For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with the need to be perfect.
I didn’t always call it that, though. Others accused me of being a perfectionist and I was honestly confused by the label. My life was anything but perfect, so how could anyone accuse me of that?
Eventually, I came to understand that my life was horribly imperfect — in an unhealthy way — because I felt such guilt about not being perfect. I allowed major chunks of my life to become wrecks simply because I was so afraid of not being perfect that something in me went in the opposite direction. If I couldn’t be perfect at something, I didn’t do it. The perverse inner logic seemed to be that if I didn’t even try, I hadn’t failed. I simply hadn’t cared enough to try.
I understand now where that guilt about being imperfect came from, but that’s not my concern here. I’m more interested in something I’ve seen in myself lately — some indications that maybe I’m starting to get past this lifelong struggle.
If I couldn’t have exactly what I wanted or if I couldn’t achieve exactly what I thought I should do, I have always been paralyzed. I wasn’t capable of pursuing a second choice. I wasn’t capable of doing whatever was achievable in the moment and then finding the next step later.
I had to perform perfectly the first time — or not at all.
That has had perverse effects. When I know I want or need something in my life, I either get what I want or I take nothing at all. I allow myself to suffer — financially and in other ways — if I can’t do exactly what I set my mind on.
If I want to make films, I have to make a great film — one that is artistically beyond what I’m currently capable of and beyond my ability to raise the money for. I can’t do something which others might see as imperfect. Even worse, I can’t do what I know is imperfect.
If I want to make money and buy the things I want in life, I have to have limitless success. I have preferred to wait for perfection every time — struggling in the meantime at a ridiculous level for the last five or six years, for instance — instead of doing something less than brilliant and less than impressive and less than amazing. I couldn’t do something ordinary.
If I couldn’t have the house I wanted — of the right design, with the right furnishings, kept clean and perfect — I have preferred not to even try. I’ve preferred to live in a dump that I didn’t clean, because I knew I couldn’t be perfect about it.
Lately, I have experienced something that gives me hope, though. I don’t know if I can be clear about what’s going on.
I’ve started allowing myself to fix small things in my life. I’ve been allowing myself to chew off small bites of big problems — instead of letting the problem sit unsolved until I had the perfect solution. I’ve known intellectually that this is the way to approach such things, but I’ve been able to start doing some of that lately. Some of the examples I’ve seen are so small they’re hard to explain.
I have always felt tremendous inner anxiety and pressure about not being perfect. I’ve felt tremendous guilt when my world wasn’t perfect. Lately, though, I have been able to calm that anxiety — by letting myself do whatever small bit I could in a given moment toward fixing a problem. I’ve been able to allow myself to do a little bit and then say to myself, “I’ve done what I can do for right now. That’s enough until later.”
By doing this, I’ve started to fix some things. Some big things, some small things.
Soon, I’ll be sharing with you one of those big things. It’s not really a big thing in the grand scheme of life, but it’s a big step toward a middle ground for me — a middle ground that might set me up for moving toward something bigger later.
It’s not a perfect solution. It’s not something I’ve wanted to do. It’s not something that gets me where I want to go in the long term. In other words, it’s not perfect.
But it is something that can make the sort of income to give me the freedom to pursue the things I care about in the long term. It’s scary because it’s not perfect.
I’ve wanted to build something for a long time, but I’ve just thought about building it. I’ve thought about perfect plans. I’ve looked for perfect bricks. I’ve tried to figure out how to be perfectly skilled in building from the first attempt.
As a result, I’ve built nothing — waiting for perfection to show up.
I’m doing something right now that is terribly imperfect. I don’t have a perfect plan. I don’t have perfect bricks. I barely know what I’m doing. The bricks are crooked. The mortar isn’t smooth.
But I’m laying the foundation for something I’ve needed to build.
And it has me thinking that my imperfect project is better than perfection that never comes.
I can do whatever I want in life without a perfect plan. I can build with imperfect bricks and I can learn as I go, even if I have to backtrack and fix some things.
Sometimes we have to accept flawed bricks.
Flawed plans and skills.
Flawed results that have to be fixed later.
Flawed people who have to grow and correct their mistakes with us.
I still wish I could be perfect, but I don’t know how to be. I still feel a deep sense of shame about not being perfect. I still feel a deep sense of shame about wasting my talents and the possibilities I’ve had. I still feel guilty for not having all I think I should have and for not having done all I think I should have done.
But I’m starting to chip away at it, bit by bit.
I’m starting to build a wall of my first building. It won’t be a perfect wall. It won’t be a perfect building. It’s not a perfect plan.
But it will get built. And the next one will be better. Then maybe someone will help me make something even better. I can learn. I can grow. Maybe I can still even do something great.
But it’s possible only if I pursue something today that’s imperfect. This is hard for me, but I hope it will eventually bring me to a place and a person and a goal that will make it all worth it.