I recently received a message from an anonymous young woman who told me about the girl for whom her boyfriend had recently left her. She described her in such loving, impressed terms (and admitted to regularly, masochistically Facebook stalking her), and it couldn’t help but come across as heavily self-deprecating. “This new girl was perfect… in all the ways I’m not.” I’ve heard many stories like this, and have lived it myself on many occasions. We all know the person — a crush, the new significant other of an ex, a friend — who represents all of the things we want to have for ourselves but are certain we won’t ever really attain. To them, to this perfect person, the whole world seems to be just that much easier. Their facility with style, with socializing, with their professional life — it all becomes the perfect metric against which to (negatively) compare ourselves.
It can be difficult to accept compliments. Our gut reaction is to brush them off in some way (or to immediately offer up some information which is supposed to cancel it out). Who among us hasn’t responded to a genuine, “You look great” with some offhand comment about how terrible you’re feeling or how ugly you really think you look. It’s almost involuntary, and in the best of cases it’s an attempt to feign the humility we are all taught is the mark of a mature, healthy, good person. But on a more profound level, we really do feel like that ugly, undeserving person. Hearing an unexpected compliment is something like hearing a recording of your own voice — it throws you off, and makes you see yourself from a different angle, and is always accompanied by an acute sort of embarrassment. Like in that much-hyped Dove commercial, the beauty that we are willing to see in ourselves is often just a fraction of the beauty that other people see, and we are rarely prepared to confront that head-on.
But to someone else, someone who looks at us with the same measure of self-deprecating appreciating as we do with our own Perfect Person, we have everything. We embody the qualities that they consider most important, and do the things that they think about while staring at the ceiling at night. So many of the basics of life — having a loving family, having an education, having an apartment, having good friends — are pipe dreams for people around us, people we likely don’t even realize admire us. And even more tragically, all of the things that we are able to appreciate about the lives of others, because we might not have them ourselves, are the things that are most easy to take for granted. It’s all just the curly-haired girl who laments how hard it is to control all her volume, only to be met with the jealousy of the girl with pin-straight hair who longs to have something more to work with.
Of course, it’s easiest to think about the person who thinks you’re perfect in terms of relationships. When someone is overwhelmed by the positivity and forgiveness of infatuation, it’s hard not to see the person you’re in love with as flawless. But with people on the periphery of our lives, it’s even easier to turn them from “fully-realized human being” into “vague amalgam of all the qualities we’re jealous of.” I remember being incredibly jealous of a girl my crush was dating, even though even a inch of objectivity would have revealed her to be just as flawed as any other person in my life, and certainly not as successful in all the categories I was inclined to give to her. What was essential was that she was different, and clearly “different” was what made her such a desirable candidate for someone I loved.
Ultimately, we are found perfect by people who are looking to find flaws in themselves. Because none of us are perfect, even if we are much more inclined to believe so when we are in love with them or want something that they have. Just as my “perfect girl” didn’t really exist (and proved herself to be completely normal the moment she was no longer with the person I cared about), the “perfect girl” of the young woman who wrote me is just as full of flaws as anyone else. She would be just as taken aback to hear all of these generous compliments that another woman is giving to her every time she negatively compares herself. And chances are good that, at one point or another, someone else found that young woman who wrote to me to be just as perfect.
What we really mean when we call someone else perfect is that we are not. We mean that we have something to aspire to, something to be disappointed by. And thus perfection is always at least slightly built on someone else’s pain. So perhaps it would behoove all of us to listen more closely to those compliments we are so quick to reject, to think about the parts of us that another person would look at with admiration or respect. Because one day someone will look at us with a feeling of inadequacy and an imagination full of our “perfect” lives, just as we are too busy projecting all of that onto someone else.