Friday, January 12, 2018

Perfect is the Enemy

"Perfectionism is just fear in good shoes."
~Elizabeth Gilbert, SuperSoul Conversations

We are a family of perfectionists. And while our culture might celebrate perfectionism, my statement is by no means a brag. Perfectionists are in no way perfect. Rather we are uptight, often joyless and frequently unproductive. While others are doing, we're wringing our hands. While others are living, we're hesitating.
In my husband's case, he procrastinates because the idea of taking anything on is paralyzing. Odd jobs take, literally, years because if he's going to do it, he's going to do it perfectly and that takes time. Time he doesn't have. And so he doesn't even begin. 
My youngest would rather do nothing than do something she can't be fabulous at. And so she's avoided most extracurriculars. Even things she's good at – and she's quite talented at singing, sewing clothes, art – become a source of stress because she's not good enough. Good enough for whom? I ask. Good enough for myself, she snarls back.
My eldest gets swallowed by shame any time she isn't a superstar. She auditioned for an arts school when she was nine. The morning of auditions, she woke up with a fever of 103F and a throat that felt like razor blades. Not surprisingly, she didn't get accepted, a failure that still haunts her, a decade later. 
My son, fortunately, is the anomaly. He takes things in stride, tries a whole lot of things, some of which he succeeds at, others he doesn't. He works hard, has a zillion friends and, no coincidence, enjoys life more than the rest of us put together.
I've done a whole lot of therapy to release the shame I've felt my whole life for being anything less than perfect but I'm a work in progress. Sometimes I think I'm past it but then I'll notice that the critic in my head is loud again, pointing out how much more successful other women – young than I am! – are in their careers. How much happier their marriages seem. How much more confident their children seem. How much...better they are. 
So when I was listening to the podcasts I recently downloaded – Oprah's SuperSoul Conversations – and Liz Gilbert remarked that perfectionism is just fear in good shoes, well, it hit me hard.
Because I know it's true.
Fear has ruled my life. Fear has kept me small in many ways. If there is one thing I could change about myself, it is this: To be fearless. 
Fear is a common theme on this site. So so many women, who arrive on our rocky shores, battered and bruised from betrayal, are terrified. They're terrified because suddenly the future feels uncertain to them. But they're terrified too for what they think betrayal says about them. So SO many of us are perfectionists. It's sometimes hard to see because perfectionism has somehow become conflated with achievement and with attention to detail. It's not that at all. Perfectionism isn't about working hard or about achievement. Perfectionism is fear in good shoes. It's what keeps us on the sidelines, it's what keeps us paralyzed, it's what keeps us hiding our gifts because what if we show up for our lives, exactly as we are, and we're rejected? What if our best isn't good enough? Good enough for whom? I ask. Good enough for myself.
Which is exactly it, isn't it? We are our worst critics. There's nothing anyone can say to us that's more cruel than what we say to ourselves. And if they try, and we don't already believe it, the words won't sting. Only criticism that we agree with can hurt us. And we agree with so much of it. 
Perfectionism becomes our armour. We suit up to face the world. If we're perfect, the distorted thinking goes, then we're beyond criticism. The world will love and admire us. We can hide behind our sparkling kitchen, our flawless makeup, our starved bodies. Don't look in our eyes, where the fear lives. Look over there! At our perfect children, our adoring husband (except when he's not), our big house, our career. God help us if someone pulls back the curtain and finds us, elbow deep in the ice cream tub, belly protruding, face bare, house messy, kids whining, husband cheating. Husband cheating! Because that's what we believe, isn't it? That he wouldn't have cheated if we were perfect enough. We take HIS mistake and hold ourselves accountable for it. We let someone else's bullshit behaviour become about our failings. 
Perfectionism robs us of joy. It robs us of authentic lives. It takes our fear of rejection and holds us hostage. It can also be deadly. A recent New Yorker article cites an author's new book, Selfie, and notes that the author's chapter on suicide "blames the horror and shame of failing to meet the sky-high expectations we set for ourselves." Perfection kills, he concludes. At the very least, we're suffering under the delusion that we can somehow create perfect selves and the only thing holding us back is, well, our imperfection. 
Well, if betrayal brings with it any gifts – and I believe it can – one of them might be our chance to shake off any notion that being perfect might have spared us this pain. While I remain a work in progress, it was my husband's betrayal that led me closer to a F@#K YOU epiphany, whereby I far more than before refuse to compromise myself to make myself more palatable to other people. Don't like my cooking? F@#K you. Cook your own dinner. Think my house is messy? F@#K you. Let me introduce you to my vacuum cleaner. I'm sure you'll be very happy together. 
Perfectionism will fight like hell to continue to ruin your life. It will show up as whispers ("why can't you be as thin as your marathon-running sister?"), it will show up as shouts ("if you were sexier, he wouldn't have cheated"). It will encourage you to spend money you don't have on things you don't need. It will insist that happiness is one more diet, one more fitness program, one less cheesecake away. It will demand that you work harder, work longer, try more. And any failures of your husband, your kids or your family of origin are your fault because, well, you should be different. More easy-going. More confident. Less demanding. Anything but what you are.
And here's the thing perfectionism will never say but it's the truest thing I know: We are fine. We are worthy. We are enough.
I struggle so hard with that but in the deepest part of my soul, I know it's true. I was once asked in a course to write a six-word memoir. I wrote: Nobody could say she didn't try.
You can feel the exhaustion in that statement, can't you? The defeat. Maybe I need to give myself permission to not try so hard. To let myself just be. To find a way to like the same things I've spent a lifetime beating myself up for. 
Maybe it's time for you too. 
Perfect is the enemy of all of us. Let's conquer it. 


