Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Good Enough

My name is Oriah, and I am a recovering perfectionist. This is not a joke. Perfectionism can be as much of an addiction as anything else, and like any other addiction it robs life of joy and wholeness. One of the concepts that the recovering perfectionist needs and resists is the idea of “good enough.”

I have a history with the phrase “good enough.” As a child my mother responded negatively when my brother or I would claim that some job around the house or a project for school was “good enough.” She called it a “slap-happy attitude,” clearly a euphemism for laziness, moral turpitude and not living up to standards held by decent people. Her position on this reinforced and dove-tailed nicely with my own perfectionism. Even now, my dear husband knows that he can push my buttons and get at least a scowl out of me by claiming (with a shrug) that something is “good enough.” I am my mother’s daughter.

I first encountered the phrase “good enough” in the context of my studies in child psychology. British physician and psychotherapist D.W. Winnicott was the first to write about the “good enough parent.” As society began to understand the negative effects of child abuse and neglect, Winnicott recognized that it was neither helpful nor realistic to set up perfectionist ideals that no parent could achieve. He wanted to reassure loving parents that they did not have to be enlightened masters or superhuman beings to offer a child the “good enough” environment and relationship needed to foster healthy mental and emotional development.

In the The Fountain of Age by Betty Friedan, an eighty-five year old woman is asked about her health. She replies that her health is “good enough.” Her health- although not without its challenges- still allows her to appreciate life, enjoy learning and participate in the world. Reading her response, I wondered about the aspects of my life where I still allow a perfectionist ideal (sometimes unconsciously and almost always secretively) to rob me of life’s joy. Having been limited at times by a chronic illness it’s hard not to posit some kind of ideal state of health as desirable. This gets more difficult with aging, and it dawns on me that no matter how well I care for myself, how well I eat, how deeply I rest, how religiously I exercise, meditate, and do yoga, my physical abilities will eventually decline. But the truth is, even with aging and bouts of Chronic Fatigue (or ME- Myalgic Encephalomyelitis as it is called in the rest of the English speaking world) my health is good enough for enjoying and participating in life. Likewise, my mental faculties are good enough for learning about the things that interest me, and my emotional self-knowledge, while never complete, is always deepening and expanding my capacity to give and receive love. So too my spiritual practice, which is never going to be consistently full of conscious awareness of every level of reality in every moment, is good enough to cultivate the faith and courage I need to live and love well.

I feel the impulse to end this blog with a caveat that reminds us that the concept of “good enough” does not mean it's okay to be careless or sloppy or lazy or undiscerning. . . . Hear how my perfectionist is mounting a rearguard action, terrified that everything will fall apart if certain standards are not adhered to? That’s okay. It’s good enough just to be aware of the perfectionist’s fear, just to take a breath and remember the wholeness. It’s good enough not to perfectly dismantle my inner perfectionist.

As Canadian poet Leonard Cohen wrote:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.


  1. Yes, I used to start every writing course I taught with Oscar Wilde's maxim: "If something is worth doing, it's worth doing badly." Too many years of too many students who wouldn't hand in work because it wasn't perfect... or couldn't go on to the second sentence until the first one was perfect.

    Particularly delightful to see your wise observations as I stay with a (mutual) friend who explains that he has lots of work written, but none of it is yet perfect enough to be seen by the world.

    And I know with my own writing how often the parts I think are perfect (a cleverly chosen vowel here, an impeccable consonant or two over there) aren't the parts that people seem to really like or be moved on. Spare a thought for poor Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, writing what he considered second rate good enough detective novels, while he worked on his GREAT books, which are forgotten and lost while Holmes stalks on.

    Is perfectionism the brain's attempt to assert its primacy over spirit? Spirit isn't perfectionist (IMHO): it just does what it does in the present. And then the brain calls it back to polish and edit.

    Sigh. There was something more I was going to get to, but my hosts are waking, and this is good enough.

  2. Thank you for writing such a deeply personal and reflective post! It must be excruciating for a perfectionist to admit a problem with perfectionism. This month, I am writing about perfectionism in my blog. Today I asked my readers to diary their own perfectionism this month, which you might be interested in reading.

  3. I remember the relief I felt one day in a previous job when an dear co-worker and friend came to my side when I was over-perfecting a project I was working on. She said to me, "Amy. There's perfect. And there's done." With a big sigh I looked at this project and realized that I had been done with it a long time ago, but kept striving for perfection that may or may not have been attainable. All it took was my commitment that it was "done" to feel so much better. All that burden lifted. I didn't worry about it. Because it was done. I could move on. Not sure that would work for everyone, but it sure helped me!

  4. Oriah....yes, thanks for this.

    Peter, your comment really touched me as well.

