Perfection’s Whispers


I sat down this week to spend an hour or two planning a strategy for our upcoming international move.  This is something I usually give myself six months to prepare for.  Because of a variety of circumstances, this time around, I will have just nine days.  Two things became very clear very quickly.  It will be critical that I make intentional choices in the way I use my time.  And, the only way to come out on the other side of this with anything resembling sanity, I am going to have to cultivate an attitude of “Good Enough”.  These two realizations brought me instant clarity and peace, even in the face of an overwhelming task.  Envisioning all that I needed to do felt significant, but manageable so long as I had a solid plan and turned my back on the lure of Perfection.

Perfection’s Whispers

Almost immediately, into that moment of calm, Perfection’s obsequious whispering intruded.  “Yes.  Definitely.  This is exactly what you need right now.  ‘Good Enough’ is a good idea.  A great idea, even.  Just perfect for this situation.  Absolutely, focus on ‘Good Enough’.  And also, while you’re doing a ‘Good Enough’ job, if you work just a little harder, you’ll be able to do a little bit better.  Maybe even ‘Better Enough’.  Wow.  That sounds really nice.  Think about how great that would feel.  You were only going for ‘Good Enough’ but you managed ‘Better Enough’.  That will probably feel so great that you’ll want to work even harder, making sure you never waste a single minute, muster all of your will power, perfect your organizational system, never make a single mistake, and then, while you’re in the midst of working really hard on embracing ‘Good Enough’, you’ll accidentally do it all perfectly, without even trying.  And, that’s the best triumph of all!!!”

When I’m actively recognizing Perfection’s insidious influence, I have it on the ropes.  That’s when it pulls out all the stops, employing every slight of hand at its disposal.  It wheedles, and pretends, and ingratiates itself.  But, in the end, it can’t help itself: once it’s whipped itself into a fervor, it always outs itself.  It begins issuing calls for eschewing error and avoiding mistakes at all costs. 

Answering the Whispers

The trouble is, even when I see Perfection rearing its ugly head, I can’t just banish it at will.  Perfection isn’t an intellectual problem.  Still, I’ve wasted so much time trying to reason my way out of it.  It wasn’t until I started to listen to what Perfection was whispering that I realized that it was only a deflection technique.  Perfection isn’t the real problem, it’s just a front-man for something else.  

I began to engage with Perfection’s whispers, not to be swayed by their solicitations, but to hear what was going on behind them.  That’s when I came up with this set of questions—what I’m calling the “What’s Really Going On?” questions.  They helped me pull back the curtain and see what’s hiding behind Perfection’s pleas.  

“What’s Really Going On?” Questions

What am I trying to prove?

Who am I trying to prove it to?

How do I think perfection will make me feel?

What am I trying to accomplish?

What is a realistic expectation in this situation?

What am I trying to control?

What part of this process do I actually have control over?

What am I really afraid of?

How I Used the Questions

First, I need to point out—I see these questions as an opportunity to understand myself better, not as a weapon to dispel Perfection.  It is not something I can simply ignore or extinguish.  I think Perfection’s whispers will always be a part of me, in much the same way Elizabeth Gilbert describes Fear being along for every journey.  I am not attempting to decapitate Perfection so much as come into a better relationship with it.

With that intention in mind, I sat down with these questions, and wrote out my answers as openly as possible.  I didn’t edit my responses or judge what I saw.  Instead, I responded compassionately to whatever came up.  I asked more questions.  I wrote those out, too.  Then I answered them.  I went deeper until it felt like I was looking at the truth behind the whispers.

And that was, potentially, the most potent aspect of this exercise.  I began to recognize the lies that Perfection was telling me, and put a name to them.  The simple act of being explicit with them was enough to loose me from their power (for now, and in this situation).

The Warning and the Promise

Now, let me be clear.  This process was terribly tender.  Because I was committed to completing it honestly, I discovered some pretty unattractive things about myself.  A lot of what is driving me is petty, judgmental and vain.  I fall short of my core values all the time.

The good news is that, these parts of me that most want to hide are always easier to handle once I’ve brought them into the light.  They’re still not what I want to find lurking in my soul.  But, they’re manageable, once I get them out of the darkness where they’re thrashing about, trying to evade detection.  And, once I see all the hateful things that are echoing around in my brain, I learn how to be more completely compassionate with myself.