  1. This is the truest piece of writing I have read in a long time.

    You know what is not true? All of the "perfect" we see and post in social media. The perfect times with our husbands, the perfect bikini picture (that took 11 times to take because my gut wasn't quite sucked in enough!), the perfect kids.

    No one has the perfect life, no one has a perfect marriage, perfect kids, perfect job. Yet all we see from our facebook feed is the perfect times, the perfect phrase. This is causing us ALL and mostly the young, sever anxiety because we cannot be as perfect as so and so, because they couldn't possibly have any failures.

    What we all tend to forget is that those perfect things we see are not real, no one posts their failures, pain, heartache. Imagine the compassion and love I would receive from my friends and family if I posted "So, J has just confessed that he has been cheating with many women, in many different ways, our entire relationship". Imagine the support I would receive! What stops me from posting this reality? Fear as you say.

    Thank GOODNESS we have this blog, here is where I find my support.

  2. Elle - as usual - spot on blog post.

    We have a close male friend who just discovered his wife was having an affair. This is something I think all of us have known for years ... and just assumed maybe he did too and was just living with it.

    He's been lamblasting her on FB. I have to be really careful what I say, what I like ... because I truly do not wish this friend to learn of my H's infidelity. I've always assumed he was the one close friend who would be my champion ... now it would quite literally end their friendship.

    But I have wondered over time why I didn't lamblast my husband from the roof tops ... why shouldn't he have to answer questions as to why his wife is always so weepy? Why shouldn't he have to answer the questions about why his family damn near fell apart? Why shouldn't he have to tell everyone that his wife single handily fought to save the family and to not let him implode what we'd worked so hard to accomplish?

    Truth be known - because I fear that even ONE person would question whether this was my fault. That I wasn't a good enough wife that he went looking for sex on Craigslist multiple times over the entire course of our relationship. Because there will be those who say that if I'd [fill in the blank] then he would NEVER have needed to do that.

    Part of my everyday struggle is with feeling like I'm good enough - as a wife, as a mother, as a woman ... - I do NOT need outsiders injecting their opinions, scrutinizing my every move or his words about me to determine if this was in any way my fault.

    1. Kimberly,
      That’s exactly why I’ve only told a handful of close girlfriends. For some reason I was so embarrassed and I felt so stupid. How could I have trusted him? How could he have betrayed me so horribly. I thought he was a good person who loved me or I wouldn’t have married him. What does that say about my judgement?
      My oldest once asked,sometime during the 4 years since d-day, why is Mom so angry all the time? I wanted to tell him why I had been acting so different. Why some days I would lock myself in my bedroom and some days look like I had been crying.
      My mom was terminally ill with stomach cancer at the same time and I was her main support. I would even blame my mood swings on that to save myself the embarrassment of having people know about my husband’s cheating. I still do even though she’s been gone almost 2 years.
      My hubby says not to care what other people think about us. This is because some people at his work traveled with him and knew what he was doing. I’m so embarrassed to see anyone from his job because they are probably thinking “poor, delusional woman.”
      I do think there are people out there who would blame me too. So I keep it quiet.

  3. Elle - I know I say this about every time I read a post but wow...just wow. You nailed it on the head what I have been feeling. I am so critical of myself in everything I do, but especially as a mother and a wife, that fear rules my life. Rules my mind. Rules everything I do. If only I were skinnier, happier, more relaxed, laughed harder at his jokes...he wouldn't have cheated. If kills me. I've been struggling with this some this week - wondering if this marriage is right for me. If staying with a man who while I can believe he is not intentionally still hurting me, can't seem to really step up in the I THINK he should. But when I break it down - it still goes back to my failings, not his. And it's time to work on that...really work on it. I deserve to be loved for me - the good, the bad - all of it - but FOR ME. I AM ENOUGH...and I deserve love. But - that love has to come from myself to myself first. That is tough to swallow. I'm trying to focus on here and now...trying not to fall down the rabbit hole. ANd trying not to just say "F@%* this - I don't care, I don't want to try, it's just good enough like this" and keep trying to build the marriage I want to be a part of. Thanks for your words - always.

  4. My six word memoir will be "She showed up every goddamn day."

    "Think my house is messy? F@#K you. Let me introduce you to my vacuum cleaner. I'm sure you'll be very happy together." Needs to be on a tshirt.

