough is enough. The days of my trying to live up to someone else’s definition of ‘perfection’ are behind me, henceforth and forevermore.

I’m me, I’m free and I’m unabashedly proud of my every strand of gray, ounce of fat, “broken” but beautiful accent, age, belief or nonbelief, marital status, disability, imperfect skin, job title, profession of choice and where I went to school.

Sure. I have weaknesses, I’m not perfect, never have been, never will be, and won’t destroy myself trying to be.

Now to those who expect perfection from me all the time, to live up to your narrow definition of “perfection,” get over it. Sorry but you no longer have that kind of control over me.

And I’m going to take – no, strike that, rip – off the shackles of the disease to please others. And on top of that, I will encourage my offspring, peers and subordinates to join me in being themselves, all they can be in a world made up entirely of imperfect people.

I end with this question: who among you consider yourselves “imperfect” people?

Wow, great, thanks, what a great showing of hands….and welcome to the ranks of the majority.

Questions for a thoughtful analysis:

  1. What are the leadership, diversity, engagement and health and wellness implications of this narrative?
  2. What did you find most inspiring – and troubling – in reading this?
  3. What are the potential results of your stopping to measure yourself and others against the “perfection” ideal?
  4. Has reading this influenced in any significant way how you may now communicate with others in your life? How about with your customers or those you may interview for a job?
  5. How might you restart your relationship with a son or daughter who may be hurting in his/her inability to meet your demands for “perfection?”

Terry Howard is a writer, speaker, facilitator, trainer and senior associate with Diversity Wealth – wwwDiversityWealth.com. He can be reached at (470)558-7310 or at wwhoward3@gmail.com

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