My father was a craftsman in every sense of the word.

Whether he was restoring a Victorian home or building an outhouse in the Maine woods, he always did everything “just right.”  His corners were square, he never missed a detail, and you can bet whatever he built would stand the test of time.

He tried passing on his ideals to my sister and me growing up, with varying degrees of success. “Do it like you care,” he’d snap while making us restack the woodpile or rewash the dishes until we got it right.

As nervewracking as this was at times, I’ve inherited some of my father’s lofty ideals.

I’ve often criticized my cooking, creativity, writing, singing, dancing, banjo playing, appearance, social skills, confidence, and so much more. I’ve exhausted myself while striving for “perfection” and I’ve projected my insecurities onto those I love—all because I was afraid of not living up to other peoples’ my own expectations.

Just to be clear, I don’t believe perfectionism itself is unhealthy. It’s natural to value beauty and craftsmanship, and sometimes it’s important to refine something to the finest detail. The key is knowing when to refine and when to let it be good enough.

Knowing the difference

In the Five Element tradition of Chinese medicine, to strive for excellence, you must first know what’s good enough. In other words, can you be satisfied with your charred toast, lop-sided birthday cake, or imperfect paint job? Is it a situation that truly requires excellence? Or can you embrace its rough-around-the-edges-good enoughness—at least for now?

The more we accept our situations as sufficient, the more we can make improvements in a healthy, fulfilling way.

On the other hand, when we’re unable to feel satisfied with what’s good enough, we’re more likely to have a skewed sense of value and worth. We then get caught up in details and struggle to see the beauty of a finished project—or never finish it at all. We can become overly-critical, rigid, and maybe even riddled with compulsion.

Eventually, we start to question our own self-worth. “It’s not enough,” becomes “I’m not enough.”

This is an exhausting, vicious cycle that can limit your opportunities, chop away at your freedom and creativity, and keep you from being your fullest self.

Making mistakes

A few years ago, I inherited a travel trailer that my father built 15 years ago. It was still in good shape but needed a lot of love.

When Little A was reunited with her mother last year, I decided to work on the trailer as a way of transforming my grief. What I didn’t expect was that it would also become a healing practice of letting things be good enough.

As I scrubbed and sanded, I noticed old voices popping up in my head. I heard my own judgments and self-criticism as well as my dad’s voice telling me to do it better. I felt like an anxious child again, not living up to his expectations and messing up his craftsmanship. I could feel my gut tighten as I became more critical and demanding—both of myself and Jason.

I tried not to judge myself, and instead, I watched where the feelings were coming from. I began seeing myself as a child, learning how to do something for the first time. I could feel youthful curiosity deep inside of me, longing for the chance to be free. Instead of speaking to her with a critical tone, I decided to give her space to make all the mistakes necessary to learn and express herself.

A funny thing happened. I started to relax and feel more creative and free.

Building satisfaction

The narrow twin bed at the end of the trailer worked well for my father, but it didn’t fit the needs of our family. Instead, I imagined sturdy storage benches to sit on and a table to gather around.

It had been almost 30 years since high school shop class, and I had no idea how to build benches or a table. I read countless blog posts and watched dozens of videos before I finally decided to just start building and see what happens. I made lots of mistakes, but instead of feeling anxious and self-critical, I felt excited to see my vision come to life.

At one point, I realized I didn’t have the tools and know-how to finish my table, so I reached out to my community for help. That’s when I met my friend, Tom, a local woodworker who took me under his wing and showed me the world of hand tools. He never criticized or judged, but rather gently guided me, giving me all the space I needed to experiment and learn.

I spent hours and hours in his shop, mesmerized by the paper-thin spirals that emerged as I scraped and planed. I deliberately chose not to use electric sanders and shiny coatings. I wanted to feel the natural textures of the wood and the imperfections of my novice scrapes and plane mark–just to remember the process.

Healing together

I know my father meant well when he was hard on us. I know he wanted us to value beauty, integrity, and respect as much as he did, and I appreciate everything I learned from him. I just wonder if he knew how good enough he was—even without all the flourishes and fine details.

It may sound strange, but I felt like my father was with me working on this project, and it was healing for our relationship (even though he’s no longer living). I didn’t try to change my father’s expectations of himself or me, but I did change the way I received it. The more I gave myself the freedom to make mistakes and feel satisfied with a job done good enough, the more the critical voices subsided.

I believe letting things be good enough (unless it’s truly important to strive for excellence) is essential for living a healthy fulfilling life. It’s not always easy, but it’s well worth practicing every day. I like to think this can be healing for those around us as well—because the more we see our own good enoughness, the more we can see and reflect the good enoughness in others.

So as you prepare another meal, write your next blog post, or fold those awkward fitted sheets, ask yourself, “do I really need to fuss over this? Or can I bask in the satisfaction of a job done good enough?”

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6 Responses

  1. I love reading these as it reconnects me with you in such a special way. It’s so interesting to hear these types of childhood memories. The stories that are part of what make us who we have become. This is such a tough topic. I have noticed the element of seeking perfection has been sneaking up on me lately and I have realized why. Life has become extremely stressful for me as of, well, the last three year. I am currently in the process of serious change, for the good, for me and curt and soren. This stressful unknowing leads me to seek perfection in any possible way, but it’s really for control. That NEED to feel some sense of control in my life when everything is so chaotic. It’s not helpful. :) like I had to say that right. Reading what you wrote is helping me make that connection. I really need to relax and do what I can and let it all happen as it will anyway. Love you sharon!

    1. I really appreciate you sharing this, Jessica. I notice when things feel unknown or out of my control, I overcompensate by trying to control what I can as well. Relaxing and allowing yourself to do what you can is a practice–and not always an easy one. Just remember to not be hard on yourself about being hard on yourself. ;) Sending you a HUGE hug and love during this big unknown!

  2. This is such a timely post for me, as I have lately been getting in touch with the critical tape that wants to keep playing over and over in my mind. That voice of the superego, always reminding me of how and where I have failed. Although I don’t feel I suffer terribly from perfectionism, there is definitely a harsh voice that is most persistent. And that harsh voice hurts my sensitive tummy! I too am working on acceptance and letting go . . .Oh what a process this is . . . Thanks for sharing, I always love reading from you ;)

    1. Ohhhh those critical tapes. If only we could reach in and pull the ribbons out for good! Perfectionism is only one way not-good-enoughness shows up in our lives. The harsh voice is another. And yes, it can wreak havoc with our digestion and our health in general. I’m glad to hear you’re also taking on this practice, Amy. Let’s always remind each other to be compassionate with ourselves!

  3. This is something I live with every day. Right now, I am revising a novel I wrote quite a few years ago, and it never seems to be good enough, even though I have already cut 7000 words (and I’m only about 50 pages into a 300 page book). But at some point, I do actually say it’s good enough–otherwise, I wouldn’t have gotten the books out that are already out there. :-)

    1. That makes total sense, Nina. Sometimes it’s a matter of letting things be good enough (sufficient). Sometimes we need to take it further and strive for excellence. Then even after we strive for excellence, we need to be able to let it be good enough! :) Based on all of your accomplishments, it sounds like you know how to move through the cycle. It’s part of what makes you such an outstanding writer and editor! :)

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