'I Can't Stop Trying to Be Perfect!'

Embracing your flaws includes enjoying how freakishly perfectionistic you are.

Blue Morning Glories (1935) by Georgia O’Keeffe

Dear Polly,

I’ve been reading your columns for a few years now. They always seem to find me when I’m at my lowest, and your words are always a source of comfort. The last eight years haven’t been easy. I lost my brother six months after my first ex-husband and I separated - all this while I was in my last year at grad school. Fast forward to three or four years later when I married again and realized that I was doing it for all the wrong reasons – survivor’s guilt mostly. I needed to feel worthy to still be here. So I had to do everything perfectly. I had to be perfect. That drumbeat has been consistent since I was a child. My parent’s marriage was turbulent, I was witness to a lot of emotional violence growing up. Both my mother and father had affairs and for a long time I convinced myself this was a normal state of things. They’re still together. Somehow losing my brother made them reevaluate their relationship and they are very close now, and I am very close to them.

I really only started therapy after my brother died. But the grief has been frozen inside me. I didn’t cry for the first year and half following his death - and when I say I didn’t cry, I mean like not a single tear was shed. My brother was and still is the greatest love of my life. He was five years older and my world.

My first husband was a total narcissist. We were together eight years and I contorted and reduced myself in every single way to ensure he remained supreme in our relationship, until I couldn’t take it anymore. The end was ugly and scarring and he has never apologized for the way he treated me or what he said. Next I married someone who was kind and gentle but really didn’t get me and wasn’t honest with me about who he was and what he wanted. I left him despite everyone in my life thinking I was still struggling with grief and was out of my mind (‘he’s not an alcoholic, he doesn’t beat you’ - as though this is the standard for a good marriage). We took three years to divorce, mostly because I was so scared about letting everyone around me down and managing their fears.

Just before my second marriage, I developed an eating disorder which grew more and more intense, and in 2019 I finally addressed it because I realized it was going to kill me if I didn’t. And I’ve been eating well, nourishing myself and my body ever since. But I can’t seem to let go of needing to be skinny (still have body image issues). I am incredibly successful at work, but I am a workaholic and can’t take a break when I need to, which makes me miserable. I have many friends who love me and miss me dearly but I stay distant from them and am rarely social or feel safe to be so, because I don’t feel perfect enough to show up as I am (my thighs are too fat to go on that beach holiday, that night out, etc).

I’m happy to say I’ve been in therapy these past eight years and I’ve tried everything from hypnotherapy to past life regression, but I really kicked it up a notch over lockdown. I met someone new and he’s lovely. I love him and he loves me. I found a great psychiatrist, started delving into the grief, and am finally dealing with the real issue here: the need to be perfect. I can’t seem to accept that this is all we have, the here and now. Life is not something we extract from, or have to find relentless meaning out of. I lost my brother, but I don’t have to keep trying so hard.

How do you learn to love yourself and accept that the present moment is all there is? I’m afraid if I don’t, I will lose any chance of finding peace in my life. And I will never be able to make a relationship work, or enjoy building a career, or maintain my friendships. I will never find joy again. 

Trying To Accept

Dear TTA,

Wow! Do you see what you just did? You took your current challenge — to accept yourself and embrace the present moment — and turned it into an all-or-nothing quest for perfection! According to you, you can either love yourself and accept death immediately or you’ll never find lasting love or enjoy your job or have a singe friend under the sun! YOU CAN EITHER SWIFTLY CONQUER THIS EXISTENTIAL PUZZLE (that humankind has struggled with, often fruitlessly, for thousands of years) OR SAY GOODBYE TO JOY FOREVER!

But that’s not reality. The truth is, plenty of people find peace, make relationships work, build a career, and maintain friendships without accepting that the present moment is all there is. In many cases, it’s their fixation on some perfect future looming in the distance that makes them so rigorous and detail-oriented when it comes to their relationships, career, and even their pursuit of peace. But forget the overachievers -- tons of neurotic, avoidant, obsessive, distracted human beings out there experience joy all the time without understanding a goddamn thing about who they are or what they want or what the point of this life is. Lots of people drink too much and stare at their phones and bicker with their partners and drop their friends on a whim and believe all kinds of crazy shit about the world, and they’re still vaguely happy or mostly at peace with themselves and the world.