    Writing--like this post or a socio-political blog entry--on an issue I am interested in or moved by comes rather naturally to me (this does not mean it is an uncontrollable impulse! haha!).

    Partially because that is how I am constantly thinking, so putting it in words is not a challenge. Moreover, I am a natural born researcher, and my former education training has taught me how to "thematically connect" this thought with another article read years ago to drive home the current point. I am sure my legal conditioning helps as well.

    Creative writing? Forget it. I am my worst critic, like I am sure most. I can sit there for hours and re-write because it is just not good enough.

    I would like for you or others to expand on this: "If something is worth doing, it is worth doing badly." I have a mental block that I can't even begin to dismantle when it comes to that statement.

    As regards the "light that gets in through the cracks"...perhaps it is applicable to our creative pursuits as well. Perhaps in the not so perfect and ideal paragraphs, sentences, and sometimes even an entire story, allows the space for the reader's spirit to bring their light...and that is the point of writing after all.

  5. Interesting thoughts daughter that is a teacher wrote a paper the other day to turn in to her professor concerning her teaching style and she passed it on to me to proof...a second glance from the mom that loves and appreciates you, "No Matter What!", right? This paper is one of many for her "Masters" degree...funny label, when you have a mom that already knows you as a "Master" just by the mere devotion you have for every student you have been blessed by their mere presence and you have treated them that way. Oh well, I have never thought of myself as a "perfectionist", however, I read the paper...thought it was great and made a few minor corrections...there it is...ah ha, no red pen though:-) I just realized that the Professor may not be as nice and then I would have to get out more than my red pen for them! Oh well...we can be a product of our training environments...I am grateful that my daughter is creating a different learning environment for her students through Montesorri Style education. Thank-you Oriah for helping me to reflect:-)

  6. As an older woman, who has lived an ordinary life often thinking I was not good enough, I began the new year determined to find something to focus on and become involved with, no matter how ordinary or imperfect the results may be.
    However, during this time of self-reflection, I felt more and more disconnected, until I found a simple story that my husband had given to me that had been passed on to him by a friend. I do not know it’s origin.
    In reading the line Oriah quoted from Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”, I thought I would share a short version of this story.
    A woman had two pots, each hung on an end of a pole she carried on her shoulders, as she walked to the stream to gather water. One pot was perfect and held all the water placed into it; the other was cracked so arrived at her house only half full. The perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, but the cracked pot was ashamed of its imperfection, feeling itself unworthy.
    Finally, the imperfect pot said to the woman “I am ashamed of myself because the crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house.”
    The woman smiled and said, “Did you not notice there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other side? Without you being just the way you are, there wouldn’t be this beauty to grace our lives.”
    In reading this I have realized that it is not only the light that can enter the crack, but the crack also allows a means to offer the water that can bring beauty. Our imperfections allow the giving and receiving of an individual life.
    I will always feel like an outsider looking in, not quite good enough, but at least this encourages me to be willing to show up and be willing to give what I am able, open myself to what is offered, and to experience all those things I love in whatever way I can.

  7. Every week I get a bit of wisdom delivered via email to my inbox. This weeks words are as follows: "Perfectionism is self- abuse of the highest order" ~ Anne Wilson Schaff~
    These words strike me as somewhat true. For how many times have I thought of doing something but have not even started because I am afraid of not doing it right. I don't know that I can even count that high. Fear plays along with that perfectionist ideal that I have and then they gang up on me to achieve nothing. I am learning to let go of that perfectionist way of thinking and just go with the flow- let things happen as they may. I must say I am enjoying this way of life much better. It is much more forgiving and enjoyable for a start.

  8. you know Oriah...(and others) I don't really follow (at least not regularly) many blogs/websites (actually any but this and another)...

    it has less to do with content and more to do with the energy required to properly engage with the content and comments...

    i come here every week because sometimes i am reminded that this world is not such a bad place after all and not because what you write and others' respond is a self-help-quick-fix nor is it a place to rant about all that is not as functional with our lives and the world...but that some people wake up and want to participate with the beauty and the pathos of moments that make up our experiences. the sparkle of active engagement. and to know you are part of larger glitterdust of this cosmos.

  9. Oriah .........I was abused and neglected as a child. So somewhere in there I got two messages that I fought with 1) I am not good enough 2) I am not important.
    During therapy many years ago my therapist said "by whose standards aren't you good enough?" this gave me pause - and I started to heal. HOWEVER I still can get triggered by these "core beliefs" and am now able to recognize.
    what is going on.
    Ah but it still gets me at times, I still want to be "good enough" and " important enough".
    The best I can do is my best and the learning of self care and self love has helped.
    The amazing thing to me is that at my age it's still in there. I just don't have to let them win.
    Survivor Thriver, liver of I

    what made my day today was the Cohen quote !!!

