Many of us still fall for the Cinderella fantasy of falling in love with Prince Charming and living happily ever after. We strive for perfection in relationships with family and friends. We want to find the perfect spouse, live in the perfect house where we raise perfect children who receive all As, win first place medals, attend prestigious colleges on full scholarships, and establish successful careers. These perfect offspring then repeat the cycle. In other words we may want the perfect family, even though it’s an illusion. Those of us whose loved ones abuse substances have families that scream imperfection. We feel inadequate, ashamed, unworthy. Fueled by fear and uncertainty we behave in less than perfect ways and often berate ourselves for doing so. “Why did I lose my temper again?” “Why can’t I mind my own business?” “Why am I letting her push my buttons?” “Why do I continue to make excuses for him?” “When will I ever learn to say 'no'?" (A friend reminds me that “no” is a complete sentence.)
We struggle to make difficult decisions and second guess their usefulness. Do we help or do we harm? “Should I have bailed him out of jail this time?” “Can I really trust her to pay the rent with the money I sent?” “Is he sincere about rehab or is this just another manipulation?” “Should I have lent him my car?” It’s hard to make these tough decisions, and we learn there aren’t any perfect ones.
In an insightful TED talk on the power of vulnerability, Brene Brown (link), says “…we perfect, most dangerously, our children”. She suggests that we need to recognize that everyone, including our beloved children, are hardwired for struggle, but worthy of love and belonging. In other words, we live in an imperfect world. When I listened to this talk, one slogan from my loved ones’ group came to mind. “Progress not perfection”
Progress not perfection
The Latin “perfectus” means to finish or complete. Psychologists agree that there are both positive and negative aspects to this personality trait. On the plus side it can sometimes motivate an individual to achieve a goal. (So if your goal is to provide help and support for your loved one to overcome his addiction, this trait will help. However, if your goal is to “fix” your loved one through your willfulness, then this trait can harm.) On the negative side perfectionism can drive an individual to achieve an unattainable goal, like living happily ever after with Prince Charming or accepting recovery as a done deal.
Focusing on progress frees us from the perfection trap. That trap takes many forms. We feel ashamed because our family is so messed up. So we hide, tell lies, and keep secrets. We feel frustrated because our loved ones ignore our advice. So we yell, scold, and manipulate. We focus on the past. So we rewind old tapes and play them over and over again. We worry about the future. So we enable and try to fix things. We resent having to handle this burden. So we feel sorry for ourselves. In other words, we struggle to push back against this cunning, complex disease of addiction. And we tend to beat ourselves up for acting out in these less than perfect ways.
Author and educator, Parker Palmer (link) observed this about perfection. “Whatever truthfulness I’ve achieved on this score comes not from a spiritual practice, but from having my ego so broken down and composted by life that eventually I had to yield and say, 'OK, I get it. I’m way less than perfect.' ”
When you act with kindness and compassion toward your loved one, give yourself a high five. And when you act with anger and hardheartedness, give yourself a break. Brush yourself off and move on. You get to start over each day. Practice healthy attitudes. Ditch perfection. Celebrate progress.