The last paragraph of your letter offers an excellent snapshot of how you approach every obstacle and challenge in your life: You treat it like the whole world depends on it. Your brother’s death was such a gigantic threat to your survival that you resolved not to feel it at all. You willed yourself not to cry or acknowledge the loss. Then you married a narcissist so you could work very hard to please him around the clock, thereby filling up all of your non-work hours with thankless toiling and distraction. You probably told yourself you’d be a failure if you didn’t keep that relationship together, so you kept trying harder and harder, applying the same punitive, perfectionistic standards that you apply to everything else. Finally, you recognized how cruel he was to you, but his callousness provided your next challenge: FIND SOMEONE NICE, NO MATTER WHAT. So you chose a gentle guy who you didn’t have a lot of passion for, and his lack of self-knowledge and dishonesty made him almost as much hard work as your first husband.

In other words, you’ve been living inside high-maintenance intellectual puzzles since your brother died. Every step of the way, instead of sitting where you were, noticing how you felt, observing what your body and mind craved, acknowledging how overwhelmed and flawed and lost you sometimes were, you REASONED YOUR WAY FORWARD, correcting your mistakes, resolving to do better, mapping out complicated algorithms for future success, and charting a complicated new course through the wilderness of your fears.

Now you realize that you’re a perfectionist. And at the exact moment when you should be sinking softly into this realization, letting your flaws and neurotic tics show their ugly heads like the beasts from Where The Wild Things Are, you’re trying to hunt them down and kill them instead. You could be dancing in the forest with these drooling monsters, celebrating your hideous deficits, embracing this unexpected love affair, feeling everything that’s here, and trusting that you’re good exactly the way you are.

But instead, you’ve CREATED AN URGENT DEADLINE: YOU MUST STOP BEING SUCH A PERFECTIONIST AND BEGIN LIVING IN THE MOMENT IMMEDIATELY OR YOU’LL NEVER FIND JOY!

In other words, you’re still trying to be perfect. You’ve just found out from an expert (your therapist) that perfect people resist perfectionism and live in the present! Perfect people accept that this is all we get! (INSIDE YOUR MIND, THESE PERFECT PEOPLE DO THIS PERFECTLY! THEY LOVE THEMSELVES DEEPLY AND ACCEPT DEATH EVERY SECOND OF EVERY DAY!) So now you need to think like these perfect people so you can be perfect, too!

You made a perfectionist puzzle out of your discovery that perfectionism is your enemy. You’re creating new work around your discovery that you’re a workaholic. But you’re also certain that a person with big thighs doesn’t deserve to go to the beach and a confused, distracted person doesn’t deserve to see her friends and a person who just discovered that she was wrong about everything (AGAIN!) doesn’t really deserve love, she’ll fuck it up, she’ll lose everything. She’ll never be happy no matter how hard she works, because she doesn’t deserve happiness. Only her brother deserved it, and he didn’t get it, so she needs to keep paying for that injustice.

You’re an extremist. You globalize every bit of new information you get and run with it until you’re exhausted. Then you find it wanting, so you reinvent the wheel completely and run with that. You over-apply every new idea and principle. You sweep out old philosophies and replace them with new ones. Your vision of who you should be never really changes, though, does it? You always have to be successful and smart and gracious and beautiful, don’t you, or you’re a disgusting failure? And even when you succeed at everything, it’s never enough.

I’m not mocking you. I think a lot of successful, hard-working, faintly unhappy people will probably relate to your letter *and* your perfectionist, high-stakes approach to trying to live in the moment. I know I do. I also over-intellectualize emotional problems (uh, big revelation, I know) and anything that matters to me starts to become a litmus test of my value as a person. It’s hard for me to accept a challenge – even one that I didn’t choose – without perverting it into an all-or-nothing quest to become better.