  10. "No one ever empathizes with a perfect being." - Jeremy Rifkin; The Empathic Civilization

    I just read that before reading your insights here, at The Green Bough. It's an excerpt from this month's HuffPost Book Club pick, The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin.

    Here's the quote in context...

    "But empathy is not just about feeling for another's suffering. As Rifkin points out: "One can also empathize with another's joy." Indeed, according to Rifkin, "empathic moments are the most intensely alive experiences we ever have. We empathize with each other's struggles against death and for life. One acknowledges the whiff of death in another's frailties and vulnerabilities. No one ever empathizes with a perfect being."

    To me, there is a perfection within imperfection. A perfection of purpose, and the purpose is so we can better relate, empathize with each other on a higher level. And then take action(s) from that better, deeper, connectivity.

    We connect with each other, our environment, through via our empathy. And it's our ability to be imperfect that creates the appeal in our
    our emotions to connect. An appeal that is more powerful, more pure of heart you might say, than those created when relating through our ability to be perfect.

    Meeting through perfection can create arrogance. But meeting through imperfections helps keep us humble.

    Like the Tsutsui Zutsu teabowl and the Unzan tea jar. Perfect pieces that were broken and then lovingly pieced back together again. They became more precious after mending.

    Imperfectly perfect.

  11. It seems to me, Oriah, that there is an excess of words in the world today, present company and co-respondents most notably excepted.

    But while I (who am obliquely referred to above) think a great truth is being presented here, the opposite is often no less true — If something is worth doing badly, it is probably worth going deeper and doing better.

    The problem is finding a balance between slapdash and microtuning. The method is the Miracle of letting our love grow stronger than our fear.

    'Good enough' is not giving up — it is an assertion of standards. This provocation was clearly worthy of your standards. And I have chosen to believe that this affirmation satisfies my own.

  12. I used to take great pride in being a perfectionist until I most recently discovered how closely related it is to procrastination. Perfectionism stole so much from me - humility, time, acceptance and surrender. I used to end up doing everything myself instead of delegating to the many resources I had available to me. In my mind, no-one could do it better than me. Ha ... how I lost out with that thought. As for procrastination ... hmmm ... will tell you later about that!! :-) It is good to know we are not alone in our struggles

  13. I agree with the comment from Wilder that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing well. However, “doing well” for one person may not be “good enough” for another. I think that there may be times we hold back from attempting something because we look around us at what others have done, measure ourselves to their standards, and find ourselves lacking, disabling us from trying or continuing to frantically try to be perfect.
    I know that this is different from what Oriah is saying about being a perfectionist, but I just wonder if being a perfectionist is not only wanting to measure up in our own eyes, but in measuring up to others standards.
    This is true for me and it has prevented me from “trying”, and I mean really trying to do my best, because I believed with all my heart that what I could do was not as good as others.
    As a person who has lived a lifetime with this belief about herself, I will say this, don’t allow this to happen. Get involved, dig deep inside and find what you can give and do it with all your heart. Then step away and allow it to be.
    I have physical challenges but as Oriah mentioned I still can engage in things I love. I have intellectual challenges, but I keep reading, reaching for books that may be a bit beyond my comprehension. There is some creativity in me somewhere that I have buried for too long because I knew it was mediocre. I have spent a lifetime of apologizing, often to myself, for these things.
    However, since the beginning of the year I have committed myself to not allowing “not good enough” to be an excuse for not trying.

  14. The lines by Leonard Cohen have been on my mind for weeks. And of course I read The Invitation. And it is wonderful to read what you write and your words bring a sense of relief to me. Thank you.

  15. I just read the invitation and posted a translation of it in Dutch on my site...I'm deaply impressed by your view on life.

  16. I found in my life that when I thoght I was
    "perfectionately - moral": I often had the attitude of superiority over others. I would think.."Why couldn't other people just do it?....The right thing."
    Some people actually claim that they have reached a state in this life where they just don't sin anymore. Wait a minute, doesn't the Bible say that if we actually think something like this we are deceiving ourselves
    "If we claim to be without sin (MISSING THE MARK), we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us." While willful sin ought not to characterize our life, sin will remain a part of human experience until we lay aside our physical body at death. In fact, the wisest man who ever lived (Solomon) said: "Who can say, I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin?"
    Even though I think often of my shortcomings...
    Maybe I need to accept this is part of my human condition...Denise

  17. I would like you to write my life story, because only you can do it.

  18. Oriah,

    As you can see by the response given here, the idea of perfectionism (and the underlying "not good enough" fears) strike deep in today's society. It is a topic many people relate to and often times struggle with.

    Thank you for the posting. The post - and the responses that followed - have done a "good enough" job reaching a portion of the world effected by this demon and providing them with some amount of solace.

    A wonderful topic that could always be explored more in depth. Thank you for sharing, as always.