Perfectionism is the Enemy of Healing

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people … I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway, and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.Anne Lamott

I’ve been thinking a lot about guilt, second guessing ourselves and perfectionism ever since Chris Hornbeek wrote so beautifully and openly about her self doubts after the death of her mom — Second Guessing Myself After My Mother’s Death.

Regardless of the circumstances of our beloved’s death, guilt is often one of the feelings we’re left with. It doesn’t seem to matter how old the person was, our relationship to him/her or how he/she died. We spend time thinking about what we wish we’d said, what we regret saying, what we did or didn’t do. And most of us (all of us?) will conclude that we failed in one or more ways.

In Jimmy’s case, I felt guilty that I hadn’t pushed harder for certain treatment options. I worried that we had left Jimmy in the care of an incompetent doctor in California for too long. I obsessed over the choices we’d made on alternative treatments — did we do too many? did we not do enough? I even went back to his childhood and agonized over decisions I’d made, the times I’d been impatient or critical, the hours when I put work ahead of spending time with him.

When my mom died, I wondered if I had fought hard enough to get her the care she needed during her final hospital stay. Should I have gone to San Jose more often when she had medical issues and needed to see the doctor repeatedly — a broken wrist, cataract surgery — rather than letting her friends and caregiver handle those appointments? And I wished I could take back all the times I got irritated or snapped at her for suggesting I make a different choice in the kind of cucumbers I was buying.

The abyss of guilt and perfectionism is a horrible place to spend your time. And when you are grief stricken over the death of someone you don’t want to live without, every minute you spend there keeps you from healing.

What ultimately got me out of the abyss were Jimmy and Mom. What would they have wanted? Not this. Not me sitting here spending (wasting!) time worrying about whether I did the right things, made the correct choices, acted perfectly. Neither of them were about perfectionism. They were about goodness, decency, openness, honesty, fairness, love and showing up. They instinctively knew that Ernest Hemingway was right when he said, “We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.”

Life isn’t about perfection. It’s about loving other people. Doing your best given the circumstances. Embracing this sweet, messy life — the love, the loss, the joy, the pain and the beauty that’s always there, no matter what. It’s remembering what my beloved friend Regina told me as Jimmy was dying, and I was second-guessing every parenting decision I had ever made:

Margo, sweet Margo — listen to me. You are Jimmy’s and Molly’s best momma. Their Only momma — flawed and beautiful and perfect for them. You have done everything right. Life is hard — NOT you. They would have gone insane if you had been there every moment. You showed them about real life and aspirations and talent. You did it right. You are their TRUE NORTH. Lay that down — those thoughts are misguided and too heavy for you to carry. These may be the days of soul wrenching exhaustion and fear and dread but make no mistake — LOVE is all around you.

Small piece of yellow broken pottery with a peace sign above the word LOVE sitting on the sand at Pismo Beach

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