Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Ugly Truth About Perfection

When Allison offered me her spot on Word Whores this week to do a guest post on imperfection, I was eager to find just the right angle to tackle. There’s so much to say about it, especially from the mind-set of a 20-something single New York woman who doesn’t fit the traditional mold of…well, the 20-something single New York woman.
So, I spent my entire subway ride home from work thinking about perfection, hoping for inspiration to strike. I tried to focus on imperfection, this week’s actual theme, but no matter what path my mind took, I kept straying to its opposite.
Maybe it’s because the word “imperfect” just isn’t a part of our daily jargon. But “perfect”? Perfect is plastered across magazine covers, spewing from the mouths of celebrity reporters—hell, I was brushing my teeth earlier and looked up to see it written on the back of my jar of face cream.

It’s everywhere. It’s staring us straight in the eye and challenging us to achieve the impossible. And while we’re constantly being spoon-fed the same old spiel about our imperfections being what makes us beautiful, inside and out, the ever-present concept of perfection is what rings in our ears. At least it does in mine.

I’ve been a perfectionist since I was a little kid. Not only did everything need to be neat and clean at all times, but I needed to get the best grades, to be the most liked, to stick every landing in every gymnastics competition. Granted, I didn’t succeed in any of those things, but my god did I want them. Nothing less was good enough.

To this day, I find that mentality sticking to every inch of my imperfect body, haunting every hour of my imperfect life. It doesn’t matter that I strongly believe in the power and beauty of imperfection, and that I’d never want to be really be a flawless, cookie-cutter replica of someone else’s idea of what I should be to consider me smart, funny, and attractive. But the place inside where the desire for perfection lives doesn’t care about those thoughts and beliefs. It only cares about finding whatever way it can to feel good enough.

Take this past weekend, for example. I went on my fourth date with a beautiful, beautiful man. I’m not even kidding—this man is gorgeous. His image has graced the covers of romance novels, the insides of fitness magazines, the month of August on the calendar maybe on some of your walls. And as embarrassing as it is for me to admit, I was proud to have him choose me, to walk into a restaurant with his arm around me and have him kiss me right there in public. Someone like him wanted someone like me.

Does. Not. Compute.

I’m certainly not model-material myself, and I won’t lie—self-image, like most women my age, is something I struggle with daily. But man, my miniature ego was being stroked goooooood for a change. I was loving it. And I was liking him, more than I anticipated. He was not only picture-perfect, but he was intelligent, ambitious, responsible, funny—the whole package. Hmmm…maybe there was promise after all.

But then there was the fear. The fear of not being enough, of not being that perfect yin to match his perfect yang (I so did not mean for that to sound dirty…but it did.). It still sat in my stomach like a Prometheus-sized boulder. I could ignore it when I was with him, but when I wasn’t? The recognition that I’d never be perfect, never be a member of his elite league was gnawing at me. Toss in some mixed signals from him and I was ready to tear my hair out.

So when I found out the next day that the potential and promise I was seeing for us was not quite the same thing he was seeing, you can imagine what happened. The confidence I had started to feel about being associated with such perfection shattered and I was grasping at straws again, wishing I were good enough. (Silly, I know, but true.) And through all the rejection I felt (despite that fact that I hadn’t really been rejected—I can still have fun with him for now if I want to), through all the sane thoughts and reasons why it wouldn’t have worked long-term anyway, through the entire list of qualities he doesn’t have that I want in a partner, I still kept thinking of him as perfect

This perception of perfection is ingrained in many of us from such an early age. As we get older, it gets easier to challenge, but it’s still just that: a challenge.

It hit me hard this weekend, but it also gave me the courage to admit my weakness and try to break down the cognitive distortions into clearer realities. Because maybe that’s all perfection really is—recognizing your imperfections, growing from them, and in the end, accepting the ones that you can’t change, taking all the power back….even if we don't yet view those imperfections as perfect pieces of ourselves.

