Tag Archives: perfection

Imperfect Allies, Flawed Leaders

This week, Jack Monroe was central to the push to get shoddy food packages for hungry children sorted out. Almost at once, Twitter was full of people who wanted to talk about how if Jack was serious about tackling child poverty, she would have supported Jeremy Corbyn.  It’s a typical story – someone does something well meaning and genuinely good and is shot down over something else.  It may be deliberate trolling, it may be a cultural problem, I suspect it’s both and I see it a lot.

There will never be a perfect leader, charity, organisation or ally who does absolutely everything you want in the totally perfect way all of the time. If you wait for that perfection, you’ll never do anything. If you decide that only your perfection will do, you’ll likely run into how imperfect other people find you. Lots of people trying to start their own revolution because no one else’s revolution is quite good enough does not get much done. We need to work together, and to do that we have to accept that none of us are perfect.

How imperfect can we cope with? It’s an important question. If someone is at odds with a key value, you might struggle to work with them no matter how good the work is. The questions of when, where and how to compromise are incredibly personal and specific, there’s no way to map a generalised answer for this.  My favourite strawman for this is the fictional group Nazis for Sustainable Farming. I would not work with them.  But what about the person who is doing amazing, frontline work on child safety but isn’t very good on some gender issues?  Or the person who is a brilliant champion against plastic use, but flies off on holiday? At what point does a flaw become an issue of hypocrisy? It can be hard to say.

It can be helpful to ask whether anyone else is doing the work – if there’s a selection of people/organisations tackling an issue you may be able to find the one that is the best match for you.  If the issue is important and the only person leading on it is problematic, you have to balance how important the work is against how problematic the person is. Also ask who they are – there’s a world of difference between a problematic person working for a cause they are dedicated to, and a high profile person making noise when you aren’t sure what their real motives are.

The movement to save wild otters in the UK had a great deal to do with otter hunting and it was otter hunters who first identified the population decline. This is a good example of a difficult scenario.  People may be allies over one issue but coming to it from such different angles as to have nothing else in common. Can you make that work? Should you? What’s the most important issue?

It would be hard to name an area of human activity that isn’t urgently in need of a rethink right now.  There is so much that needs doing, tripping up people trying to do the work because they aren’t as perfect as we want them to be, isn’t helping. We’re becoming polarised, and we need some degree of compromise and a spirit of co-operation. At the same time we need to think carefully about the issues we’re prepared to ignore for the sake of getting things done, and to consider carefully the balance between means and ends.

Poem – Imperfect Trust

I want to say ‘trust me,’

I will make it good, or better

Heal the wounded places

Ease bumps and bruises

Bring cake and comfort

Permanent, reliable.


We all know my track record

Is less than perfect

On this score.


But perfection…

The smooth untroubled surface

Unwanting, unchanging

Free from need.

An ice cube.


And the flaws create

Fingerholds in lives

Places weeds grow

Glorious, unexpected blooms.


My unpolished imperfection

Gets things done, ineptly.

With the love born

Of being unfinished.


Only the imperfect dream

Or desire, or hope.

Only the imperfect

Can change.


Trust me.

I’m going to mess this up

Now and then,

But there are wild flowers

Growing from my lips.

Learning to fail

I’m rubbish at failing. Not in the sense that I don’t fail at things – I do so a great deal. More about how I don’t deal with it. Being able to fail is essential for learning. There is no way of learning without making mistakes, and feeling safe to experiment and getting things wrong is essential. Most of us aren’t psychic enough to be able to negotiate all of our human interactions and life choices perfectly, so we need room there to deal with mistakes as well.

When it comes to other people messing up, I think I do ok. There’s room in my head for honest human mess, for good intentions that played out badly, for people not knowing, or realising. Most of the time I can accommodate that.

It’s when it comes to me that the problems start. I expect perfection. It doesn’t matter if I’m under-informed, or under a lot of stress, or haven’t got the skills. I expect myself to get everything absolutely right in all ways for all people all of the time. I know that’s not even possible, but even so, faced with a cock-up or a shortcoming, my body response is panic. I expect to be told off, put down, ridiculed. I expect to be kicked out of spaces for the slightest error. I find it very hard to imagine that anyone can tolerate or forgive me for being less than perfect, and it has to be said that this anxiety puts a lot of strain on my relationships.

It takes a lot of time for me to learn to trust that someone will be ok with me being human.

Of course there’s a lot of personal history tied up in these reactions – I know what of the past is shaping it. Knowing, I have also found, is not the same as being able to not get caught up in something. The head is faster than the rest of the body and unlearning a long-established fear response takes time. I can do it, I have done it in some key relationships.

One of the problems this causes me is that, faced with complaint or criticism, my automatic response is to feel guilt and responsibility and to try and turn myself inside out to appease the person I have offended. I’ve spent much of my life accepting the idea that it is ok for other people to punish me for failing, and the fear of punishment is a big part of my bodily reactions to my own inevitable shortcomings.

