Frustration and anxiety built up inside of me as I surveyed the spices and vegetables on our kitchen table yesterday afternoon. One of my goals this summer was to cook a meal for my family once a week. Right now I was attempting to prepare an Indian Lentil Soup with Rhubarb and Spinach over Lemon Rice. Wonderful memories of staying in an Indian neighborhood in London motivated me to make this complicated meal.
However, there was a problem. I did not have the exact ingredients that I needed. My mother had gone out shopping that morning and picked up several things. However the food she bought did not fit the descriptions on the recipe. Instead of fresh ginger and garlic cloves, ground ginger and roasted garlic sat on the table. What on earth would I do without the right ingredients?
Often, when things are not exactly the way I want them or think they should be, I want to give up. For years, I did not cook, draw, do sports, or tell jokes because I was inferior to my sisters. In high school, I even quit French because I did not understand the language quickly. My mom reminds me that as a young girl, if my tower of blocks tumbled I would give up out of frustration. This need for easy perfection continues in my life still. After all, what is the use if it is not perfect?
However, nothing in this world is truly perfect. Even the fastest runner can be beaten eventually by a new world record. Michelangelo would be able to point out a flaw in his art. Heroes such as Mother Theresa and Mahatma Gandhi committed acts they later regretted. Roses in their peak have blemishes, bruises, and petals missing. No one is perfect or makes perfect products.
Yet there is a great deal of pressure to be perfect. Well-meaning parents reward their children for good grades and punish them for poor ones. Magazines tweak pictures of already gorgeous models. Businesses pressure employees to fight each other for promotions. Even church youth groups label members as “holy” or “rebels.” Everywhere we look, people desire perfection from us.
However the main person who wants you to be perfect is yourself. Throughout my life, I have been bound by this desire to be and do only the very best. To make matters more difficult, perfectionism plays into all of my illnesses. Black and white thinking from Aspergers convinces me that I either fail or succeed with no grace for mistakes. Anxiety stirs up a panicky doubt in my abilities while depression drains my energy to attempt activities. My eating disorder reminds me that I will never be skinny enough for anyone to love. All of my disorders make my perfectionism even stronger; they build on each other.
Yet there is hope for me and others who struggle with perfectionism. Not any easy process, the recovery means taking baby steps every day toward self-compassion and acceptance. Instead of sticking out my tongue when I see my reflection in the bathroom mirror, I can practice a smile. When I grow angry because something is not turning out the way I envisioned, I can take a break before continuing. Or when I am making a dish and have ingredients a bit different than the recipe, I research them online and alter the meal a bit. All of these are difficult to do in the moment but become easier with practice. Although I might always be a perfectionist, I can learn to cope with it and live a life that is excellent but not perfect.