    I have wrestled with perfectionism just forever. I'm so much better in so many ways, but it still sneaks up on me in weird places. Example. Young couple I know is super excited to be trading in their old car, that they have had forever and are buying a brand new BMW. I felt a pang of shame about this. Why? Their car purchase was exciting and had nothing to do with me. I'm excited for them, cause I love those cars. But when I examined that pang, its because I can't afford those thins anymore now I am on my own. Honestly, with taxes and stuff coming up I'm kinda effed if something goes wrong with my current ride. Not having enough money to take care of things, let alone buy luxuries is a place of shame for me, especially because I was just there. I had finally arrived at a place where luxuries were within reach, and now everyone is going to look at me and think "poor thing, too bad she couldn't keep her husband." Yikes, perfectionism. I should already be bouncing back financially (even though the big changes for me are still yet to come when I am no longer entitles to alimony). So much fear around having enough, deserving enough. I'm getting annoyed with myself just writing about it. But it's absolutely about perfectionism.
    Its something I need to keep working on.

  5. I struggle with this exact issue so much. D day felt like the biggest and final failure of my whole life. Like no matter what I ever did or goals I ever reached were all for nothing. My whole life fell apart in one moment, and I had nothing (of course I found out slowly over a course of a year that this was not true at all). There is one good thing about that though. I said, "fuck it" to all my ways I'd hustled to get love from others. Once you get an F on your final report card, you can stop trying. With my extra time I took care of me. Asked myself what I wanted and did those things instead. What's funny is that the people around me (none knew about the affairs but my H) cheered me on and didn't love me less. My H did the same. I don't make my bed and I don't get all the laundry done, but I'm more fun to talk to now. I don't claim to be the best at paperwork at work anymore, but I do have time to listen to people. I'm a better friend, mom, and wife when I'm flawed, slow, and imperfect. I do have to keep reminding myself. Those voices saying otherwise can get loud! I have to keep failing to be perfect and noticing how much that failure serves me and everyone around me.

    1. Damn Ann - I wish I could stop hustling. I feel like since DDay I've done nothing but. Become the sex goddess that he said he was looking for - become the house wife he said I was lacking - be the perfect mom so that my baby loves don't figure out what a piece of shit their dad truly is - put on a fake smile at work and pretend that life is just fucking grand and perfect. Perfect -- and don't you DARE think otherwise or else you'll get added to my long list of people I'm working overtime on proving that my life is TRULY fucking perfect.

      Gah. It's amazing at how coming on here and reading others posts bring out the shit that I've crammed so deep down in my own body.

      Can I just say - I'd give just about anything to have the ability to sit in a room with so many of you and feed off of your strength and determination that you've built up over the course of your new betrayed life?

    2. The day is coming, Kimberly. Stay tuned next week. We're planning some sort of BWC retreat.

    3. I will find a way! I would love a chance to meet all the people who saved my life. Amazing!

    4. I need to give lots of hugs and tell so many woman thank you. Please keep my in the loop.

  6. Elle, yes this is spot on! I struggle with perfectionism and of course some OCD. It’s not so much about a perfect life, marriage, kids, home for me, but rather how I do things job and making family members all set up to have a good day (lunch, wash, books, etc) I take it all on and do so much to get them ahead. I’ve taught my kids how to do it all (cook, do their own wash and all the life skills as both my parents did) so I haven’t created incapable teens but I probably have spread some perfectionism and OCD. I try my best to relax and find more joy in just letting things go since Dday. It’s a job each day to scale back.
    My H and his affair started on bodyspace social media (fitness related with 20,000 pics of abs, etc and people that are just killing it everyday with fake positivity. The number of broken people I scanned while I was in my investigative / PI phase prior to Dday was absolutely astonishing and really sad. My h got hooked on the likes, private messages, plethora of selfies and “yay rah” attitude. He viewed me as a nag during his EA turned PA because while he was being selfish, and addicted to chatting it up, I was doing it all to keep our home and kids going, the cars, hosue, etc. Was I stressed and way confused by his mood to me when he wouldn’t lift a finger. I was Negative? Maybe overloaded! Anyway, I’ve done quite a bit of research on social media and it’s harm and found this quote that hits home for me. He was glued to his phone and guarded it...nobody was allowed to touch it.

    “We value our worth based on comments and inbox messages filled with colourful words that have no depth. Meanwhile, the person who loves you when there is no filter on your face becomes an option and the rest of the world who just sees your representative becomes priority. Dont loose what is real chasing behind what only appears to be."

  7. Elle,
    This is one of the most valuable posts I've read. It means so much to me, I keep going back to it.

    "We take HIS mistake and hold ourselves accountable for it." Yup, that was me. Gosh. I'm nearly 3 years post DDay and I'm finally coming out the other side of this trauma and "finding a way to like the same things I've spent a lifetime beating myself up for." I'm 47 this year. It's time.

    I am always amazed at how women on this site have a way of taking years worth of my disjointed thoughts and making sense of them for me in a couple of paragraphs, or even sentences.
    Thanks so much for this place. xoxo

    1. Sal,
      I'm amazed too. There's so much wisdom and compassion on this site because of the women who bring their pain here and transform it into balm for others.



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