Seeking Perfection By Being Imperfect

Image by Andreas Kuehn

“No, this dress isn’t right,” my daughter exclaims.

I want to roll my eyes. Instead, I smile and say, “Hmmm, I like it.”

The Prom is approaching, and the dress debacle has begun. Clamoring for the perfect dress is our immediate mission, but seeking perfection is an ongoing issue. Hair, clothes, boyfriends, grades–perfection is the goal. Looking at my daughter in the mirror, I think, she is lovely… too lovely. I want to dishevel her hair.

A desire for perfection runs in my family. My mom has a penchant for all things delightfully done just right. My brother is hard-wired to organize kitchen cupboards, and my sister becomes paralyzed when making a decision, fearing a mistake.

Maybe that gene merely grazed my DNA, because I’m okay with ‘good enough’ much of the time. I’m not claiming to be well-adjusted. Please. I’m just saying my particular issues don’t include an obsession toward perfection. You’d be right to guess this drives my mother insane. She’ll drop by and say, “It’s amazing how you can live in this chaos.”

And I think, what chaos?

That genetic predisposition for perfection may have grazed me, but it seems to have struck my daughter deep into her soul.

After reading articles from my Google search on “Teens and Perfection,” then dragging out and thumbing through my psychology books, I feel unsettled about my daughter’s endeavor toward perfection. My research boosts an already overdeveloped sense of foreboding. And although it’s slightly tempered by knowing that reading any list of symptoms will trigger a tendency toward immediate self-diagnoses, the list is so aptly descriptive of my child that I worry.

Here is what I’ve learned:

Obsession with perfection is a defense mechanism. Human beings employ defense mechanisms–compulsions, neurotic habits, extreme behaviors–as a way to avoid feeling the discomforting emotions which flood our system in times of stress, rejection, or loneliness (a.k.a.: life). Perfection keeps company with with a long list of popular defense mechanisms: alcohol abuse, overeating, medicating, addiction, and self-harm, to name a few.

Anorexia is one illness born from an obsession with perfection. Since signs of it normally show up during adolescence, I’m hyper-aware of each spoonful of nourishment that actually makes it down my daughter’s gullet. I know I’m dancing on the edges of over-protectiveness, but I also know I can do nothing else. Being an adolescent girl is plenty tough. Compounding the challenges with body image distortion and food issues makes me feel panicky.

I wonder, is every mother like this? Do we each have our own worst fear? Anorexia must be mine.

My continuing research reveals that vulnerability is the counterweight to perfection. Vulnerability, it turns out, is the birthplace of joy and connectedness. Being vulnerable allows people to be open to meaningful relationships. It helps us to accept and love ourselves for what we are: sometimes warty, stinky, wrinkled and lumpy creatures. Unfortunately, our pressure-packed culture equates vulnerability with weakness, and many girls have learned this lesson too well.

As for what to do, as with almost everything, the only answer is to try to strike a balance. Unabashedly modeling imperfection is a great start. I do this in any way that feels natural to me. I often point out when I’ve made a mistake, be it burning our dinner, forgetting to call the orthodontist, taking a wrong turn, leaving the laundry in the washer for a week… whatever! I’m not a champion of slovenliness, but can we agree? Being messy and real, and letting things go with a shrug… these simple acts can be refreshing.

And the unavoidable result of seeking perfection? Relentless disappointment. Because, do we ever really get there?

Celebrating when things are ‘good enough’ can introduce moments of ease and acceptance. Yes, I do recognize the irony here… introducing imperfection in an effort to make my child’s life a little more… um… perfect? I know. But still, if it works….

Until my daughter finds a balance between letting things go and striving for excellence, I hope she will remember the day she dropped a sticky mess of a burned marshmallow in the grass, then picked it up and ate it anyway. Because for me, that seemingly insignificant moment was a metaphor for what I’m trying to capture here: that life is full of wonderful, delicious, not-to-be-missed, gooey imperfection.

I pray she will notice when she finds it, and learn to seek it in her own way.

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Stacey Tompkins

I'm a mother of teenage girls, a writer, psychotherapist, life coach and trainer. I love to trail run, travel to places that are way more chill than the US, and camp under the Montana big sky. I've got an amazingly extroverted husband whom I adore, and a sweet Mexi-mutt pooch named Chica Bandita. I love my life.

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