Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best. (Henry Van Dyke)
By Phoebe Harding
We know that standards of perfection and best are ever changing, and yet we hold ourselves and others to these malleable, superficial, unreasonable standards. We limit ourselves, silently shame others when they don’t also limit themselves. We don’t embrace diversity or extend compassion when our “perfection” meters trill. Perfectionism as we currently understand it is a misanthropic, divisive, and arbitrary non-necessity.
As a child I learned quickly that if I couldn’t do something perfectly, I should not even try it, lest I suffer jeers of humiliation from my parent and peers. There was a TV commercial at the time that rang true to me, “Never let them see you sweat.” I took it seriously. Being too fearful to try new things, too embarrassed to do things I enjoyed and which felt good (but which did not look “perfect”) became a pattern for me. I wouldn’t let even those closest to me see my unique body, my unique learning process, or my unique results.
I would stick to what I did well (be a good student, be a helpful daughter, be a funny friend) for a long time. I stayed safe and dreamed small. And I would look on enviously as others did the things I longed to do. And I’d be the first to criticize them if they did not do it perfectly. It became a pattern to feel jealous and to criticize people who had the courage to do what I was too afraid to do: be visible as a learning, growing, expressive human.
Complete, Whole, Finished
What is perfection? I was shocked to learn that the word’s roots in etymology do not mean “without flaws.” It simply means complete, whole, finished. And that’s just finished for now. We can be perfect and still be in process; we can be perfect and still teachable. We can be perfect and improve, or not.
I was likewise dumbstruck to learn that Japanese painting masters, if they completed a painting that loyally duplicated their vision, would add a deliberate flaw to complete their process. This was an act of humility to remind themselves that having flaws is perfection.
“You’re Wonderful, and Awesome, and Perfect”
Recently, actor Jonah Hill posted a response to negative criticism of his physique: “I don’t think I ever took my shirt off in a pool until I was in my mid 30s, even in front of family and friends. Probably would have happened sooner if my childhood insecurities weren’t exacerbated by years of public mockery about my body […] I’m 37 and finally love and accept myself. [This post is] for the kids who don’t take their shirt off at the pool. Have fun. You’re wonderful and awesome and perfect.”
I got all misty when I read this because it takes courage to be visible when you’re outside the ideal, the typical, the “perfect” as we currently define it. It also gave me hope that, if I continue to practice daily Gratitude & Self-Appreciations and Quadrinity Checks* maybe I’ll get in the ocean or a swimming pool again, in a bathing suit, in all my jiggly cellulite glory, and just call it perfect. After all, I am love, I am loving, and I am lovable.
What Are Your Patterns
Where do you have patterns of perfectionism, or patterns of fear of being seen making an effort as you’re learning? What are you envying or criticizing in others? What have you been thinking is just “not for you,” though you long for it deeply? Are you willing to show up authentically and call it enough, complete, finished, whole?
*Check out Instagram Lives @hoffmaninstitute. Morning Quadrinity Checks at 8 a.m. Pacific, and Gratitude & Self-Appreciations at 6 p.m. Pacific.
Phoebe Harding is the Programs Registrar at the Hoffman Institute, and has done the week-long Process twice at White Sulphur Springs, in 2009 and 2017. She just signed up for her first Q2: Beyond Mom & Dad, this May at EarthRise. Single and child-free, Phoebe enjoys doing whatever she wants, whenever she wants, with no one else’s say so. Her canine companion, Artie Deerfox, is a constant source of joy, as is their wild and windy home in Sausalito, CA.