Two weeks ago, I moved. My new house requires almost total refurbishment; a new kitchen, a new bathroom, new doors, a new roof on the single storey extension and complete re-decoration. The days have passed in a blur of chaos and dust. Evenings have been spent trying to remember where I put the torch – there’s no light in the bathroom until the electricians come on Monday.
Every wall, window, and floor is also inexplicably dirty. The previous occupants clearly hadn’t spent much time cleaning, and the house was left unoccupied for nine months before I moved in. There is so much to do that at times I’ve been overwhelmed; unable to decide on what to tackle next, I’ve ended up lying on the bed, waiting for the brain-paralysis to pass.
For some months leading up to the move, I’d been congratulating myself on overcoming my perfectionist tendencies. I seemed to have developed a much greater tolerance of mess, and was even enjoying my own untidiness. It felt freeing, creative even, for my clothes, books, and papers to be strewn across the room in no discernible order. By contrast, I deemed my ex-partner’s ascetic, minimalist approach to be rigid, controlling.
When I was very young, a family friend dubbed me Little Miss Prunes and Prisms, a reference to the priggish and primly precise behaviour of one of Dickens’s characters. My natural tendency to perfectionism was compounded by being brought up in the Puritan belief that cleanliness and tidiness are a testament to one’s moral uprightness. Blemishes, dirt, or disorder seemed to be inherently wrong and if I didn’t right that wrong, I was similarly tainted. It was almost as if objects themselves – dirty dishes, untidy piles of clothes, weeds – demanded action from me, and I couldn’t relax until they had been attended to. For years, I was unable to see that the sense of imperfection came from within rather than residing in the outside world; I was projecting my own, internal sense of wrongness onto external objects.
Over the last week, two fitters have installed a shiny white kitchen. For several days, I was consumed with decisions about worktops, shelving, gas hobs, and taps. Once the piles of flat pack cartons started to resemble a kitchen, however, I noticed a familiar train of thought had reappeared. There’s a slight scratch on the side of that cabinet. Darn! They should have been more careful. There’s so much dust on the floor. And so on...the urge for the room to look spotless was in full swing. And I, a temporary slave to perfectionism once more, began to scrub, clean, and tidy to the nth degree. Finally, I realised that the dirty walls and unpacked boxes do not mean anything in themselves, and they do not reflect on me; I was then able to drop the shoulds and oughts, and relax for the evening.
What we perfectionists fail to notice is that everything is already perfect, exactly the way it is. At times, I’ve found that an incredibly difficult notion to accept. How can this be perfect? Look at everything that is wrong, bad, or unfair. There is so much to change, to make better, to improve. We have a subtle belief that if we simply accepted everything is fine just the way it is, chaos would descend, and nothing would ever get done.
One day last year, I saw the perfection implicit in all things, just as I was walking into the supermarket. The shelves laden with unhealthy food, mothers shouting at their kids – all the things that I’m often judgemental about – were seen to be absolutely perfect. I saw the perfection of life, and my own perfection along with it. In that moment, I knew that true perfection is what we are, here and now, in whatever circumstances we’re in. There is nothing that we need to change. Blemishes, dirt, and all.