I’m totally convinced my wife is healthier than I. That’s difficult to admit because, for years, I’ve operated on the notion that, somehow, I cared more, was more judicious, took more pains to avoid mistakes and strove harder to achieve and live up to an image of perfection. I’ve finally come to the realization that all those behaviors were neurotic, totally impossible to succeed at and, in sum total, a losing proposition. Let me try to explain.
Harriet, or “H” as I affectionately call her, is a person who, 50% of the time will leave a restaurant with evidence of the meal she ate on her clothes. At times, she attributes it to “That’s me”, or “You know Scorpios, they’re all that way”. Nevertheless, I have always had an uncomfortable feeling about her explanation . It struck me as an excuse, that in reality, she didn’t care, or wasn’t willing to exercise the discipline to think things entirely through in order to avoid some of the minor mishaps she experiences in life. For example, one Sunday we joined a couple for brunch. When we arrived home, “H” discovered numerous stains on her white jeans and her white overshirt which clearly gave evidence to the fact that we had gone to a Mexican restaurant and that she ordered eggs with chorizo and homefries. Her reaction? “Well, thank God for Shout and the Clorox stain remover pen.” As is frequently the case, I was stunned. Her response hardly seemed an adequate solution. Instead, it struck me that, if she had taken the time, she would have realized that when you roll up several ingredients in a tortilla, there’s bound to be leakage at one end or the other and, if you’re not careful or eating directly over your plate, it’s certain to drip on your clothing. Even further, I know that this wasn’t a case of me just being critical of “H”. If I had made the same blunder, the judgement and emotional pain I would have inflicted on myself would have been far greater. Even now, I can hear the criticisms I’d utter to myself. “How could you be so stupid? Why were you so careless? You knew that would happen if you didn’t fold one end of the tortilla up or lean over the table to avoid an accident of that type.” I would be unmercifully unforgiving of myself and punitive because of my lack of perfection.
By now, it should be apparent that I have little tolerance for any shortcoming in myself. At the same time, it’s utterly confusing to me how “H” can accept her behavior so easily, in spite of her imperfections. To my past way of thinking, her reaction was a form of coping mechanism that allows her to tolerate unacceptable behavior. But, unacceptable in whose eyes? No one who knows “H”, other than me, seems concerned about these actions. It doesn’t matter to them that she always carries packets of stain remover in her bag. In fact, several of them (also Scorpios, which blows my mind) are delighted at the availability of those packets when they, themselves, demonstrate similar behavior.
That’s when I had the epiphany. Perhaps the issue would be more readily understandable to me if I viewed her behavior as normal and mine as a manifestation of neuroses. Possibly, I should be the one looking at myself and asking why I am so critical of her behavior. After all, in the total scheme of living life, what’s so terrible about my being able to track her travels through the house by the lights she leaves on as she goes from room to room? How devastating is it if her white jeans need to go through the washing machine two or three times instead of once? And what difference does it make if she doesn’t complete one task before starting two others? But, most of all, what I really need to ask is why am I so terribly critical of myself? What is it that I’m trying to achieve by my constant state of alertness, lest I spill something, or make some other catastrophic mistake? You see, my behavior may portray another, more important insight, which is that “H” can easily accept herself with her idiosyncracies, shortcomings and inadequacies while I, on the other hand, have difficulty fully accepting who and what I am. Is it possible, then, that my need for perfection, my drive to ensure that I eliminate errors and my concern, sometimes accompanied by irritation over what I perceive to be my wife’s, children’s and friends’ shortcomings, doesn’t stem from their behavior, but from what others will think of me because of my relationships with them? Further, can it be that my perfectionism is the result of a need that developed early in my life to be a good person, a good boy, one who lives up to expectations, who is the son a mother could brag about, one whose parents could say, “He never caused me a day’s worth of trouble. He was no problem. He’s a very special young man.”
Lest you view this article as a stage for my personal catharsis, let me state that this example has far greater significance than Ed Reitman’s personal idiosyncracies. It can best be summarized by the notion that, in the end, it isn’t what you do or don’t do, or how well you do it that counts. What does matter is how well you live with yourself, no matter how successful you may or may not be. Consequently, the degree to which you can accept you, with all your failings, shortcomings and insufficiencies, along with your ability to laugh at, rather than punish yourself after you’ve erred is what really counts. The reason is that we’re all human and, because of that, we’re bound to have inadequacies and to occasionally fall short. In the end, if you can view yourself in this manner, you’ll see that people are laughable. All of which adds up to the fact that you needn’t be perfect, you can fail, have shortcomings, cause your parents, spouse and children problems and still be loveable. What a relief!