Perfection: Is it a Reasonable Goal?

I would really like to be perfect. I think it would solve all of my problems. Except maybe that people would be jealous of me because I’m so perfect. But being perfect, I would handle that situation with aplomb and it would turn out perfectly.

The fact that I’ve not yet attained perfection I tend to blame on not having the proper goals, the proper method, or the requisite willpower. When I was in high school, I wanted perfect skin. I used a Buf Puf (a type of exfoliating sponge) to scrub my face at least twice a day, often three times a day. As a result, I stripped away several outer layers of skin leaving my face so red and irritated, it took nearly a year to finally heal. And I couldn’t wear makeup to hide it. Perfection wasn’t the trouble, though. I just chose the wrong method.

As a parent, I want to be perfect, which means—at the very least—never yelling at my children (I still cling to this belief despite the fact that I’ve read in many sources, like Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell’s Parenting From the Inside Out, that it’s better to yell at our kids and then talk to them about it afterwards than it is to never express our anger around our kids at all). When I yell at them, it’s not because never yelling is an improper goal; it’s because I’m not trying hard enough or I’m subscribing to the wrong philosophy of parenting or simply not following my chosen philosophy properly.

Lurking behind all of this is the dual belief that perhaps it’s the very quest for perfection that’s flawed. Sometimes I suspect that perfection wouldn’t really be all that great even if I attained it. With as much joy as I get from making all of these plans for how to be perfect, would I really be happy if I actually achieved perfection? I wonder if I might just be bored. But, I reason, I may as well aim for perfect; then if I fall short I’m still doing pretty well. Isn’t there even some motivational saying to that effect?

For a short time, I tried operating from a different perspective: I was an Awful Mom. When I told myself every day what a Good Mom I was, I felt miserable when I did something (like letting my daughter watch 3 hours of TV or eat nothing but quesadillas and pasta all day) that a Good Mom wouldn’t do. So, I tried telling myself over and over that I was an Awful Mom. I called it my “Awful Mom Mantra.” If I yelled at the kids, I would repeat quietly to myself, “I’m an Awful Mom. I’m an Awful Mom.” Oddly enough, this brought me great comfort. If I’m a Awful Mom, yelling at my kids is just what anyone would expect. But if I managed to very calmly reflect back my daughter’s frustration and anger while she threw a screaming tantrum in the middle of the zoo, then that was bonus! Awful Moms can’t do that kind of thing! Score!

For some reason, the positive effect of the Awful Mom Mantra wore off after about a week. Maybe it was just because I didn’t believe myself when I said I was Awful Mom any more than I believed myself when I said I was Good Mom. Or maybe it’s because I worried it might be true.

When I began considering resolutions for my Happiness Project, I got so excited. Here was my chance to finally implement all of the plans for perfection I’d never managed to put in place! I’d go to bed by 9:30pm. I’d go to the gym three days a week and take a 30-minute walk seven days a week. I’d eat one pound of raw and one pound of cooked vegetables every day. I’d get up at 4:30 every morning and write for two hours before the kids woke up. I’d stop yelling at the kids. I’d stop swearing. I’d smile and laugh a lot. I’d help the kids work through their emotional outbursts in a calm and gentle tone of voice. I’d follow a schedule. I’d have dinner prepared and on the table by 5:00 every evening. I’d meditate for 30 minutes every day.

After a day of two of this kind of thinking, I stopped being so interested in the Happiness Project. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to fulfill all of these resolutions. So what was the point?

Oh, yeah. It’s a Happiness Project.

So, I started over with the resolutions, trying to focus, as Gretchen Rubin suggests, on feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right. But it’s a lot more work to figure out how far short of perfection I can be and still be happy. What would happen if I not only accepted imperfection but embraced it? Even pursued it? Can I be happy being Imperfect Mom? (And Imperfect Wife, Imperfect Friend, Imperfect Daughter, Imperfect Writer…)

What has your experience been with perfection? Are you happy with imperfection (or are you already perfect)?

7 Replies to “Perfection: Is it a Reasonable Goal?”

  1. Ms. Rubin also seems to be a perfectionist, and I believe she has many posts and discussions regarding the mantra “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

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    1. I’ve read that women tend to be perfectionists. I don’t really understand why that is, even as it rings true to me. I buck a lot of trends, but even I find it very difficult to buck the one that says I’ve got to have well-groomed children and a clean house.

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  2. The Popeye Mantra. I like that. I too tend to judge in Black and white comparisons. I also tend to assume that there is only so much “goodness” to go around and so if someone else is good, I must be bad. It’s so not helpful and somehow being able to verbalize it doesn’t stop me from doing it. Iight follow some of your cues as you go through this project. 🙂

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  3. Well, the Awful Mom Mantra didn’t start as a comfort measure, and I was surprised to find that it brought me comfort for any period of time at all.

    I wonder if some of the trouble is with judging ourselves in comparison with labels. “Awful.” “Perfect.” I know I have a tendency to define and judge, and often those definitions are very black-and-white. Perhaps a more useful mantra is, “I am what I am.” The Popeye Mantra.

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  4. I have an awful mom mantra, but it is not for comfort. I too strive for perfection and kick myself for falling flat. My goal is to learn to recognize my successes for what they are.

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