"Contrary to my long-held beliefs, doing an imperfectly fine job isn't shameful or embarrassing." Photo: Stocksy
In my gynaecologist's dimly lit examination room, I told her she was perfect. "I think you're perfect". It sort of slipped out, involuntarily and awkwardly. She bit her lip and replied, "I'm imperfect but trying my best". I nodded, "Yes, of course." We dropped the subject.
I'm very fond of my gynaecologist. She is kind, professional and intelligent, with a great bedside manner. When she had walked in a moment earlier, she'd begun telling me about a patient who gave her a nasty review online. She seemed troubled by it and I felt compelled to make her feel better.
A day later, I remembered my "perfect" comment and recounted the incident to a friend. "Did you boop her on the nose after you'd said it?" he teased. We giggled into our glasses of wine. It was a funny story and one easily forgotten, but I continued to mull over the exchange – it bothered me that I had chosen the word 'perfect'.
Perfect isn't a word I use to describe others or myself often, the reason being that I'm generally opposed to it. It's an inutile descriptive because clearly, nobody is perfect. The dictionary definition is "excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement", as well as "exactly fitting the need in a certain situation or for a certain purpose". No person is beyond improvement or "exactly" anything, yet it's a compliment given to people and things regularly, without much thought.
A few years ago, I became aware of a hidden desire to be perfect, a tendency that had been disguising itself since childhood. This is never something I would have dared say out loud or even admit to myself because – for obvious reasons – it seems so pretentious. I hate it when people say they're perfectionists.
Yet, it was the best way to describe the overwhelming pressure I'd put on myself to be the best that I could be. While in and of itself perfection isn't a necessarily destructive goal, the way it had manifested in my life was more inhibiting than motivational. I had become so afraid of being sub-par that I'd begun subconsciously setting the bar low. I was "exactly fitting the need in a certain situation", but I had been careful to make sure that "situation" was always within my capabilities and not further. It was safer than pursuing something seemingly unattainable and falling short. Mediocrity terrified me but I was embodying it.
Researcher and author Dr Brene Brown has made a living out of trying to dismantle this kind of thought behaviour. "I've failed miserably, many times," says Brown in one of her TED talks. "I don't think the world understands that, because of shame." She explains that striving for perfection is motivated by the belief that it will help us avoid or minimise feelings of shame and judgement. Daring ourselves to try something we may not be great at makes us vulnerable and many of us choose to avoid the emotional risk, exposure and uncertainty.
The simple decision to distance myself from 'perfection' sparked a change within me; within a few months, I had changed jobs and switched careers. I dared to start my own projects; those things, hidden and locked away, that I had fantasised about doing one day. I was moving with new momentum and embracing it; and at the core of this transition were new expectations, that were far more realistic but just as terrifying. I'd raised the bar, but I might never reach it.
In her book Stroke of Insight, neurologist Jill Bolte Taylor recounts her experience of having a stroke and her subsequent recovery. At 37, doctors removed a blood clot the size of a golf ball from her brain. When she awoke from surgery, she had barely any memory of her previous life and the person she had been. In spite of all the challenges that came with her rehabilitation, Taylor says that ultimately, she was grateful for the opportunity to press the reset button. It meant that she was able to inadvertently let go of many of the things that had held her back up to that moment. Past insecurities, resentments or self-expectations – dismissed. What rare freedom.
In an attempt to press my own reset button, I have decided to eliminate the word perfect from my vocabulary. It is not a standard by which I wish to judge myself, my work or those around me. The most rewarding part of this journey has a been embracing imperfection. Contrary to my long-held beliefs, doing an okay job isn't shameful or embarrassing. It's liberating. I've come to interpret perfection as wholly restricting: beyond improvement actually means being opposed to it – and resistant to growth.
Learning to let go of perfection is a process, and occasionally, I'll still stumble upon the word, sometimes unexpectedly, like when talking to my gynaecologist. As soon as I'd said it, I realised how pointless it was. But my doctor had already figured it out and we moved on to something more important.