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Perfect Perfectionism

When is it ever good enough?

With all of our efforts toward effectiveness, all of our goal-directed energy toward the ends by any means necessary, we have decided that success is an end-point, a perfect end-point. And that’s just what society says. Society gives us all manner of confusing, mythological and outright false messages. This is but one of them. There are many—but too many of them carry a message of perfectionism under all the other verbiage on top.

We are taught as mere babes to “be good.” But what does this mean? Which code of goodness are we following? And when is it ever good enough? Mostly we think of this being “good” as a moral code, whereby we function behind certain prescribed lines and never dare to cross them, lest we become “bad.” And most of us have crossed a line or two at some point, which made us wonder, at least momentarily, about which category we fell into—“good” or “bad.”

But perfectionism is a beast. A roaring, devouring beast for whom even the best efforts fail to measure up. In the mind of the perfectionist, there is no room for letting up, there is no effort good enough, for there is always that mental measuring that finds him wanting.

Wesley Mathews
Traversing the Inner Terrain
Source: Wesley Mathews

Perfectionism can be very subtle in its demands that we jump through the hoops to win the approval of someone significant from our past who just would not ever approve no matter what we did.

That significant someone didn’t love us—because he or she didn’t know how to love, or didn’t have the maturity to parent well. That significant someone is always watching—at least in the mind of the perfectionist—and tapping his foot waiting, waiting, waiting for the perfectionist to finally get it right. Somehow, this significant someone—usually a parent or primary caregiver—confuses love and approval in some significant ways and since the mind of a child is not yet evolved enough to know how to resist the parent's deep influence, teaches the child to confuse the two as well.

But, you see, love is not earned. Trust is earned. Badges of honor or courage are earned. Even approval is earned. But love is not earned. Love is a gift. It comes straight up out of the heart and continues to love regardless. We can see this unconditionality in proper and appropriate parenting--whereby children are mirrored for who they are, not expected to meet some standard of the parents. We see this kind of love in the child who continues to long to be connected to a terribly abusive parent. We see this kind of love in the person who continues to love an abusive person—even though they may have to love from a distance. Love is love. And it looks like love. It acts like love. It talks like love. It touches like love. It even thinks like love. Mistreatment is not love. Judgment—which waits for you to win approval—is not love.

I often hear adults say of their parents, “I know he loved me, but… (he didn’t act like it).” My question then is, if he didn’t act like it, how do you know he loved you? The answer is usually something like “Well, he was my Dad, so…” or, “He told me he loved me.” There's a fantasy of having been loved that cannot be pinned to reality.

There are also those parents who are responsible and kind in every other way, but still maintain a hard, perhaps even rigid standard for the child to attain. This makes it all the harder to see the perfectionism lurking under there, but children can feel this and when they grow to be adults they can look back and see that there was never a time when they truly felt they measured up.

The standards for measurement put out by these kinds of illegitimate messaging from parents are often impossibly high—because the children of such parents often want to please, to earn love. So, they keep trying and trying, hoping that one day they will finally please enough to really know that they are loved.

These children become adults who have adopted this standard of measurement for themselves. So now, because nothing was ever quite good enough for the parent they were trying to please as a child, nothing can ever be quite good enough as an adult. Every endeavor is measured by the standard that ends with, “Nope, not good enough yet.”

Under every form of perfectionism is this constant measuring and measuring. The first step to relieving ourselves of this kind of self-abuse is to grieve the loss of appropriate parenting that originally marked us as needing approval. Such grief opens the heart to self-empathy. Once the heart is so opened, then we can finally stop measuring, and start simply deciding whether or not we enjoy the task at hand. If we could do that our joy would be enough. Joy is enough to give us a strong and meaningful life. And that’s good enough.