Why Perfectionism Gets in the Way of Joy
The other day I visited my 84 year old mother. She lives nearby in an assisted living center. Her room is on the third floor, in the memory unit.
Despite being a Parkinson’s patient and unable to walk, my mother’s mind is alert and sound. She chose the room in the memory unit because the ratio of staff to residents is high. As a result, she receives excellent care.
As I took the elevator to her floor, my mind was elsewhere. Filled with things I wanted to accomplish. Goals for the day. Mental checklists.
I scanned some notes in my little, leather pocket journal and considered how they would incorporate into an article I was working on.
Then I thought about the new gym I was going to join, and how a new workout schedule would mesh with my creative commitments.
In short, my mind was doing what it always does. Running full steam ahead. Juggling creative ideas and an insatiable appetite to achieve. To find success.
The elevator door opened up. I walked down the short hallway and entered a security code into the wall panel, unlocking the door to the memory unit.
In some ways, I unlocked the door to another world, and a new perspective on the nature of joy.
Meaning in an imperfect world
Author Iddo Landau has written a book titled Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World. Landau argues that people misunderstand what a meaningful life truly is.
Some people have a tendency to fall into despair. They observe the vastness of the universe and conclude that their lives are inconsequential. Others compare their lives to famous people and figure they failed to achieve much.
The mistake people make, according to Landau, is that a meaningful life need not be a perfect life. People fail to see the value in an ordinary life.
Our culture of celebrity worship and wealth fixation doesn’t help. We dismiss ordinary achievements, like planting a beautiful garden or volunteering in a soup kitchen. Compared to Martin Luther King’s achievements, or Gandhi’s life, such everyday endeavors seem small.
A recent review of Landau’s book in the Wall Street Journal asks the following question:
Does the life of a child with Down syndrome have less value than the life of a healthy child? Is a retail clerk leading a less meaningul life than, say, Elon Musk? A perfectionist would have to say yes and yes. But Mr. Landau wisely points out that it’s cruel and misguided to hold ourselves or others to this standard for meaning, because it neglects each life’s inherent worth.
The Wall Street Journal’s review ends with Landau’s point that we should not beat ourselves up for failing to attain lofty goals. Rather, we should celebrate the “value of an ordinary life well lived. In the same way you don’t have to become a monk or nun to be a good Christian, you don’t have to be a Shakespeare or Rockefeller to lead a good life.”
The allure of perfectionism
Entering the memory unit, I was immediately face the face with a resident we’ll call Helen. Helen doesn’t speak a word, but her eyes beam with a kind of inner radiance. I have never seen her without a smile on her face.
Helen ambled forward and gave me her customary hug. Everyone in Helen’s orbit receives a hug. Despite the fog of dimentia she has descended into, she appears to be in a perpetual state of joy.
I’m aware that Helen is not who she used to be. No doubt, her family mourns the loss of who she was. Yet, I can’t help but smile at her gentleness and tender happiness.
Helen’s presence seems to soothe the confusion and untethered feelings that other residents face.
My mother takes it all in stride. She enjoys the unexpected visits to her room from fellow residents. During one visit, a gentleman in a wheel chair rolled into her room. He smiled and proceeded to tell Mom all about his days of cattle rustling. Then, with a wave, he trundled off down the hallway.
Folks in the memory unit are well past life’s earlier struggles. They no longer compete for promotions, money and status. Apart from bits of memory here and there, they live mostly in the moment.
The memory unit is another world. There is music, good food, laughter and games. Sometimes there is fear, but mostly the residents have returned to a childlike state.
Visiting my mother and the residents in the memory unit, I had an epiphany. We don’t need fame and fortune to feel joy. We make life harder than it has to be.
Just as Iddo Landau’s book, Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World, points out, a valuable life doesn’t have to be a perfect life.
Consider Helen, in the memory care unit. We lament the dementia that has blurred her reality, but for all we know, she may be happier than we are. She is no longer troubled by notions of success, or keeping up with the Joneses.
As children, we live more in the moment. We play happily with other kids on the playground. We aren’t concerned with looks, position and possessions. We appreciate the simplest of life’s pleasures, like cupcakes, birthday parties and summer vacations.
In childhood, the allure of perfectionism is forestalled. Temporarily, anyway. But before long, adolescence comes along, and we cave in to all those pressing concerns about looks, status, popularity, etc.
It only gets worse in adulthood. We pretend not to care, but we do. It’s only when sickness, old age or impending death come knocking, that we figure out what’s really important. Namely, the simple joys of daily living. A nice cup of coffee. A good book. An unexpected visit from a good friend.