Thanks for having me, Word Whores! Y’all rock my socks. :-)

Danielle Poiesz is a writer, reader, blogger, tea drinker, cat wrangler, pool shark, NYC transplant and Book Country's Editorial Coordinator. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellepoiesz


  1. Danielle, you're gorgeous, don't give yourself such a hard time, and now if I could just take my own advice that would be awesome! ;o)

  2. You're a cutie-pie, Danielle. And if he wasn't ready to head in the same places you were in a relationship - no matter how awesome he might seem - he wasn't perfect for you. And I think relationship compatibility is one of the few places we all should strive for perfection.

  3. Awww thank you both! You're very sweet. :)

  4. Danielle - it takes a lot of guts to share your vulnerability like this - I salute you! Interesting, the way those beliefs get instilled and are so hard to change, or shed, even when we learn better. I know there are heaps of women (and men) out there who will feel a little better today, knowing they are not alone in this. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Welcome to the Word-Whores, Danielle! Very glad to have you join us. Thought provoking post. It hadn't occurred to me to call out perfectionism as one of my flaws, but it is. Perfection induced paralysis. I suffer from it. I get the whole 'good enough' demon, too. Suffer from that about writing. But. My take on guys? When you date one who you thought had great potential, but who, for one reason or another doesn't quit fit - list out the qualities you really liked and appreciated about him. Then at the bottom of that list, you write "someone with these qualities - but *better*. You'll be surprised to find it takes the pressure off you and you'll be surprised at how swiftly 'better' shows up.

  6. Thanks so much for joining us today! I agree with Marcella: perfection-induced paralysis is a terrible demon. To a large extent, I think we're conditioned to expect perfection from the time we're young, and we have the idea instilled in us that perfection = happiness.

    But I don't think that it does. Not that I've ever seen, anyway. Sometimes, "good enough" is the path to bliss.

  7. When Christ said, "Be ye therefore perfect," perfect meant whole or complete. Perfect isn't nailing every landing or being the wittiest one at the cocktail party. Perfect is about accepting yourself as you are and as who you are, a daughter of deity and someone with infinite worth that the world doesn't see or recognize, but that we can learn to see and accept.

    And you're so adorable. If guys, or anyone for that matter, are too dumb to realize it, are they really worth your time?

  8. I'm so happy you joined us for our week of exposing our vulnerabilities, and that you really let us see this side of you.

    Grappling with our perceptions of where we're falling short of "perfect" is infinitely harder when we're deliberately offering ourselves up for 3rd Party approval -- dating, employment, publishing... ~cough~

    I have to second and third what earlier respondents have said. You are wonderful, and 'eff him for not appreciating all that you are.

  9. Thanks, ladies :) You are all such wise and wonderful women--I'm so glad to have had the opportunity to share with you (even if it is something pretty embarrassing to admit LOL).

  10. I love Marcella's idea - she's very smart. Sorry the pretty boy didn't work out, darling, but you'll always have us. You can be an Honorary Word Whore anytime!

  11. You know now that I'm 40 and in a much happier second marriage, I think I have a new understanding of "perfect".

    The truth about the word is that every one of us has a different definition. When I found myself dating again the revelation for me was the moment I realized that I didn't need society's "perfect".

    What I wanted/needed was "perfect" for me.

    This guy you went out with wasn't really "perfect" because you never felt comfortable with him. If you catch yourself worrying that you won't be enough or equal or whatever, then he's not "perfect" at all...

    You are! :)

    How's that for a super rambley pep talk? LOL

    Seriously though, you are beautiful intelligent and your smile light up a room! I know I watche dyou work at RT! :)

    No feeling inadequate! Just know he wasn't "perfect". Your "perfect" guy might not have rock hard abs, but he'll make you feel like you are the most important person on earth. He'll make you smile and best of all being with him, you'll feel comfortable in your own skin...

    Lisa :)

  12. @Jeffe aww thanks! I'm happy to join you ladies whenever you'd like!

    And I love Marcella's idea too! I think it's my new "thing" :)

    @Lisa Thank you! I know you're absolutely right--so hard sometimes though when those voices in your head just won't shut up haha but talking about it so openly has helped silence them a little ;) nothing like calling them out to make them hide!