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As a speaker, author, and world-famous interior designer, Alexandra Stoddard was the first to show millions of of people how to turn the place they live in into an oasis of tranquility, beauty, and joy. Beginning with her bestselling Living A Beautiful Life, and followed by other highly successful books, she demonstrates the magic that transforms living space, from cottages to mansions, not into showrooms, but into homes that reflect the comfort and joy of those who live there. Now in The ...
As a speaker, author, and world-famous interior designer, Alexandra Stoddard was the first to show millions of of people how to turn the place they live in into an oasis of tranquility, beauty, and joy. Beginning with her bestselling Living A Beautiful Life, and followed by other highly successful books, she demonstrates the magic that transforms living space, from cottages to mansions, not into showrooms, but into homes that reflect the comfort and joy of those who live there. Now in The Art of the Possible she adds wise words to the dream of creating a perfectly beautiful home, reminding all those who seek beauty to overcome the confines of perfectionism in favor of freedom that allows creativity to flourish.
Perfectionism: A Life Out of Balance
A publisher once took me to lunch to ask me if I would write a book entitled How to Have a Perfect Day. I laughed and said, "I could never write that book. I've never had a perfect day. I don't believe it's possible, even though I've been a paid perfectionist for over thirty-five years."
Over the years, both in my personal and professional life, I've come to see too many people destroy themselves because they demand of themselves and the rest of the world, perfection: Home must always be clean and tidy, children must always be happy, and everything must be in order, always. We can indeed have moments of perfection. When we do, they lift us up and delight us. But if the focus is perpetual perfection, there is no peace. With perfection, there is always more to be done because perfection is an illusion, and it always eludes us no matter how hard we try. Some people can do nothing for fear they will not do it perfectly. When we are under the rule of perfection, we can no longer choose what is in our own best interest, we can no longer direct our own actions.
Why do we strive for perfection? Is it so that we can "be the best" and therefore receive affirmation from others? But what good will others' praise be if we have not figured out what makes us feel good about ourselves? To be able to live life as we want is a sign of earthly virtue. To be able to do good on earth, in our own unique way, being grounded, using our talents wisely, while enjoying the process, brings meaning to our lives. It is our birthright to be ourselves rather than to conform to others' ideas of how we should be. But how many of us are able to achievethis high personal calling?
Sometimes we strive for perfection because we believe others depend on us to be perfect. Some of us feel that we've lost control of our lives if we fall short of our own ideas of perfection. As a young mother, whenever my daughters, Alexandra or Brooke, were mad at me, grumpy, or bored, I immediately felt I was a bad mother. I'd always get upset when, in the middle of one of those magical days when everything hums along beautifully, a crisis suddenly erupted. Boom. I would become tense, anxious, frustrated. I'd grit my teeth and think, Who needs this aggravation? Who wants anything or anyone to spoil a perfect day? I'd feel loving and fine until I heard the girls screaming or fighting. Then I would immediately think, I'm failing as a mother.
p>The expectation of perfection can make us feel defeated, particularly when situations are beyond our control. Perfectionism does not take into account the uncertainties of life, the questions we cannot answer, the contradictions, the challenges of change. What is the meaning of life? How can we gain knowledge, truth, and love? What are we to strive for in our limited time on earth? Why must we get sick? Why do we suffer? Our greatest challenge in life is to understand how to cope with these uncertainties in our individual lives because we don't all have the same solutions to our deepest questions. As my spiritual sage John Bowen Coburn, religious leader and former Episcopalian bishop of Massachusetts who He finds both wrong
married Peter and me, says, we have to "relate to the ineffable. We have to open ourselves to the mystery of He labors to plant his creation where we are." Each of us must face the feet, to he the beam
unexplainable, the pain, the disappointment, and the of the balance, grief and losses in our lives. Each one of us has to determine for ourselves how we shall live with the mysteries of existence, with the unanswered questions, and with reality, regardless of how uncomfortable it can be. We have to learn acceptance because whenever there is love there is potential loss.
The Dark Side of Perfectionism
Most of us are trying hard to improve our lives and the world around us. This is a healthy impulse that makes life far more pleasant day to day. But if we begin to think that we can make everything perfect, we become frantic and imbalanced While perfectionistic strivings can often bring great results, we must look perfectionism in the face and see it for what it really is: a danger to our health, happiness, and success, which cuts us off from our higher purpose and goals.
As an interior designer, I've come face to face with many perfectionists who have tutored me on the dark side of this trait. When the inclination toward perfectionism becomes obsessive, we become driven by our narrow view of what is important. Perfectionism actually can be a form of self-protection, a way of
trying to evade shortcomings by limiting attention to narrow, often shallow, areas of existence.
