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Resolute Imperfection

New year, new resolutions.  I'm a big believer in goals and I like to make plans; unlike many people, I actually enjoy making New Year's resolutions.   But his year I'm trying to scale back.  In the past, my New Year's list tended to look like a cross between Martha Stewart's, Oprah Winfrey's, and Margaret Atwood's: 

  1. Organize entire house, plant vegetable patch and can my own baby food.
  2. Lose forty pounds, switch to an all-organic, vegetarian diet, and run twenty miles a day.
  3. End world hunger.
  4. Write great American novel, Tony-award winning play, and honest and touching memoir about my grandmother.
  5. For February. . .

You get the idea.

I'm a recovering perfectionist.  For years, I thought it was all or nothing; it wasn't worth doing something if I couldn't do it perfectly, all at once.   I overcommitted, because I couldn't prioritize -- it all had to be done and it all had to be perfect.  I was impatient -- I didn't have time for incremental steps or small improvements.   And I was anxious -- I couldn't get started because to commit to a project meant making it concrete and real, which inevitably introduces the possibility of failure (I'd like to believe that recognizing the cause of my procrastination has allowed me to meet my commitments in a more timely fashion, but I regret to report that it's January eighth, and I'm still working on this column that was due on January second).

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Some psychologists theorize that perfectionism is rooted in the fear of death:  the perfectionist feels that if she can just get it right, if she can just get it all under control, than she'll never die.   But of course, no matter how much of a control freak you are, no matter how hard you try, how much you worry, everybody dies.  Death comes for the people who put hospital corners on their beds and the ones who never make their beds, for the people who refuse to dance because they don't know the steps and the ones without rhythm who make fools of themselves on the dance floor anyway.   It's the ultimate thing we can't control and it's emblematic of all the other things that are beyond our power to predict or prevent.

I keep learning this, and forgetting it and relearning it: I am not in control.   Graduate school put the first cracks in my delusions of grandeur.  Miscarrying my first baby brought it home painfully.   Raising children, who come into this world  with their own personalities and immediately begin asserting them at the top of their lungs, constantly reinforces it.

In my less egotistical moments, I can acknowledge that it's probably better that I'm not in control, because, as much as I hate to admit it, I don't have all the answers.   Some of the best things in my life have also been the least expected, the things I never would have asked for.  There's a lot to be said for serendipity.   Perfectionism may be a way to fight death, but it's also akin to rigor mortis, static and boring and not much fun.  I want to be engaged in my life, not holding back for fear of screwing it all up.

I can't let go of resolutions completely; I need the focus that goals provide, but I'm trying to cut myself some slack on achieving them.   One friend of mine has a single goal this year, to avoid mediocrity.  Instead, I'm going to try to embrace mediocrity.   Because sometimes the important thing is that you did something, not that it was done with absolute perfection (there's a whole lot of housework that falls into this category -- so long as the bed is made, who cares if the sheets aren't perfectly square?), and because I don't want to avoid doing things out of fear of failure.   As Ms. Frizzle says on The Magic School Bus, I want to "take chances, make mistakes, and get messy."  I'm not there yet (only a recovering perfectionist could feel like a failure because she isn't instantaneously cured of her perfectionist tendencies), but I'm making progress.

So this year, my goals are a little less lofty.  I'm trying to remember that small, simple steps can be enough, and to break my goals down into incremental stages.   It's how I lost thirty pounds in 2006, so I know it works.  Now if I can just hold onto that realization and apply it to other areas of my life!   I'm also trying to make some fun resolutions, so it's not all drudgery and toil: two of my goals for 2007 are "be kind to myself" and "do things in Austin that I've never done before."   I'm tired of trying to be perfect, I just want to be me.
About the Author:  
Melissa Lipscomb
lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Visit her blog.



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