Like many baby boomers, I spent a large part of my life striving for perfection. I was determined to be a consummate professional, a loving and understanding mother, an attractive and loyal wife, and a well-informed, compassionate friend. Every task I had or created for myself had to be performed flawlessly. The meals I made couldn’t be standard—they had to be gourmet. The clothes I wore (being that I am Italian doesn’t help!) had to be flattering and up-to-date. My hair had to be trimmed and styled every six weeks; my home had to sparkle—I wouldn’t consider leaving my house with a single throw pillow out of place. On top of that, I was convinced that I had to have multiple children (I failed), attend every function in which my daughter was involved, entertain friends with utmost style, keep my figure in immaculate shape, engage in charity events, and stay informed on news, politics, fashion, and books—all the while maintaining a breezy, can-do, cheerful attitude.
That’s a lot of hads.
And, like most women, I ran myself into the ground trying to maintain my pace on the treadmill of what’s supposedly expected of us in life. My exhaustion and bitterness transformed into an undeniable need to do something drastic. Rather than saying no to invitations, lessening my hold on the idea of perfection, reducing my activities, asking for help, and finding time for myself, I jumped off the treadmill altogether and fell on my knees.
I quit my job. I gave up trying to have another child. I abandoned friendships without offering an explanation. I let myself go, then my house, then my wish to be considered a pleasant person. My anger and frustration were easily set off, and frankly I didn’t care. I went into retreat for a full five years.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Ignoring life and its demands doesn’t in fact make either go away. When I emerged from my fog, they remained the same, only they had much more edge and terror to them because I’d forgotten how to cope with crises in constructive ways. I’d alienated myself from my family and friends and the identity I’d always known. The job I’d excelled at was taxing, but it kept me connected to a world outside of my home. I missed it. I missed a lot of things. I also knew that forcing myself back into the rat race would one day kill me. Self-doubt would creep in and so I’d overcompensate. My inability to decline invitations and say no to favors would fill up my calendar to the point of bursting. The pressure to not only have it all and do it all but to attain perfection in every one of my endeavors would send my blood pressure skyrocketing towards astronomical levels.
I’ve long looked for answers in literature, and so I returned to school. I needed to understand why women—particularly in Western cultures—are compelled to accomplish more than they’re capable of. I needed to understand why I felt the need to keep my challenging, time-consuming profession and operate as a present, loving, on-the-ball, full-time caretaker of my husband and daughter at the same time. All of it left me feeling fragmented and perpetually anxious.
In Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, which was published this week, author Debora L. Spar argues that at every stage of a woman’s life—from childhood to old age—women “are straining to reach impossible standards.” As the President of Barnard College and a mother to three children, she recognizes the unfeasibility in attempting to balance so many roles. “My generation made a mistake,” Ms. Spar writes. “We took the struggles and the victories of feminism and interpreted them somehow as a pathway to personal perfection. We privatized feminism and focused only on our dreams and our own inevitable frustrations.”
The “relentless pressure to be perfect in every area,” as Spar puts it, is prevalent but its pervasiveness shouldn’t poison us, and it shouldn’t dictate the way we live. We suffer more by attempting to have and do it all. The diligence required holds us back from realizing the happiness we think we’ll find through accomplishing everything with impeccability. The opportunities to have quiet, tender, and meaningful moments with our children and spouses are lost because we don’t have the time to notice them. Our health fails. Our emotional stability falters. Our energy and passion for activities we once loved dies prematurely because we are tired to the bone.
We can let go of this unhealthy fixation with perfection. We can live more fulfilling lives. Here are five simple, humble steps you can take towards that goal:
1) Allow room in your life for imperfection. Your child won’t notice the floor that needs to be mopped. He will, however, notice your preoccupation with cleaning when he asks you to read in bed to him and your mind is elsewhere. Set down the cleaning supplies, open a book for him, embrace the moment, and realize his need for you will last only so long. Relish it now.
2) Delegate. If you’re a wonder woman like I once thought I was, you think you can handle it all alone. Sweetie: You can’t. Ask your spouse to assist you. Insist your children do chores. Take up your best friend’s offer to babysit so you can take that dance class you’ve been talking about for months. It doesn’t make you weak to ask for help—it reveals your fortitude.
3) Let go of self-consciousness. A large part of the pressure I faced as a young mother and avid achiever was the wish to look impeccable and act accordingly at all times. I had to look fabulous. I had to be the best student in yoga. I had to be hip to the newest restaurants and spas. It’s a façade, and it fades fast. Remember that it is the essence of you that matters most—not your clothes, or your shade of lipstick, or where you dined at last. Relax into the knowledge that you are your own worst judge. Be kind to yourself.
4) Appreciate what you have. In our desire to keep up with others, we lose our handle on what we should be grateful for, whether it’s that cute sofa we worked for months to purchase or that advanced degree that’s now framed on the wall or that credit card we’ve at long last paid off or the vegetable garden we planted that’s now flourishing. Taking a few moments out of each day to value what you’ve accomplished will work wonders in terms of self-confidence, motivation, and a desire to help others achieve the same.
5) Slow down. In our effort to have and do it all, we lose sight of the small comforts that can be found in life’s simplicities. We’re too consumed with worry to taste the first splash of spring in a peach; we’re too busy to notice that our spouse went out of his way to wash our car while we were on a client call. If you allow yourself to pause and notice the beauty around you, you’ll feel less of a need to throw yourself into a lifestyle that isn’t nearly as rewarding as you might think. Be calm, step back, smile, and breathe.
Perfection from afar might appear idyllic. If you look closer, however, you’ll notice the cracks from pressure, tension, and discontent. By embracing a “second best” attitude, you’ll find greater satisfaction in life and love.
More from living