Sunday, December 9, 2012

What is "Good Enough?"

I tell this story a lot, but it's funny and pertinent enough to repeat:

My therapist once told me I was a perfectionist.
I told her, "I can't be a perfectionist: I never do anything well enough."
And then, two seconds later, "... Oh."

I'd never really considered myself a perfectionist. To me, a perfectionist was one of those people I admired so much who would spend hours and hours over the course of days on their assignments, fine tuning and working to ensure everything was "just so." That was doing something well. What I always do is wait until almost literally the last possible moment in which something can be accomplished and then coast on my adroit writing skills to create something passable right before the buzzer. That was almost the opposite of what I thought a perfectionist would do.

I've written before about the ways I believe perfectionism and procrastination are often related. I won't rehash that here. But that perfectionist value system is not simply the source of my procrastination; it's a core aspect of my depression/anxiety and self-hatred too.

Specifically, this comes from the value system of perfectionism: Doing something "well" is standard. Doing something "best" is positive. Everything else is simply not enough.

You can see it two posts ago. In that post, I essentially assert that I feel as if I was born with negative value (as in, it would be better for everyone if I did not exist). Adding value to the world was the only way for me to even justify my existence. Presumably, being "the best" or doing something "perfectly" was/is the only way for me to be genuinely worth something. Which, of course, is impossible.

However, what that post and the self-hatred post did was to increase insight about and debunk negative feelings. Neither suggested reasonable alternatives.

Of course, that's the goal of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. As demonstrated in the above posts, I can totally get behind undermining negative attributions. Where CBT falls flat for me is in the counter assertions: "I have value." "I am worthy of being loved." "I am good." I just don't know where the proof for those things are, outside of wishful thinking. Thus it's no surprise that I stopped at "existence is value neutral." It's a disavowal of the negative without an affirmation of the positive.

But "value neutral" isn't sufficient for resilience or affirmation. The base question still needs to be answered: "What is good enough?"

It needs an answer, because perfectionism has an answer. Even if you're charitable with yourself, "good enough" is "doing everything well." Perhaps not perfection or superiority, but no egregious mistakes or mediocre performances either. And that's great, if you never make mistakes. But if you're a human like me (and there's a pretty good chance you are!), never making mistakes is not a valid long term strategy.

In fact, it's a terrible one. I can feel good on days when I feel like something (clients and/or teaching) has gone well. But when they don't? Or, God forbid, when I make a mistake? It's a suicidal spiral, filled with alienation, failure, and hopelessness with nothing but a lifetime of the same to look forward to.

I had no counterargument. I had nothing to say. And I need one. When I start to self-destruct, I need to be able to tell myself "You are doing enough. You are not perfect, but you're enough." In order to do that, I need to figure out what the hell "enough" means.

If perfection's not the answer, then what is? What's the counter proposition? What is "good enough?" Not necessarily happiness, but a base level of satisfaction and fulfillment, a state of being where, when met, you can say "If I do no more, no differently, that will be OK." What does it look like? What does it feel like? How do you sustain it? But, most importantly, for you, for yourself, what is "good enough?"

I've been chewing on one possible answer I'll hopefully post in a bit. But, for now, I think it's important to frame the question. And, hopefully, hear some of your answers to it too.

1 comment:

  1. My understanding, based on previous conversations, was: "I want to do ____ perfectly." After reading this: "being 'the best' or doing something 'perfectly' was the only way for me to genuinely be worth something," now I am seeing things differently, because your post seems to focus on the "being 'the best'" part. Maybe it doesn't make a big difference; in those past conversations, the topic was still perfectionism. But maybe the difference between supporting adjective and big-deal noun helps to answer the base question. Mary is good enough because her sincere desire to help others is her motivation to act but also causes her to wander down some paths booby-trapped with mistakes. Maggie isn't good enough because her (semi) sincere desire to help others is overwhelmed by her desire for perfection, and because the latter desire is what motivates her playing-it-safe actions. All those admirable people spending hours on their assignments? A few folks spring to mind. And hey, they are all self-indulgent fucks head over heels for an academic circle jerk. You care, you have a good heart, you boldly challenge people and things--that is all difficult and draining and distracting. Didn't you read The Magic School Bus? You can't get messy and not make mistakes. Trying to make that happen takes way too much energy, creates way too much disappointment to be sustainable. So stop straddling the fence and looking longingly at perfection. Messy mistakes, all the way.