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The devil and Martha Stewart

Don’t give in to the voice that fuels the fires of perfectionism—especially here at the holidays.
By Meg Barnhouse
12.22.08

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Holiday frustration (© Brad Killer/iStockphoto)

(© Brad Killer/iStockphoto)

Years ago, I asked for Martha Stewart’s gardening book for Christmas, and I devoured it.

The photographs of peonies and okra were luminous. Her garden in the winter, under snow, showed patterns of stone walls, brick walkways, hand built trellises, a gazebo, and an herb garden in a knot pattern. Month by month she instructed me what to do, from how to start seedlings to how to paint concrete urns to look like verdigris copper. She taught me to prune trees and to make a poached pear dessert with the pears that came from my . . . Well, I didn’t actually do that. All I had in my garden were tomatoes, beans, and zinnias. I was a long way from pear trees.

I wondered how she did it all, and I was feeling clumsy and inadequate until I learned she sleeps four hours a night and has a staff of helpers standing by to follow her every instruction. I had no helpers, two toddlers, and my garden wasn’t my paying job.

I’m not here to trash Martha, bless her heart. I just want to look at how she affects some of us. As a practicing family counselor for twenty years, I know that there is a non-rational drive in many of us to try to be perfect.

It comes from the fear we all carry of not being good enough—that there is something secretly wrong with us that is not wrong with anyone else, a deficit we must cover and adjust for in all our interactions. It can drive us to try to control everything around us, to make everything and everyone do just right.

Perfectionism makes us weak—rigid, exhausted, afraid of trying something we don’t already know how to do and more critical of ourselves and others than we should be. We either drive ourselves cruelly or we give up.

Martha made me feel clumsy and incompetent because I was comparing my insides to her outsides. I didn’t have all the information. We know how unruly, unkind, and inadequate we are because we see ourselves inside and out. Mostly we only see other people’s outsides. We don’t know their private, internal struggles.

Martha Stewart is not the problem here—it’s the devil. I know that’s an unusual thing to hear from a Unitarian Universalist minister. Let me explain. “Satan,” in the Hebrew, means “the accuser.” When I say the devil is the problem, I’m talking about that voice inside most of us that whispers, “You are not quite adequate. You’re a weak specimen, a broken reed, a slight disappointment to your mother and father. You have a shameful laziness, and you might be just a touch stupid.”

Do you know that accusing voice? That is the voice that fuels the fires of perfectionism—especially here at the holidays, when we want our home to be in perfect order, decorated with taste and élan; when we want the food we make to be gorgeous and nutritious and all family interactions to be respectful and loving. That accusing voice will find plenty to go on about.

What I want to say is that I think “the devil” is that spirit of fear that drives us into crabbiness and anxiety. It saps our good will and clouds our compassion. The spirit of love is where our allegiance lies as good people, soulful people, people who want to make the world a better place. Love is always in dialogue with fear in our spirits and bodies and minds. Let love win.

I will let my heart be a pear orchard. I will make my conversation with friends and family as sweet as grilled peaches. Happy holidays to you, too, and thanks for the beauty, Martha dear.


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