After about two years outside the workplace, I was expecting some craziness with my new job, but within the first week, I was nearly drained. It wasn’t so much the workload that tired me; as compared to my previous jobs, the responsibilities were quite elementary. Rather, it was the interactions with both employees & customers that left me numb at the end of the day.
Being in a call center, I was on the receiving end of angry customers, who demanded info about their wellness program, and then answerable to my even angrier supervisors, who gave dirty looks & mocking emails when their assistance was needed. Looking back, it was like a catch 22. In spite of all my efforts, I couldn’t seem to please anyone, just listening to bitching & moaning for eight hours a day. But for me, I think the greater challenge was dealing with their expectation of perfection, the idea that work should never be flawed.
In many of these interactions, it was minimally important if I did something right. Rather, to others, it seemed my level of competency relied mainly on how much I fucked up, even if it rarely happened. I could do everything right, but once I sent the wrong email, asked for the wrong info, used the wrong tone, it was like I was ALL bad. Yelled at, chastised, even belittled at times if I couldn’t uphold this standard of perfection. And I found, that even when I did repent, it was like they wanted something more, perhaps a more deeply satisfying expression of remorse or embarrassment? But in these times, all I could say was, “Yes, I fucked up, I’m human, I’m just not…perfect”
This idea of perfection, no flaws, no issues, no problems, seems to infiltrate all our lives at one time or another. And like our yearning to be perfect workers, we also yearn for perfection in other aspects of our lives, whether it is a ‘perfect family’, ‘perfect spouse, ‘perfect job’, or some other kind of perfect life situation. And living in a society where status & achievement are so highly revered, its no surprise that many Americans feel almost compelled to meet such high standards in their lives. For example, in the media, images of huge celebrity estates constantly remind us of the lavish homes we could have. Or, more specific to women, diamond ads featuring beautiful models remind of how flawless we would be if only those same diamonds were draped around our necks.
But is perfection really attainable? Do we ever really meet these standards? In reality, usually not. With enough time, even the most seemingly perfect couple, family, job etc. begins to show its flaws. And unfortunately for us, once these flaws surface, and the image of perfection shatters, our society does an excellent job of socially humiliating the victim. Once someone cheats, lies, steals, or does something so against the image they’ve upheld, in others, approval shifts to judgment, love turns into hate. It didn’t take long for a once supportive media to shame Tiger Woods for engaging in sexual relations outside his marriage. Nor did it take long for the highly esteemed president Bill Clinton to be nearly ostracized once allegations of his sexual rendezvous surfaced.
So, if perfection is so hard to uphold, why are we so fixated on it? Why is it, that even when we know the flaws, we still defend an image of flawlessness? To answer this question, I think we must first look at what these images aim to preserve, and almost always, it is some aspect of our lives we identify with. Whether it is a job, skill, spouse, lifestyle etc., it seems we most tenaciously defend those images we consider apart of our self-image. And this would explain why we engage in such resistance when these images are threatened. Because a threat to this can instigate a tremendous shift in our personal realities, to the people we think we are: “I can’t be wrong, because I’m smart”, “They can’t be flawed, because they’re my parents”, “He can’t cheat, because he’s my loving husband”. Or how supervisors like to think, “I can’t be wrong, because I’m your boss.’
And herein lies my issue-when something falls short of perfection, as it usually does, the fear of losing these identities prevents us from looking at the flaws…even if we are in pain. The way I see it, imperfection is just apart of being human. And like the petty mistakes I make at work, I make those same mistakes in other areas of my life. But when looking at my flaws threatens my personal reality, my concept of right & wrong, the woman I think I am, I too become tempted to just pretend everything is ok. And perhaps this resistance underlies society’s judgment of others, the fear they too may have to confront those same realities in their own lives.
But does this ever work? Does ignoring the abused child’s cry ever stop her pain? Or does mocking the alcoholic’s binges ever help him heal? In reality, usually not. In fact, ignoring the problem or judging it in others just keeps the problem going, perpetuating a cycle of emotional pain. In a bittersweet paradox, I think it’s the acknowledgement of our flaws, not our obsession with being perfect, that intrinsically makes us better, more understanding, more human. And even if it means relinquishing our identities, the images we want to preserve, sometimes looking at the cracks gives us the chance of a better life. We may want to be perfect workers, but we can only be better if we admit our petty mistakes. And we may want a perfect family, but we can only be better parents if we admit our own parent’s shortcomings. And so, scary as it may seem, sometimes just accepting the imperfect gets us somewhere closer to perfect.