Guest blog by Deborah Burns
My other-worldly beautiful mother seemed perfect.
A chiseled work of art, she evoked the eternal female ideal, standing tall as a distant goddess on a pedestal that only-child me devotedly danced around. Paying homage and idealizing her in all ways was my default. How could I not, when such a queen was before me?
Despite the appeal of my own soulful brown eyes versus her baby blues; of my bittersweet chocolate hair versus her seductive red mane; deep down I felt that I could not live up to what she must have expected from me. Maybe, just maybe, if I looked more like her she would love me more? With such secret thoughts floating in my child’s mind, it’s no wonder that I was a late bloomer, someone who very slowly emerged from the shadow of such physical magnificence and into her own.
I realize now just how futile the pursuit of perfection actually is, but I certainly didn’t realize it then. To add to my list of realities, my mother was a tad narcissistic (either by nature, or because everyone in her orbit automatically put her first), so it’s easy to see how things could get mighty tangled.
Now, in my own midlife and twenty-five years after my mother’s death, I wonder how chasing my perfect role model then—one who was unattainable from the start—impacted my quotient for motivation and happiness. What turns on and off in a young mind when all she hears is how much she resembles her father instead of her flawless mother; when no matter how hard the trying, she knows from birth that she will never live up to that?
Actually, despite the obvious downsides, I realize now that the situation was full of early learning that served to make my grown-up years more successful than they might have otherwise been.
It all actually made me more motivated, not less. Somehow, I unconsciously focused on what really matters, and I became a person driven to succeed in other ways. I gave into my natural curiosity and intuition; I quietly developed other aspects of myself; I read and learned and focused on my strengths.
It made me understand that in addition to the laughability of pursuing perfection, the pursuit (of anything, really) takes us out of whatever happiness is possible within any present moment. I grew to become attuned to the truth of mindfulness before I ever learned its name.
And, finally, it also made me really see that attractiveness—imperfect by definition—is so much better than being too beautiful, as my mother was. When you are, your features are your calling card, a fact that immediately minimized all the other fabulous qualities that made her her (and that make me me and you you). Beauty as anyone’s foundation only builds a house of cards that is doomed to topple.
The ultimate paradox of perfection that philosophers have been writing about and debating for eons is simply this: if something were indeed perfect, it could not improve. Since all progress requires continuous improvement, nothing, in fact, can ever be perfect or complete.
Even art—when something is visually or emotionally stunning, the viewer is drawn into the scene, actively participating and complementing what is seen or felt. So, for a fluid life that is always in motion and evolving for the better, I realize that the only path is to fully embrace the notion that all is flawed.
In that vein, it was my process of writing a memoir—as an imperfect observer of the relationship between my mother and myself—that allowed me to see my mother as a woman of secrets who, despite my tendency to idealize her, was well aware of her own flawed perfection. Finally, I was able to humanize her.
I still honor and love her, but I now understand the totality of who she once was, chips, cracks, and all. And through that creative writing process, I actually proved that those philosophers were indeed correct.
Somehow, writing the truth of us together managed to make everything better, and in so doing, ironically made her more perfect than she was in life.
Now she is whole.
* * *
Mine was a creative journey that ultimately transformed my life. By unraveling the truth of my mother, I was able to reclaim my own, aided by insights from some non-fiction books I read along the way.
All fall into the self-help category and were required bedside reading for me while I was writing. If you struggle with living up to an image or a story you’ve told yourself—or if you find yourself trapped in a perfectionist bubble—these books could be worthwhile:
Never Good Enough: Freeing Yourself from the Chains of Perfectionism by Monica Ramirez Basco
Present Ove Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living by Shauna Niequist
Making Peace with Imperfection: Discover Your Perfectionism Type, End the Cycle of Criticism, and Embrace Self-Acceptance by Elliot D. Cohen, PhD and William J. Knaus, EdD
How to Be an Imperfectionist: The New Way to Self-Acceptance, Fearless Living and Freedom from Perfectionism by Stephen Guise
Deborah Burns is a media executive-turned-author of Saturday’s Child, a memoir about growing up with her unconventional mother that Kirkus Reviews hails as “Devilishly sharp.” A must-read for every daughter who’s ever wondered where her mother ends and she begins, Saturday’s Child earned 300 million media impressions since its April 2019 release—featured by brands like Entertainment Weekly, Parade, Refinery29, Forbes, PopSugar, and more, The Hollywood Reporter recommended that Saturday’s Child be movie or series. Visit her at https://deborahburnsauthor.com/