Aren’t we a culture that professes to value individuals? A society that goes wild over the stand-out: exceptional performance, particular charm, something – anything – distinctive?
The distinctions we seek – in professions and in personal style – are increasingly conventional. As for beauty, who doesn’t recognize the homogeneity of our supposed ideals, as witnessed by our current preoccupation with surgical procedures to erase the very distinctiveness of our features and forms?
Does a woman exist who is fully satisfied with her size, her shape, her everything? Does a woman exist who doesn’t challenge her own worth on some dimension – or many?
Society’s measures of success
Especially at the holidays, we run ourselves ragged trying to recreate an image of the perfect home, the perfect gifts, the perfect memories – all the while playing out the roles of perfect lover, spouse, parent, and neighbor.
But let’s not stop there. Let’s add a few more hooks on which to hang our over-achieving hats! After all, how else would we know that we’re successful in life? We’ve got:
- Social standing
- Trophy wife/husband
- Homes and cars
- Pedigrees (schools, names, designer labels, even designer dogs)
- Accomplishments (measured in titles, awards, and more)
Women, perfectionism, and mirrors
As women, our assessments of self are often hypercritical. We scrutinize our bodies and our faces, as well as our behaviors. We smile through our constant compromises. We feel pulled in a hundred directions at once, floundering in a sense of inadequacy one minute, envy the next, and frequently, exhaustion. We confuse ordinary and exceptional; our notions of what is reasonable are distorted.
Is it reasonable to expect “perfection” in every aspect of our lives, and all of it, simultaneously? Is it reasonable to expect perpetual “presence” and a state of happiness? Can anyone live up to contemporary ideals of domestic life, relationships, job performance, parenting?
We gaze into the mirrors of our mates, the behaviors and accomplishments of our children, the neatness of our lawns and living rooms, the latest appraisals of our work product, the numbers of Christmas cards taped to the refrigerator, or invites to gatherings we’re too tired to enjoy.
Is there ever a breath in which we say “I’m content, I’ve done well, I’ve done enough?”
Setting the bar high: achievements, “ordinary life”
I’m all for raising the bar, for setting it high, and for rewarding achievement. But shouldn’t we be doing so selectively – and without castigating ourselves if we can’t maintain “exceptional” at all times? And wouldn’t exceptional at all times then become our new (impossible) ordinary?
For some of us, what others take for granted is exactly what we seek: a solid relationship, health, a sense of family. That doesn’t preclude setting goals and pursuing them, but we may marvel at those around us who don’t realize the good fortune of their “ordinary lives.”
So why do “ordinary” women feel so compelled to excel in every area? To be the superwoman, the super wife, the super mother, the super chef, the super manager, the super daughter? How could we possibly live up to that?
As we grow older, we understand our fragility. We value each good day; distinctions that come with youth fade in importance. We know the “ordinary” to be precious. We assess more kindly. We focus.
This year for the holidays, pragmatism has dictated greater simplicity. There are fewer seasonal decorations. Less fuss. More mess. Our somewhat Bohemian environment is even more relaxed than usual. I continue to let go of what I imagine “should be” and accept “what is.”
I also recognize a difference between appreciation and gratitude. We neglect the former, and chant the benefits of the latter. “Appreciation” is thankfulness for value without giving away the credit for its attainment; “gratitude” implies that you owe your thanks to a person or force external to yourself. It is a negation of your own power, your role in whatever happiness, peacefulness, or satisfaction you have found.
For an increasingly narcissistic society, it’s a surprising contradiction. I wonder why we cannot accommodate our own agency in bringing good things into our lives. I am appreciative and grateful for what I have and what I share.
Perfectionism, excellence, perspective
As for perfectionism? I say set it aside. Excellence? I suggest it is a better goal, as long as you pick and choose your spots.
If you aren’t a slave to current convention, if you look inward, if you focus on those you cherish and those who love you, how can you dismiss your own beauty? Your value? And if you do so with appreciation as well as gratitude, I believe you’ve achieved a measure of what most of us would give much to find: reasonable self-acceptance, and an ordinary day with all its gifts.
© D A Wolf