Mirror, Mirror on the Wall... Tell Me I'm Perfect
by Nancy S. Tessler, Ph.D.
"I don't need to be better than anyone. I just want to be perfect," says one of my female patients. She, however, gives voice to the persistent, if unacknowledged, lament of almost every woman who comes through my door.
The drive for perfection is ubiquitous for women. We women want to be perfect mothers, perfect hostesses, perfect lovers, perfect friends (a perfect psychologist, in my case!) and have perfect bodies, perfect grades and perfect appearance. Even our children and homes need to be perfect. As young girls, we are "sugar and spice and everything nice," and around age 12, as studies have consistently shown, we begin our quest for perfection in earnest, muting our voices and losing our real selves. Finally, as adults, we are exhorted to buy every product on the market that will transform us into perfect women (How about line minimizing makeup? Thigh masters to reduce fat? Plastic surgery? The latest "how to " book?).
For the women I see in my office, however, the drive for perfection has acquired overwhelming force, pummeling the psyche and and leaving much distress in its wake. Invariably, these women are tormented, looking at their reflections almost exclusively in mirrors that distort and magnify their own imperfect selves. They come in with any number of complaints, from obsessing about food to unhappy marriages, from work to parenting issues. The diagnostic labels we therapists put on insurance forms (further delineating their imperfections)---eating disordered, borderline, clinically depressed, adjustment reactions, etc----only mask the fact that these women all suffer tremendously from failing to meet their own unrealistic, perfectionistic expectations.
Let's meet some of these women (to protect confidentiality, identifying features have been disguised):
There's the young, extremely attractive and successful writer, who comes to see me on the heels of her boyfriend's suicide and complains, "I feel that I'm to blame. If only I had been good enough or if he loved me enough, he wouldn't have killed himself. I let him down," she sighs heavily (completely discounting the fact that he let her down innumerable times with his gambling and womanizing).
There's that bubbly, pint-sized woman who hides her disabling obsessions about gaining weight. She can't imagine a day going by where she is not consumed with what and when she's going to eat; where at every social gathering, she measures what she eats against everyone else's helpings, how she tries to avoid vacations, holiday celebrations and business luncheons, in order to block access to food.. Her ultimate goal in life is to have a perfect body--and keep it.
Then there is the middle-aged woman who, having grown up with a depressed, non-functional mother, feels that she has to be perfect in every category-- compelled to drive her kids wherever they want to go, to prepare an elaborate dinner for her husband, to contribute unlimited time and effort to the community---all the while maintaining a busy medical practice. A frantic woman who says "yes" to everyone and everything, but whose sexual advances are spurned by her husband, who finds a younger lover with a more perfect body.
These women are fairly representative of the women I see in my psychology practice. Women--wonderful, bright, accomplished, caring, substantial women---yet, apologizing for who they are, what they do, how they look!
In my work with these women, I encourage them to permit themselves to be less than perfect, rather than more perfect. Women need to accept themselves and see themselves as having value without crafting themselves into some perpetually elusive "perfect woman." I'd like them to see that they are far more interesting and alluring with the imperfections that uniquely define them.
As in the "hall of mirrors," together we find those mirrors with the right angles and lens which will yield positive views of who and what they are, not what they aren't. Women can then begin to discover those previously overlooked and undeveloped aspects of themselves. And, not surprisingly, they will look in these new mirrors and like, even love, their imperfect selves!