Perfectionism: the enemy of contentment

Perfectionism, according to writer Anne Lamott in her Bird by Bird (a book beloved of many writers) is ‘the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people … a mean, frozen form of idealism … while messes are the artist’s true friend …’

rowing green & pleasant land
Perfect Day: in a green and pleasant land?  


Lamott’s idea is very close to Anthony Storr’s, in his book The Dynamics of Creation, (published in the 1970s) which I read in the mid-1980s and it became a ‘bible’ to me for a while.  Storr explains how the artist, encountering the messiness of human life, sorts it into making sense, and a useful statement, by pattern-making. Non-creatives, he claims, merely hate mess. They want only to clear it up, and tidy it away. Some non-creatives will even solve their angst and desire to clear it up by ‘acting out …’, usually destructively, sometimes violently.  Creatives look at, or into, mess, consider it, begin playing around with ideas about how to make something out of it, and end up with a piece of art …

Makes sense?

Though it’s hard to explain the process … writing, painting … creation is a process, and the raw materials are our experiences of the world … experts in neurology or psychology might try to analyse it, but when taken to pieces, that’s what anything becomes – pieces. The jigsaw must be put together to make sense. The artist is sorting, then putting stuff together.

The most obvious in my experience is the poetry I made from the painful end of a relationship – some of it even humorous. I don’t write poetry often – hardly at all – but at that time, poetry began to flow, and the flow was a path to – or perhaps more like a river of – healing. I’d never claim to be alone here – it’s a common experience.

cross in sky 2
Crosses in the sky ….

   Which is a long way round to looking briefly at this week’s News. Perfectionism is an enemy when it suggests that life can be perfect. This is by nature an imperfect world, but it can be a balanced world. Where although there is suffering there is also joy, although there is betrayal there is also faithfulness, although there is drought and flood both the rain and the heat of the sun are necessary for life.

Perfectionism, pulled out of shape, becomes obsession. The temptation to believe  that if this or that were not so, our lives would be easier, we’d more more wealthy, have more leisure, the country would run smoothly, the trains run to time, the doctor have next-day appointments, the school system would be fairer to everyone. As Lamott says, ‘a mean, frozen form of idealism…’ with the emphasis on mean idealism. Obsessed, the perfectionist idealist loses the concept of moderation, and embraces an impatient inability tolerate the views of others.

newlyn fidsing boats

Here is the irony: patterns are made from the messes of life, and it is even possible that perfect hate can be overcome when we come together, first in shock and sorrow, but then to think … to examine ourselves … to rebuild a community determined to make the mess into a meaningful pattern of better things.


Which could become  the stuff of realistic hope… ?

RIP Jo Cox … can we hope this act against a generous spirit is not the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning …? Latest stories here.  And here.

(Link stories from the BBC News (Oxford) Website and BBC News Website)

So why do I write about day to day life and  crises among contemporary families … rather than crime, mystery, or fantasy …?

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 11.56.30
Perfect Days: in a green and pleasant land?

6 thoughts on “Perfectionism: the enemy of contentment

  1. lynne June 21, 2016 / 5:09 pm

    Great post, I don’t like perfectionism either, I have a wonderful jumble of scarves on a hanger in my bedroom, or rather my side of the bed. My husband yearns to tidy them up but I love their jolly colours all jostled together, they clash and find harmony every time they’re moved.

    Talking of the EU, the western isles of scotland have also benefitted from EU money that has bought bigger, better roads so industry can flourish, hence the rise of the whiskey distillery. Lynne

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sandy June 21, 2016 / 8:16 pm

    I like your thoughts, Clare.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Margaret Hollis June 23, 2016 / 4:13 pm

    Some-one once said to me: “It’s a great day when you don’t iron your first sheet!”. Perhaps she sensed that I, as a young housewife, was trying too hard to get everything perfect. Perfectionism, as you reported, is a fight against mess, it’s a form of control-freakery, an attempt to prevent mess from overcoming us. As I grow older and become more at ease with myself and the world around me, I worry less and less about mess. Of course I try to keep the house clean and tidy, prevent the weeds from taking over the garden, but I also remember what my mother used to say: “It’ll all be the same a hundred years from now.” Meanwhile, life is short, and getting shorter! So the important thing is to enjoy what really matters – family, friends, the wonders of Creation – all messy in their own way. It’s a waste of time to try to tidy it all up, straighten it out; don’t look for the negatives but rejoice in the positives.
    Margaret H.


  4. Holistic Wayfarer July 18, 2016 / 3:03 am

    I’ve read Bird by Bird. Ah, very nice rejoinder against perfectionism: yes, balance.
    And Balance. Is. Health.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. MariHoward July 18, 2016 / 9:09 pm

    I find it all too easy to fall into – and perfectionism comes in many forms – including holding extreme views on stuff, although mine is about my painting and my garden.


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