I have a million examples of this. I’m in the middle of a move across the country that my evil brain is actively trying to transform into something much bigger than a move. My twisted brain is dreaming up new ways I can be even more perfect from now on, sending out seeds and runners and weeding up my humble path with invasively neurotic nonsense. My absurd gray matter wants to take the raw materials of this big life change and make them into a series of mazes and dungeons and torture devices: If this new friend doesn’t like me, I am not worthy of friends. If this aspect of my new home makes me unhappy, then the whole thing was a terrible mistake.If someone in my family says or does something unhinged (hello, they’re family, what else would they say or do?), then moving closer to them was delusional and wrong-headed of me.

And in the middle of this very stressful (but exciting!) time, I’m noticing this almost HYPERACTIVE EFFORT I’m making to climb on top of everything intellectually, like a dominant Jack Russell of perfectionism. The Jack Russell has a shrill bark that I can translate for you: I WILL DO IT ALL PERFECTLY. MY FAMILY WILL BE HAPPY EVERY DAY. I WILL COME ACROSS AS RESERVED BUT WISE BEYOND MY YEARS. EVERYONE WILL LOVE THE FUCK OUT OF ME AND WANT TO SPEND MORE TIME WITH ME.

Thinking this way is what turns you into a depressed old neurotic in a rundown house who has very few friends and refuses to see the friends she does have. She finds her entire life embarrassing. Nothing is good enough for her, so she does nothing.

Haha, but do you see what I just did there? I just offered up a last-paragraph summary that’s exactly like yours, revealing my own extremist soul. I can either be perfect, or I’ll be miserable and no one will ever love me again. And look, in some ways, it’s accurate, because when you think like an extremist, you make all of your puzzles into zero sum games. I WIN OR I AM A LOSER. I LIVE A PERFECT LIFE OR HIDE, FEELING DEPRESSED AND ASHAMED.

Perfectionism is a refusal to live in reality. It’s a resistance to your true feelings, a rejection of your actual personality. So let me model realism by offering this up about my actual personality: It sucks! I’m smart and I’m also intolerable. I have forgotten how to be normal. Sometimes I wish I were even more odd or aberrant in some identifiable way, so at least I’d have an excuse for being so completely unable to ape the currently accepted ways of socializing. I’m impatient and I talk too much. I have a million opinions. I have very little self-restraint.

I’m moody and I make stupid choices every day. I am always fucking up. People like me a lot less than they used to. I have the data on this, it’s solid.

But you know what? It’s okay. It’s embarrassing but it’s still okay. I’m not just being self-deprecating in some shallow way here. I’m demonstrating my actual, real-life remedy that helps me shift out of perfectionistic neurotic robot mode: I admit what’s real. I admit that I am very flawed and I always will be.

And then I try to feel grateful for who I am. After all, WHO BUT A HUMAN WITH A TEDIOUS, OVERSHARING PERSONALITY COULD WRITE THIS COLUMN? Who but an utter bridge troll could make a living by giving pushy advice and also writing about herself repeatedly? What kind of a repugnant, unbearable orc would write a whole book about her marriage? Oh and I should really pound home my awfulness by SHOWING YOU MY BRAND NEW BOOK COVER and SHAMELESSLY INSISTING THAT YOU PRE-ORDER IT RIGHT NOW!

I have a rich imagination. Sometimes it’s a curse. I’ll bet that’s your problem, too. I can imagine being a much more lovely and refined human being. I can imagine biting my tongue. I can imagine becoming dignified. (Hard not to stifle a chuckle here.) I can picture myself as a serene, charming presence, a woman who knows when to say nothing at all, who lives a pretty, uncluttered life among close family and friends who adore her and never find her grating or obnoxious.

You can’t waste your life fixating on such fantastical equations, trying to solve some impossible puzzle and unlock the keys to some sparkly realm where you aren’t even human anymore. Living in the present means enjoying what the humidity is doing to your hair. It means savoring what a bad personality you have. It means kneeling on a gravely path and pulling weeds out with your bare fingers as it starts to rain, and feeling fully alive.

The gift of embracing reality is that it reminds me that I like bad personalities in other people. I like people who talk too much and use stupid voices and make up dumb songs and I like to feel irritated by what a twisted freak someone is. I love a lack of dignity. So when I’m in a perfectionist robot state, I’m trying to become someone I wouldn’t even admire in real life. I might love the thought of a dignified, wise, lovely woman who carefully chooses her words, but if I met that lady I’d think What a fucking dullard! Float off to your sanitary princess palace and leave us filthy miscreants to our canned beers and our mochi doughnuts!