Cynthia, an attractive young blond woman, once
confessed to me that she couldn't sleep until everything in her apartment was in "perfect" order. Laundry had to be completed, ironing done, buttons sewn on, dishwasher empty, before she could go to sleep. She couldn't tolerate anything that seemed out of order, anywhere. Whenever she visited a friend's home and found the toilet paper roll inserted so that the paper rolled
down from the back, not the front, she would reverse the roll to the "roper" way. She did this even at the department store public bathroom! Her perfectionism was a grindstone continuously working away at her There is measure in life. She couldn't just let matters be. As a result, There are was no room in her life for spontaneity or pleasure; fixed limits beyond around every corner there was another insufferable which and short of
problem to fix. Her driven course affected her life which right cannot and it made others around her feel uneasy.
Cynthia's behavior may sound extreme, but each of us has our own way of doing things and often we
become irritated when something falls short of our
personal standard. Switching toilet paper rolls from one side to the other doesn't make the world a better place. Nor does it improve our situation. This exaggerated intensity drains our
vital energy and makes us less able to accomplish things that are worthwhile.
Perfectionism also causes constant anxiety. The perfectionist develops a proficiency in a few areas-aspic and span house, perfectly fitting clothes, a perfect figure-and feels inferior in every other area of life. A mother of three young boys once confessed to me that she had to give up using ironed linen napkins because life became "too much," and she had to be hospitalized for exhaustion. But she had learned something from her setback, she told me. She began to spend more time with her sons and found happiness there. "Now," she chuckled and said, "I use colorful cotton kitchen hand towels as napkins. They look great
and they are easier to care for. They look just fine."
Perfectionism that goes too far causes rigidity, and, paradoxically, instability. The perfectionist is a person perfectionism spells in crisis, and everyone around her feels driven away by paralysis.
her own discomfort with herself.
Perfectionists may think other people should live by their own impossible standards. I bristle when I sense that someone is trying to dominate me with his or her expectations. This is what happened in our families when Peter and I were first married. We were not the typical, perfect young newlyweds. We were real people with histories. I was thirty-two years old. I had two smart, adorable, loving, and well-adjusted young daughters from a previous marriage and Peter, whom I had known for over twenty years, had four children of his own plus two stepchildren, making a combined family of eight children. In addition to all the children, Peter was nineteen years older than I, which made family members speculate, doubt, and judge us. Some actively protested.
I was happy and excited by my career as an interior designer, and grateful that I had found someoneware of all that so wonderful to love. To the perfectionists in our possible moves your families, however, we were failures. We had baggage
life into greater that made us ungainly and awkward, too large and too quirky. Perfectionists don't recognize the subjectivity of their own views. Doesn't everybody agree on what's right? Perfectionists who haven't been divorced
feel superior to those who have. Perfectionists who have big homes feel superior to those who live in small apartments crammed with children. Perfectionists who have two sets of silver make certain to mention this fact to those who only have one or none. This kind of thinking kills life rather than enhances it.
Our family hampered any connection Peter and I may have enjoyed with them because we didn't fit their ideas of perfection.
Some members of his family nicknamed me "Little Alexandra," which I found offensive. More cruelly, some would routinely ask me if I had a separate bedroom for every child, since housing so many children seemed so absurd to them. The bottom
line was, people like Peter and me didn't fit in.
All of us have our areas where we go overboard. The kitchen countertops in our New York apartment are two-inch butcher block. I love them when they're freshly sanded, grease free, pure, bare, and beautiful. But I also love chopping on them, preparing meals on them, and using them with joyous abandon, getting them greasy and dirty. I care about these smooth, bleached, maple surfaces. I also care about family and friends and being able to make these gorgeous surfaces useful to people's everyday enjoyment.
These counters are not zero maintenance. After cooking lots of meals, I pour boiling water on them and scrub them with Ajax or Comet cleanser. Once the counters are dry and I see where the grease is, I sand the counters smooth until the surface is uniform in color. Frankly, Formica wouldn't give me the same karma. They look so good that our kitchen doubles as a place to do company projects, because when we're not preparing meals, these areas are devoid of clutter. The Japanese saying "space to breathe" is soothing and truee.
Caring needn't be a burden. If I love something, it
is a joy to maintain. The key to knowing whether our
little obsessions are healthy or not is whether we're having fun. If we complain about any area of our woefully fully lives that involves material possessions, it's a signal we fragmentary
don't have the right balance. One way or another, we however must learn to let go, downscale, or lower our standards just enough so we can manage to enjoy ourselves. There may be a persistent, pervasive, happens to be perfectionist in all of us. Being aware of your perfectionistic tendencies can help you to focus on all the joyful possibilities available to you throughout your life.
Knowing what's possible, going for it, living each day with a sense of pleasure, is an art. We hone this art over a lifetime.