Pitching Perfection

Most of us remember seventh grade, and few of us remember it fondly.

For me, it involved glasses and braces, two broken arms (within five months), and stringy long hair that suddenly needed more than one wash per week.

Jan Brady, of TV’s “The Brady Bunch,” was my idol, and even she felt awkward about wearing glasses. (She resented her “perfect” older sister, lamenting the attention going towards “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”)

For others, seventh grade comprised acne, weight gain, lower grades (often due to distraction), clumsiness, social exclusion and even bullying.

No matter how we managed or suffered through that age, most of us recall it as a time where we started comparing ourselves to others, and started setting unrealistic expectations for ourselves. (Note: If you have a child close to that age, consider these great tips from wikihow.com.)

House drawingI love the advice from Ask.com: No one is perfect. If you try to be perfect, there will always be someone who thinks otherwise and will always be disappointed that you are not living up to their expectations. Just be yourself.

At the same time, our children receive mixed messages about perfection from their parents, teachers, coaches, piano teachers and peers. We celebrate their coloring within the lines, dressing themselves without mixing stripes and plaids, scoring goals in micro-soccer and memorizing all their spelling words.

From the get-go, our children feel pressured to work hard in school, excel on the field, dress appropriately – or even fashionably – bathe regularly, avoid cavities and act kindly towards others.

The reality is that few kids will earn 100 percent on every homework assignment and test, bat over .500 or lead the conference in touchdowns, wear wrinkle- and stain-free clothes each day, wake up in time to shower and straighten or braid hair every morning, regularly reply appropriately to nagging teachers, parents or coaches and resist the temptation to snap at friends making mean comments.

As a parent, I want my kids to know that perfection is overrated, and that while it’s important to set high goals for ourselves, “flawless” should stay off the list. I wish they could truly understand that they are “perfect” exactly as created, whether or not that involves near-sightedness, crooked teeth, acne, hyper-activity, math challenges, hand-eye coordination issues, skinny legs (as a boy) or muscular thighs (as a girl).

I want my daughter to know that she is wonderful exactly as-is, and doesn’t need to spend hours each morning straightening her already-curl-free hair, covering up blemishes and wondering if her thighs are too bulky (not at all; she’s a dancer).

I wish my oldest son, who struggled more than a little this past year, could believe that we never asked for perfection, and we didn’t – and still don’t – expect him to act exactly like his siblings or friends.

I wish I had worked harder, when my kids were little, to discuss and celebrate my own flaws and, therefore, give permission for imperfection.

To be clear, I did try to highlight my mistakes when the kids were younger; I would laugh and say, “Oops, Mommy goofed!” or, “I guess they’ll haul me off to BMJ (Bad Mommy Jail) for that one!” However, I’m not convinced that I, or my kids, ever believed I was absolutely at peace with my own imperfections.

I do set high standards for myself and others. I want to appear to have everything under control at all times. I don’t lash out at my friends. My flaws  scream at me from the mirror. I try to hide my hurt and my self-doubt.

Fortunately, I recently happened upon a fascinating book by Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection (Hazelden, 2010). (I missed the boat, but apparently Oprah offered a six-week eCourse related to the book, promising to help participants “move from how you think you’re supposed to be…and embrace who you ARE.”)

In her book, Brown suggests that many of us, subconsciously, set prerequisites for our own happiness and self-worth, with hurdles such as, “I’ll be worthy when I lose twenty pounds…if everyone thinks I’m a good parent…when I make partner…when I can do it all and look like I’m not even trying.”

Brown stresses that we must convince ourselves that we are “Worthy now. Not if. Not when…Right this minute. As is.”

The downside of believing otherwise is, according to Brown, shame. She notes that “shame is all about fear. We’re afraid that people won’t like us if they know the truth about who we are, where we come from, what we believe, how much we’re struggling, or believe it or not, how wonderful we are when soaring.”

Brown states that this resulting shame “is related to violence, aggression, depression, addiction, eating disorders and bullying.”

Perhaps that’s why so many superstars and celebrities who appear “perfect” are hiding cracks beneath the surface. For example, the gymnast Nadia Comaneci, who at age 14 made history earning not just one, but seven perfect 10s in the 1976 Summer Olympics, didn’t think her routines were flawless.  Several decades later, when asked about her winning performances, she noted:  “I never felt they were perfect. They were very good, but I still could have been better.”

Even Marcia Brady (Maureen McCormick) struggled with high ideals for herself. A 2008 article related to the release of McCormick’s memoir, “Here’s the Story: Surviving Marcia Brady and Finding My True Voice,” states that after the show ended, she “spiraled downward into substance abuse and depression as she struggled to reconcile her Marcia Brady image of the girl next door with her private pain.”

I hope today’s teenagers actually listen to the words of pop singer Pink’s  “F**kin’ Perfect” (2010), as she urges, “pretty, pretty please, don’t you ever, ever feel, that you’re less than, less than perfect.” She adds, “Change the voices in your head. Let them like you instead.”

More than a few of us adults could learn from this wisdom, too. I also plan to heed the advice of the esteemed essayist Anna Quindlen, who noted in a commencement speech, “The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” 

-       Linda Williams Rorem, 11 Nov. 2013
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Comments

  1. Great post, Linda. Brene Brown is my hero–her new book, Daring Greatly, is excellent also. It’s like a course in understanding people and ourselves. Just read about a great website in Oprah called the Awkward Years on Tumblr where adults share photos of how incredibly awkward they looked at that age (I remember 7th grade well as the epitome of awkwardness and misery, with braces, glasses, and a shag haircut!) It seems like a great way to show kids we all suffered through those years and came out on the other side. awkwardyearsproject.com.

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