One of the big changes this year has been to question this. I’ve become suspicious of the people who want to hurt me for honest mistakes, human imperfections and not magically knowing what they wanted. I’ve become able to hold the idea that I shouldn’t stay in spaces where I am required to hold some kind of superhuman level of all-pleasing perfection.

Perfection is not a human quality. Life is too full of contradictions and conflicting needs for any of us to be able to do all the things perfectly for everyone all of the time. The person who demands that, and who won’t tolerate any kind of mistakes or shortcomings, is basically saying ‘you aren’t a person’. There’s no room in a world where you have to strive for people-pleasing perfection, to have thoughts, feelings or needs that are your own, and that aren’t perfectly convenient to everyone else.

My challenge moving forward is to be kinder to myself around mistakes. Getting something wrong does not make me a failure as a human being. It doesn’t prove that I’m useless and worthless. It doesn’t entitle anyone to attack or hurt me. I don’t have to keep doing on the inside what others have done from the outside. And when someone saunters into my life and demands, and derides, and doesn’t want to hear my side of things, I can use some choice, short Anglo Saxon words to tell them where to go. It’s a theory, at any rate.

Playing with fire

It occurred to me years ago that the skills which make a healer, also make a torturer. The uncanny knack of knowing where hurts most, can be deployed in all sorts of ways. I talked a bit last week about dark reflections, that which takes us into the worst of who we are. It’s been something I’ve wrestled with for years, in various ways. I have a dark imagination. There are things in here that enable me to write psychotic, evil characters, insane characters, and variations on a theme of human awfulness. Some of it comes from observation, but the capacity to make sense of that calls for empathy. Oh, in many ways, empathy is one of those lovely, fluffy things, but there are some things which, if you can empathise with them… you wonder about yourself.

I have a fair idea of what my most unacceptable traits are. I’m obsessive, I see the worst in things and the potential for disaster. I’m really good at frightening myself. I have a low boredom threshold, and a low tolerance for triviality and banality – that may not sound awful, but it means I struggle in ‘normal’ social situations and prefer to avoid them. Quite a lot of the time, I find people difficult. I’ve commented before that I only feel that I manage in some situations by faking it.

Humans cock things up. As far as I can make out, it’s one of the most reliable measures of ‘human’ we have. I think the single most insane thing I have ever done to myself, was to buy into the idea that I should not get anything wrong. There were environmental pressures – aren’t there always? We don’t have a culture that tolerates human error. Admit to a mistake and you could be in court, sued, in prison… so we all try our best to pretend to be perfect, shift the blame onto other shoulders, or fold ourselves into some kind of human origami that mostly hurts and still isn’t perfect.

Nature isn’t perfect. Much of evolution is a wee bit insane when you pause to look at it. Let’s stop and wave to the duck billed platypus, the sea dwelling creatures who have to get on land to reproduce, the land dwelling creatures who have to get into water for the same business. One of the easiest things to learn from nature is that mistakes are natural. Not all of them are fatal. Some are funny, plenty don’t last. Without mistakes there could be no innovation, no change. Permission to make mistakes is also permission to learn, grow and experiment. If you have to get everything right, you can only keep doing what you’re sure works. That which does not work can be really informative, and can enable new things to be figured out. Why be ashamed of that? And yet, we so readily are. The idea that we are, or should be, perfect, is damming, in every sense.

To be afraid of a mistake is to be afraid to live. It’s true in relationships too. It has to be ok to be less than perfect, to misunderstand, get it wrong. Then it’s ok to say ‘that didn’t work for me.’ If you have to uphold the illusion that your partner is perfect, it becomes impossible to say ‘ouch’ when something hurts. When you start pretending you aren’t bleeding, don’t mention that you’re fighting for breath… the illusion of perfection may be maintained but the reality of it is ever further away.

When we are free to be imperfect, we can be kinder with each other’s short comings. In admitting the cock-up, we have more room to fix it. In not demanding superhuman, impossible perfection, we give people the space to be more, and better, than they currently are.

I used to get told off regularly for giving the impression I thought I was better than everyone else – this because I demand more of myself than I would of other people. That’s a crazy place to go as well, when we equate striving and standards with superiority. I am not allowed to be better than you in case you feel that as a personal slight… which also means you are not allowed to be better than me, and the cult of mediocrity reigns supreme. I’d rather not live that way. To be imperfect, and striving, to be a mix of light and dark, strength and weakness, power and vulnerability is more natural, more real. What is fragile in me may enable you the space to be strong. What is wrong in me may inspire you to be right. What I cock up, may make some other person realise what the best solution would be. Life is not binary, not either/or, not win or fail. Achievement grows out of setback, compassion out of anguish. The very best that we are capable of may depend entirely on the very worst parts of our natures. If I know where to stick the pins in, I can use that to torment, or I can take up acupuncture. We are like fire in this regard, burn the house down, or cook a meal. There is no human material that cannot be used to make something beautiful, and nothing beautiful that cannot be subverted in the most unpleasant ways. There is nothing truly perfect, and no imperfection that cannot lead to greater things. It all depends on what we do with it.