So listen up, TTA. Don’t make this moment into another fucking mind puzzle. Your evil brains are the enemy here. Lean into your flaws, hard. Dig for what you feel without making assumptions about what’s good and what’s bad, what’s toxic perfectionism and what’s some chill brand of perfect you don’t own yet but YOU WILL BECAUSE IT’S SUPERIOR. (Notice, again, how perfectionism invades every corner of your attempt to become imperfect.)

Ask yourself some hard questions: What is the point of success? What parts of being successful feel empty and what parts work for you? What is the point of loving and being loved? Are there times that you actually love to work hard and other times you make it punitive? You have to deconstruct your storytelling about yourself so you can figure out which parts of your life are actually natural and true to your passions and which parts are really some malevolent piece of a larger perfectionistic puzzle that makes you miserable.

I think it’s particularly important for women who are getting advice from other women (and from the culture at large) to question the reigning assumptions around WANTING MORE as a woman. Sometimes we just want things, and that’s okay. It’s normal to want to look beautiful sometimes. If you can punt that desire out the door? Amazing! But if you’re stubbornly attached to some aspects of how you look, let yourself live there for a minute before you declare it all bullshit.

The whole point of living in the present is to feel connected to yourself AS YOU ARE and to the moment AS IT IS. It’s not true that there’s no inherent meaning to life, it’s just that most of the meaning in life exists in this moment. You can feel the meaning right now, if you try. In my personal view, that meaning doesn’t require an intellectual quest or elaborate belief system that needs to be nourished and practiced perfectly or you’ll lose it. It’s just a sensation: Here you are, unbearably imperfect and deluded and deeply confused. You’re not skinny enough (obviously this is a delusion created by your mind). You keep your friends at arm’s length. You’re about to fuck up the best love you’ve ever known. You work too hard. You’re way too focused on getting everything right. You like hard puzzles. You love hard work. You love getting everything right. You’re fucking annoying. You’re terrible. Your thighs feel blobby right now. No one will ever love you until you get it right. You’ll never find joy.

YOU’RE FUNNY. You’re a funny little weirdo who looooves to tax her evil brains until she solves everything. It’s cute how hard you try not to be who you are. Maybe your brother used to notice that, and that’s why you trusted him and loved him so much. Maybe that’s why you miss him so much now, why he was the love of your life, why you don’t believe that anyone on earth will ever love you that way again.

But you’re wrong about that. Think about your brother a little more. Love yourself that way again. And trust that you will be loved like that, too, and maybe you already are loved like that, from sources you sometimes ignore because you’re too busy and too afraid. Right now, I want you to really feel that love and accept it into your heart without pushing it away. You deserve this love, exactly as you are, right now, in this moment. You don’t have to fix a thing.

I’m sorry for all that you’ve been through. But now you’re here and you’re great. You don’t need to solve anything. Just be here. And look, you can get it wrong again, and trust me, you will! Everyone is distracted and confused and wrong most of the time! That doesn’t mean that joy won’t be yours. You’ll try to live in this moment and sometimes you’ll fail.

You’re here now, though, aren’t you? You can feel it right now, I’ll bet – all of the meaning that’s here, the things you’ve lost, the people you love so much that your heart feels like it’s being smashed apart, the confusion of being alive and the shame of being a blobby stupid mortal freak who works too hard. This is how you feel joy. You love what’s here, even though you also hate it, even though you’re also embarrassed to be so squashed and malleable and crushed and afraid of what comes next.

I’m afraid, too, but I’m here. We are afraid and awful, truly, and we’re still breathing. We can screw everything up again and again if we need to. It will be stupid and beautiful. We’re still here and it’s enough.

Polly


Nothing will ever be exactly the way you want it to be. Enjoy this uncertain, uneasy moment instead. Savor the uneasiness. Delight in how pointless you are. Breathe it in and proceed without apology. For advice, write to askpolly at protonmail.com. Don’t forget to pre-order my book. Obnoxious, unseemly monsters unite!