Expecting Perfection

A funny thing came up in Paul’s session last week. His 8-month-old black lab puppy Hobo chewed on his watch because Paul was sleeping and wouldn’t wake up and play. Paul was irate and so disappointed in Hobo that he wanted to get rid of him. “He’s not perfect anymore,” Paul lamented. “Now I don’t want anything to do with him.”

As a person who struggled with perfectionism for most of my adult life, I bristled at this.

“Of course he’s not perfect,” I said. “He’s a puppy. He makes mistakes. This is what learning looks like, right?” 

Paul could acknowledge this, but it didn’t help much. His counselor pushed him to talk more about this expectation of perfection, and that’s when Paul said this interesting thing: “I expect everyone and everything around me to be perfect. But I don’t expect that of myself.”

Funny, I always expected the opposite: I held myself to perfection but no one else.

Since I am a recovered perfectionist, I can tell you very matter-of-factly about the rise and fall of my self view. Growing up I was told that my father was perfect and I believed it. Now I see that was a bit of motherly boasting as I too felt that my sons were perfect simply because they had mastered the art of breathing. It was a bit of a joke but I took it seriously. Which, if my father mastered perfection, then just maybe so could I. So I set about being perfect which is quite difficult, especially since it’s so hard to nail down what is perfect and what is not. I was drowning under this pursuit until I realized what a burden perfection was, what an obligation I laid on my father and so I released him from that expectation and, in doing so, released myself. Where once my mistakes were shameful and sent me into spirals of despair, now I laugh at my foibles, saying “wow, would you look at that?!” Not being perfect is a joyful thing.

Now I find out Paul expects me to be perfect and it explains a lot about why it was so difficult to teach him to drive. I had to tell him precisely everything that was going to happen: which drivers would turn without signaling, which lane to get in to bypass traffic, which turn to take to destinations I’d never been to. If I was wrong, Paul would get irate and call me a lousy teacher, that he would never learn to drive because I was such a poor instructor. (Eventually, despite my imperfection at predicting the future in all things vehicular, he got his license. He still delights in telling me about every error made by others on the road.)

When I discovered that Paul expects me to be perfect, I set him straight. Too much of a burden, I told him. I can’t live up to that, don’t want to. I wonder why he has exempted himself from perfection, if it’s because he feels so different from others, has always felt different, because he had so much feedback so early and so persistently that he’s not perfect. Or maybe he likes the security of all being perfect around him, like the walls of a fortress, because his internal world is so shaky. And maybe that’s why I yearned for perfection back then: I wanted to be those fortress walls in an external world that is such a shaky place.

Neither of us can have a fulfilled view. Paul’s world cannot be unshakeable and I cannot make it so. We roll with the waves, we ride the wind, we search the canyon for a speck of forgiveness that others are not as we expect them to be, and we play with the dog who only wants to be with us, no matter who we are, his only expectation that we love him and forgive him his trespasses in this joyful world.

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Gretchen Stahlman

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