The Illusion of Perfection

By Kim Mallin

It was a warm sunny Friday afternoon, one of those perfect fall days that we get here in the Carolinas. The kind of day convertibles were made for. With the top down on my Miata, my friend TeTe and I were enjoying the fresh air, enthusiastically singing along with the Dixie Chicks. It felt great to relax after spending all week unloading crepe myrtles and hydrangeas, pursuing my current career at a plant nursery.

I must admit to feeling a little sorry for myself, driving past beautifully landscaped lawns and grand old estates…my current living situation was a far cry from this neighborhood. My life was not turning out the way I had planned. Not at all.

As we passed by those stately historical homes, I wondered what the lives of their owners were like, imagining their perfect lives. On the wrap-around porch of one of the more graceful homes, sat a woman and several children. Surely they were waiting for daddy’s car to turn into the driveway. The mother, young and pretty, dressed nicely in a crisp, colorful sundress, and her two young daughters, dressed alike in the same, sitting on either side of her. A tow-headed little boy in his bright blue jumpsuit played on the lawn, running in circles around a puppy, playful sounds coming from both of them.

Envy filled me, and I said to TeTe, “Look at them. I bet they have the perfect life.”

I’ve never forgotten her answer. “You never know. She might be looking down at us, seeing two young women, singing and laughing, their hair flowing in the breeze, top down on the convertible, thinking how lucky those girls are to be free and happy and heading someplace fabulous on a Friday afternoon. Maybe she thinks our lives are perfect.”

At that moment, my life was anything but perfect. I was living in a half-way house after having lost my medical license and my marriage. Work was hard to find for an unemployed surgical resident; I’d been lucky to get a job in a local plant nursery, making little better than minimum wage. And as far as heading someplace fabulous on a beautiful Friday afternoon…we were headed to a twelve-step meeting. Not most people’s idea of fabulous.

I had heard the saying, “don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides,” but this was the first time it really made sense to me.

I learned several things that day.

Not to assume that I knew what was going on in others’ lives by how they “looked.” Maybe they were the perfect family and were just waiting for daddy to come home…but maybe daddy wasn’t coming home, or maybe mommy had a health problem. Maybe they were practically bankrupt. In all likelihood, they had their own struggles and worries that just weren’t apparent on the outside. I began to understand that the outside did not always show the truth of what was inside.

As I thought about her comment, I realized just how much emphasis I did place on the external. How most of my many insecurities were based on how things looked from the outside…how I looked from the outside. Was I too fat? Wearing the wrong clothes? Did I look nervous or uncomfortable? Was my job/car/date/hairstyle cool enough? What if I messed up? Embarrassed myself? Made a mistake?

I could see that in my effort to make the outside look good, I often neglected the more important inside. There had been times, too many times, when I had let my inside suffer in order to keep the outside looking good.

No matter how I felt inside, I had an overwhelming need to be seen by others as being okay, being “fine,” doing well. Even if it meant I starved myself to be thinner, or was in debt from spending too much on clothes or lied and acted like I knew something that I was clueless about. Ultimately I believe my inability to be true to my inside played a role in my drinking. What better way to ignore my inner discomfort than to have a drink or two or three?

I wish I could say that my beliefs and behavior changed right away. They didn’t. But my experience that afternoon was a beginning, an awareness, a glimpse at the importance of not being so quick to judge the external.

Gradually, I have been able to learn how to merge the two halves. How did that happen? With a combination of humbling life experiences, therapy and twelve-step programs, I have become less self-centered. It may sound counterintuitive, but as my pre-occupation with myself lessened, my ability to accept myself, and therefore others, increased. I’m still a work in progress, learning to be okay with my outside and true to my inside. And to look beyond others’ outsides to what lies beneath.

Not all the time and not even perfectly, but enough so that most of the time, I am comfortable in my own skin. I may not be perfect, but I’m just right for me.

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