When I Was Five

I listened to the meeting leader read a page from one of our daily readers on perfection, and the ills that trying to be perfect can bring to your life. As we went around the room and people shared their thoughts on the subject, most people spoke about the effort it took to try to live up to impossible standards. Perfectionism leads to disappointment in yourself and wears you out.

One person talked about the fact that she has a job where there isn’t enough funding to hire a second person to take on some of the casework at her social services job, so sometimes she doesn’t get done what is expected of her. She often takes work home on the weekend and uses her own time to try to catch up. She thought maybe doing her best was good enough. She didn’t have to be perfect.

Perfectionism is different than having high standards. Perfectionism means that when you have ten things to do in a day on your “to do” list, you have to get all ten things done whether it is humanly possible to do so or not. You put in extra hours just to get that list crossed off no matter what. The likely result is that you don’t get any of those things done well, but you get them done. Then you get to resent other people who don’t have your work ethic. You often don’t get any recognition for trying hard, either.

I could relate. In my family of origin, I was expected to be a top student. I had a high IQ, after all, so I should get straight A’s in everything. It didn’t matter whether a subject was tedious, or boring to me, I was expected to perform according to someone else’s idea of what a good job looked like. If I had four A’s and one B, I heard about the B, not my success in other areas.

I listened to other people’s ruminations and suddenly a little lightbulb went off. Perfectionism, for me, meant that I had a lot of secrets. The farther away from a particular expectation I felt, the deeper and darker that secret became. The more I heard about how imperfect I was, the deeper the shame I felt about myself.

Life, in the normal course of events, hands you a lot of trying situations to deal with. Sometimes we make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes are big. Failure wasn’t even on the radar, never mind that it might be a helpful stepping off place to a new way of being in the world.

Once, when I was a senior in high school, I painted a picture I liked of mountains by the ocean. I had had no formal art training since “art” was considered a waste of time by my mother, but I painted anyway. Both my parents inspected this painting.

“That sucks,” my mother announced, and walked away.

My father looked at it in silence for a couple of minutes. “The mountains are really very good,” he said. “I like the depth and light you’ve captured. The ocean doesn’t work quite as well, however. It’s a little too flat. Maybe you could try again and give it more life.”

My father was the artist. He was an award-winning landscape architect. I appreciated his honesty, but most of the time he kept his opinion about things to himself. My inner critic is my mother’s voice. Nothing was remotely good enough, no matter how much effort I put into anything.

They say we marry someone most like our problematic parent, in an effort on some level to heal the wounded inner child. If that’s true, I certainly married my mother.

For a while I was really into writing poetry. I wrote a poem I thought was particularly good one day and showed it to my husband. I interrupted his TV watching of a movie I knew he’d seen several times.

“Please read this and tell me what you think of it,” I said. I put the poem in his outstretched hand from behind the couch he was sitting on and stood, waiting for his opinion.

“That’s nice,” he said after reading it, laying the paper on the couch beside him and returning to the TV without ever glancing at me. “Now what are you going to do with it?”

It took me a long time to realize that maybe I should show my creative work to people who might actually like it, and avoid the ones I knew never would. It also took me a long time to realize maybe rejection had more to do with the critic than with my work, or especially with me.

I still haven’t taken any formal art training, but I have learned a method of painting called “process painting.” I’ve learned some good stuff through doing this. It specifically helps you deal with the places in your painting where you get derailed by the inner critic. The majority of the time that wasn’t too difficult to get around, even though I often stood in a class with wonderful artists and tried to paint.

“I’m not a trained artist,” I could say to myself. “So what if my painting is not as gorgeous as the person’s next to me?”

One day I was standing in a class painting and came to a spot where I got stuck. “That painting looks like a five-year old did it,” my inner critic sneered. I stepped back and looked at it.

“Yeah, it kinda does look like that,” I responded.

I remembered being a little kid and how much I had liked playing with paint. I remembered the sunlight as it came through the big windows. It was definitely a happy place.

“Wow! My inner five-year old is alive and well,” I thought. “How cool is that?”

I finished the painting easily.

My mother is dead and I divorced my husband. I like myself ever so much more now than I have at times in the past. When the voice of that inner critic rears her ugly head, I can usually say, “Thank you for your opinion,” and move on.

I still struggle with some of my “secrets;” things I am afraid of sharing for the judgment I might receive. I’ve learned, however, that most of the time, when I find the courage to talk about what I perceive as my own failings, I end up feeling much closer to the person with whom I’ve shared. Most of the time other people have struggled with very similar issues, no matter how dark.

It’s such a relief not to have to be perfect.

Progress, not perfection, is the way for me.


  1. This topic of perfectionism and secrets is very important and seldom talked about. I also find perfectionism very paralyzingly and probably the root cause of most of my depression. It’s been a challenging week so far, reading this has given me some insight into my own sadness, which is good 🙂

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