Thursday, December 29, 2011

the trap of perfection

One of the challenges I always face when I'm considering changes in my life is that I'm a terrible perfectionist. I have this picture of the life I want and the person I want to be and frankly the life I have is very different from that picture. I want to eat healthy and exercise regularly. I want to write in a much more disciplined way. I want to simplify my life and my home. I want to get rid of our debt. I want to practice compassion and kindness. I want to pray more regularly. The list is pretty much endless. Any of these changes would make my life so much richer. But any time I think about change, all of these desires rush at me like frightened animals with their claws dug into my skin. I want perfection and this is a problem.

Perfection is a trap.

One of my favorite blogs is called Zen Habits written by a man named Leo Babauta. Don't let the name scare you if you're a Christian. Leo is one of the wisest guys I've come across and he talks a lot about habit change. Here's an article that I've been thinking a lot about as I've considered changes in my life. It basically talks about selecting one change and starting with a step so small that you can't NOT do it. One small thing. I wonder what it would be like to take something on in such a simple way. As I think of it, it almost seems impossible to me. All the frightened animals are fighting for my attention. My desire for perfection almost paralyzes me before I even begin. Isn't it funny that something simple seems impossible?

Here's what Anne Lamott has to say about perfectionism in the area of writing:

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.”

I think she may be right. I've posted this in the sidebar of my blog to remind me that I don't have to be perfect or cramped and insane. So the first step in choosing change will be to practice letting go of the need for perfection. I'm going to be spending a lot of time calming the wild-eyed animals, speaking in a quiet voice, petting them gently until they relax enough to retract their claws. Then I'm going to look around for the one that seems to need the most loving attention. That's where I'll begin. I'll let you know what I choose to focus on when my lovely beasts settle down a bit.

How about you? Does perfectionism get in your way when you think about change? What small step would open up the possibility for something new in your life?


  1. Yes! I want to make a goal and then reach it in a perfectly straight line! I'm slowly learning that success with any major change in life is rarely a straight line or anything that resembles it. Zig zags and turnbacks inevitably reveal deeper stuff and are God's way of telling me that He's up to SO much more in my life than I can imagine.

  2. i actually thought about you when i was writing this post. you seem like such a passionate goal-maker and i was wondering if perfectionism was a problem for you like it is for me. wishing you a gentle and fulfilling new year cheryl.

  3. I was shouting amen through this whole blog. Boy can i relate to this. I flip from perfectionism to procrastination. I fall into such a pit that I start procrastinating to procrastinate.

    I used to set really strict laws on myself and fail. But, I have stopped. I am reading a book on depleted ego. It is how we lose willpower. One major reason is when we take on too many things at once and we run out of steam.

    There is an example in that book
    (or some book I have read recently), about how Benjamin Franklin used to write out a list of virtues he was to demonstrate in one day and the paper began to disappear from eraser marks where he did not complete his daily tasks.

    There is something to that "One day at a time" thing. If I look at the mountain of self improvement that I need I will become overwhelmed and not even begin.

  4. yes tammy. we are very much alike in this respect. overwhelm kills things before they have a chance to grow.

  5. zig zagging my way toward my goals and embracing the suck when I jack it up ... i spent a lot of my late twenties and early thirties creating a lot of rules that equalled good or bad -- so many of those rules were unfair ... like if I missed a scheduled run I was bad and beat myself up about it ... that sort of odd self imposed legalism and perfectionism applied to many areas of my life and was exhausting. i think we have Haiti to thank for helping me let go of most (not all) of that - haiti ruins my chance at planning and timing and in reality that is a huge favor. i love reading your writing and am so glad you're back at it again .... I "knew you" on your blog long before Marcia introduced us and I loved it then too. The way you came to speak to us in a very painful time of our lives will never be forgotten. Love and prayers for a Blessed and exciting NewYear for you and Dave.

  6. Ugh. I am such a relentless perfectionist sometimes! Even when I can see it not only making me insane, but stealing my joy and the joy of those around me, it is hard to let go of the notion that "this is how it needs to be."

    Lately though, God is wryly (and not without a chuckle or two, methinks) interjecting these beautiful and perfect things into my days that I had nothing to do with at all -- no planning, nothing I did, and I'm usually a hot mess when it happens. These are great moments for me and, I hope, will help me release my strangle hold on my ideas of making things "perfect" -- which is such a laughable notion anyway when you think about it. I'm hopelessly flawed -- like I could make anything perfect anyway!!

  7. tara: thanks for that. i "knew you" before i knew you too, and loved like mad everything you wrote. i'm happy to have been a little part of your life and story. and isn't it great when life "ruins" all your little silly strategies? i'm stubborn, but i think a few things have been ruined for me too. here's hoping.

    kirsten: oh, the gifts of those moments of perfection that don't have anything to do with effort or crazy striving. sometimes i think they're all over the place and we just miss them because we're so busy with our ideas of what perfect means. love to you as you wait for austen. she's one lucky little girl.

  8. i so relate to this! i put the zen habits blog in my google reader~ i will be reading more of him, thank you!

    i once saw on Hoarders (the only time i've watched~ it got to me too much) and was shocked at what perfectionists the hoarders were.

    i'm not a hoarder, but i really do have the perfectionist and then procrastinate tendencies and they both drive me mad. i love the Zen guy's 4 lines...and his distaste for new year's resolutions.

    ok, sorry. went on a bit. could have just said i really like this post. :) xo

  9. i love leo. he's so inspiring. and yes, the hoarders shows are chilling. they are wound so tight but it looks like they don't care about anything. every once in a while i see myself in them and it scares me. i don't hoard, but i could see myself going there.

    can't wait to see you tomorrow!

  10. thanks for this momma. meant a lot.

  11. you're welcome danny. love you.