The satisfactions of the mind
A buddy of mine invited me to a men’s coffee group. We meet three times a week in the early morning to discuss life, current events and personal observations.
At 52 years old, I’m the baby in the group. Most of the guys are in their seventies. You’d think a bunch of old guys would talk about health issues, but surprisingly, our conversations have been varied and enlightening.
Beyond talk of family and current events, these guys share experiences from their present and past. I’m impressed by how well travelled several of them are, and what they learned from their experiences.
My father always told me to take the time to talk with older folks. “Ask them questions,” he’d say, “and learn from their wisdom.”
Society today celebrates youth and beauty, but the Roman statesman Cicero had this advice:
“Great deeds are not done by strength or speed or physique: They are the products of thought, and character, and judgement.”
In contrast to today’s fixation on beauty, youth and perfection, Cicero offered the following wisdom:
“When its campaings of sex, ambition, rivalry, quarreling, and all other passions are ended, the human spirit returns to live within itself — and is well off.”
Then Cicero added this last bit:
“The satisfactions of the mind are greater than all the rest.”
You never rest
Success.com published a helpful article titled 9 Reasons Why Perfectionism is a Bad Thing. Here’s what they came up with:
- You are never done
- You are stressed and discontent
- You don’t take risks
- Your creativity is suffocated
- You strive to keep everyone happy
- You’re highly critical of others
- You can’t delegate
- You personalize everything
- You never rest
I can definitely relate to number nine, “You never rest.” My creative compulsions and desire to achieve, grow and succeed are relentless. Not to mention, exhausting. Every time I push the envelope to be perfect in one area of my life, another area invariably suffers.
The self help gurus and personal growth experts, however well intentioned, don’t help. They tell me to get up insanely early, read thousands of books a week, take cold showers, declutter, and hack every facet of my life. Then I’ll be perfect and happy.
Yeah, sure. Except, that level of self-absorption would leave precious little time for the important stuff. Like long talks over coffee with my wife. Or killing an entire Saturday reading a Jim Harrison novel, slowly, because I like the way he writes. Or binge watching mindless episodes of The Flash with my son.
Sometimes, the time wasters in life are more important than we realize. My son is more likely to remember our day of Flash episodes over some viral article I wrote.
Maybe the perfection gurus should revisit number one: “You are never done.” In other words, it never ends.
Maybe a touch of imperfection, here and there, is how we keep sane?
Writer Jessica Stillman, in Inc.com, had this to say about perfectionism:
“The consequences of this incessant sense of failure and worry are grim. Being this sort of perfectionist ‘can contribute to serious health problems, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, fatigue and even early mortality.’ Or in other words, you can stress yourself into an early grave.”
Perfectionism isn’t all bad, if you approach it properly. Setting high personal standards and working toward goals in a pro-active manner is a good thing.
Giving your best effort is fine. The problem is when you take it too far. When you become nuerotic and endlessly obsessed.
Writer Jennifer Kromberg, in Psychologytoday.com, wrote the following:
“…being a perfectionist isn’t about things being perfect; it’s about thinking things need to be perfect and vigilantly pursuing it. Emotionally, this means that instead of living your life in a place of self-acceptance, perfectionists are on a continual treadmill chasing the elusive feeling of having everything in their lives be “right.”
Perfectionism has to be managed. If you get carried away with it, you’ll probably burn out. So much of life comes down to balance and moderation.
Our souls at night
A few years ago, I was prowling the fiction aisle of a bookstore when I discovered Kent Haruf’s splendid, spare novel, Our Souls at Night.
The novel is about Addie Moore and Louis Waters, a widow and widower. Each knew the other’s spouse, and they lived next door to each other. They come together, platonically at first, to overcome mutual lonliness. To get through the nights.
The novel examines themes of aging, second chances, and what’s truly important in life. It was made into a decent movie, staring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. Here’s the trailer for the film:
There’s a scene in the book when Addie says the following to Louis:
“I do love this physical world. I love this physical life with you. And the air and the country. The backyard, the gravel in the back alley. The grass. The cool nights. Lying in bed talking with you in the dark.”
Just two elderly people who discover they are still able to grow and learn. No need for perfectionism. No need for life hacks, recommended reading lists or early morning routines.
The pleasures and rythms of everyday life are enough.
Every time I visit my mother in the memory unit, and every time Helen gives me a quiet hug, I remember to slow down.
I try to let go of perfectionism. I embrace the joys of daily life. And I repeat this little mantra to myself:
Life as it is, is enough.
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