This afternoon, I sat in a circle and introduced myself. I was visiting a group (Al Anon) you can find in just about any city in the world, and many of the towns as well. A group that deals with steps that deal with boundaries and self-love (among many, many other things). The topic today was perfection, and the women around me had quite a lot to say.
I am home in the U.S. for almost two months, doing my now-normal couch-hopping marathon in which I start at an emotional sprint and after a couple weeks find myself low on electrolytes and discombobulated by the constant movement. Today’s meeting was a great chance to sit back and listen to the wise words of a number of women with a few decades head start on self-actualization.
Perfection, it seems, is a trigger for many of us. Story after story came forth about the many “perfection prisons” a woman can put herself in. Work is, of course, a big one. Motherhood? Check. Family roles in general? Double check.
The meeting was especially timely for me. Over the weekend I had spent some time with a very special young woman in my life. Because I live abroad and my visits home are always limited, I put a lot of expectations on my time here. I do this with her especially, trying to fit in all my “big sister” advice, guidance, listening and friendship into these tiny pockets of time.
This Sunday, however, I was tired. I’d spent the previous weekend with friends, two of whom had horrible colds that I’d been working to avoid. I’d driven hundreds of miles in the last few days, doing my best to get places in time to share a meal and to maximize the chunks of time offered. In all this running around, my emotional reserves were tapped from taking in the reality of lives lived while I’m away, but not wanting to mar my time with people by delving into the emotions that various issues arouse.
Unfortunately, this led to my actions falling far short of perfection, and I was overly honest and in some ways insensitive when discussing a situation that touches both our lives. I had so much of my own processing to do, I wasn’t thinking about how my words might affect this person, but looking back I see that they did. All my intentions to provide love, encouragement and a message of how important she is to me were overshadowed by my inability to censor my blunt observations of this larger situation.
I do not know a worse feeling than the knowledge that you have hurt someone you cherish. The sucker punch to the gut feeling still lingers with the knowledge that I “messed up,” the bruise that much darker given my good intentions for that time together. Thankfully, two days later as I sat at that meeting and could start processing the experience, the reminder that perfection is an illusion provided a little bit of comfort. The truth is, every moment presents an opportunity to mess up, just as it presents an opportunity to do good. It is not realistic to think we will always achieve the latter, and sometimes we simply have to give ourselves grace in acknowledging the former.
My mom recently shared the only version of perfection that she has ever been able to embrace, something she learned from a professor many years ago. As she says, “perfection can only exist in a moment, solely in a person’s ability to respond or act in the manner in which the situation calls for.” Thus we can work to be mindful, aware, evolved, mature or sympathetic enough to offer grace, forgiveness, encouragement or love etc. when called for – rather than fear, anger, resentment or guilt.
I have to admit, I haven’t yet forgiven myself for the far cry from perfection my life is these days. Thankfully, even though I’m on the “road,” this afternoon’s meeting reminded that my struggle is not unique: there is an alternate path in which the search for perfection is more about learning from mistakes, than avoiding them all together.