(Dr. Norquist is on vacation this week. We are re-running a letter that was published earlier in this column.)
Dear Dr. Norquist:
My husband says I have a problem with wanting things to be too perfect all the time. I guess he has a point. Sometimes I get too upset over mistakes I make at work and I do expect a lot of myself and I guess of him as well. But isn’t that what we should do – try our best for perfection? My parents, (especially my dad) always wanted perfection from me, in my grades, my looks, and my swimming meets (when I was in high school). He would be so proud of me when I did well. I guess I’ve carried this into my marriage and my husband feels hemmed in by it. So, being perfect for him means not being too perfect or expecting him to be too perfect. You see how I can’t seem to get beyond this way of thinking? Is it bad to want perfection?
Dr. Norquist responds:
There is certainly nothing wrong with trying to do your best. However, some people become addicted to seeking perfection in themselves, others and the world. This creates a strain in their relationship with themselves and others, and makes for an experience in life that is mostly heavy, burdensome and lacking in contentment. They usually believe that their worth is related to their level of perfection in whatever area they have deemed to matter most to those whose love and attention they seek. There is no rest, and no sustained happiness in this approach to life. If this is the case with you, it is important that you consciously recognize that your worth is innate. The way out of this search-to-feel-loveable maze is to tap into the inner experience of your own unconditional worth. This frees you from a reliance on others for your sense of loveableness.
The need for perfection in yourself and others can manifest in close interpersonal relationships as the need to control others’ behavior. Attitudes characteristic of this approach to life include judgementalness, criticism, feelings of disdain, feeling superior or inferior to others, etc. This manner of relating to self and others creates loneliness. It cuts one off from the sense of connection with self and others that we all need to survive. This sense of connectedness is as vital to the heart as air is to the lungs and the human body as a whole.
Looking for perfection in life is like trying to hold on to the perfect wave in the ocean. It lasts for a moment, then moves on, constantly changing. Try instead to learn to flow with imperfections. Practice embracing yourself, your loved ones and your life as it is, in each moment. Strive to take a light approach to life. See humor where ever you can. Pain, pleasure, mistakes, perfection, beauty, ugliness, suffering and joy – they all come and go as we are carried by the waves of life.
Using this ocean image of life may be helpful for you as you consciously focus on changing your habitual reactions to your life. Remember, the ocean can’t be controlled. It is constantly changing, so that trying to hold on to some perfect aspect of it is futile. A light, flowing acceptance of what comes your way creates a much more enjoyable experience of life. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to do your best in all your endeavors – just that there is no point in being attached to the results in this constant sea of change.
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.)Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. 2014 Chaitanya Counseling Services