The Perfect Friend

There are so many deep things we can talk about on this blog.

So did anyone see Desperate Housewives Sunday night?

As far as I know, only Empath Daught and I own up to watching Desperate religiously. We hadn't discussed it at all this season, but a couple of weeks ago, right after the tornado episode (great television) I called Daught traumatized and pleaded with her.

"I know, I know you're busy with the job and the kids, I know. But by any chance, have you watched Desperate lately?"

"OMG yes!" she cried. "Did you believe that tornado?! Isn't the show amazing this season?"

Yes, in a word. But Sunday's show, the one following the storm, had only a few good moments, only a few scenes that really got to me emotionally.

They're usually the ones with Felicity Hoffman. I'll watch the whole show, alternating between treadmill and exercycle, knowing that some of it will surely be boring and annoying. But oh, those moments! When it's good, it's splendid.

Anyway, I'm going to tell over one of the scenes right now to make a couple of points, one about friendship, the other about the need to be perfect. How I'll relate the two is anyone's guess.

So as you may know, one of the housewives, Bree Hodge (Bree Van de Camp before she married Orson Hodge) is a perfectionist. She casts a spell over everything she cooks, everything she bakes. Her house is immaculate. She irons her sheets. She has a spice garden. She's gorgeous, always dressed. Her make-up's perfect. Heck, she's Marcia Cross.

Her house is wrecked from the tornado and her friend Susan (Teri Hatcher), always the people pleaser, offers up her home as Bree's temporary residence. Susan's daughter Julie (Andrea Bowen) is really upset about it and correctly predicts that Bree and Orson (also a perfectionist, played by Kyle MacLachlan, I love him) will be moving furniture within the hour.

But Susan can't say no to Bree. Make yourself at home, that's what friends are for, she says. We help one another. The show thrives on hyperbole, which is why it's cute, of course.

By evening the next day Susan returns from work (I guess she works). The ambiance in the house is sensuous, the room lit by candle light, the table set. Classical music filters through the the house and remarkable smells waft from the kitchen. Julie sweeps down the stairs to greet her mother:
"Welcome to Heaven," she says, obviously thrilled.
And it is heaven. They realize they can get very used to Bree, very used to ironed pillow cases and the smell of lilac.

But of course there's conflict. Bree essentially pimps out her own son to a gay roofer, hoping the roofer will move along the construction. Susan squashes the plan because she doesn't want the roofer to hasten Bree's exodus from her home.

Bree sits Susan down To Talk.

Susan fesses up. She doesn't want Bree to leave so soon because having her there is keeping her sane. The only reason that Susan is functioning at all is that Bree is there, taking care of her. Without Bree, Susan can't make it right now. She has issues. She's pregnant and her husband is in drug rehab.

But basically, Susan is Teri Hatcher. She has to have issues.

It's not codependency, it's friendship. Bree softens up, bakes Susan cookies, brings her a glass of milk. That's what friends are for.

So we need to take a second look at this, my friends. Bree's natural care-taking qualities, the way she takes care of house and home. "Heaven" is holding Susan together. Susan feels nurtured. She's fed, literally.

But as much as Bree is a perfectionist at material things, and gets it that her friend needs her, as a parent she's a disaster. Pimping your son? Is the lesson here that perfection is in the eye of the beholder? Or is it that denial rules. I can make a perfect crème brulée and pimp out my son.

Pick Door Number Two.

Therapists tend to pick at perfectionists as O.C., obsessive-compulsive, but that's really not fair. There are people out there who can do it all, parent well, keep a great house, attend to their parents and spouses, call their aunts and uncles, deacon at the church. And they don't always crack under the pressure, either.

At the risk of simplifying, it depends upon the support system, among other things. Energy out versus energy in. A person needs balance and a vacation now and then to function consistently well. A rewarding job really helps, add exercize, maybe spirituality, too. And eliminate all those other variables like an onset of depression, loss. Resolution of family of origin and marital issues helps. Getting handed divorce papers, on the other hand, can blow your whole day, really put a dent in the vacuuming.

Add it all up, make your subtractions, and trying to to be perfect might just net you headaches, ulcers, sleeplessness, all kinds of stress related physiological feed back.

Sometimes it affects the kids, too, setting that bar too high, either for yourself or for them. Demanding, perfectionistic parents are a challenge. Most kids have difficulty flipping them off, as hard as they'll try to rebel. And if they don't rebel, they're the ones with the headaches. Or they become care-takers, possibly co-dependents. Surely I'm simplifying. There are other outcomes.

Like a child's self-esteem, for example, that can suffer in the process of making mental comparisons with the perfect mom, the perfect dad. To me, the perfect mom lives in the shadows. Maybe not in the shadows, but she tries to stay backstage, be there as the working memory on the family computer that never breaks down. She's not perfect. She makes mistakes and owns them.

I think the saying is To err is human, to forgive, divine. Error makes us palpable, it's what we can relate to, the fallibility in our personalities and in the personalities of others.

Bree manages to make the perfect quiche. Do we really care?

Well. . .

Listen, we LIKE a good quiche. That kind of perfectionism, making the tangible in life excellent, is only dysfunctional when it hurts, when it's achieved at the expense of self (too much energy out) and something more important, like a child or spouse's well-being, or neglecting an elderly relative.

And perfect, it's my job to tell you, is only one level of functioning. It's nice. It's a very nice level. But it all depends upon what you're measuring.

It's nice to make a great dinner and not burn anything :)

It's nice to fold the laundry well, make the beds, sort the mail and pay your taxes on time. But doing it really well when other things (like people) get less out of you might mean that although you're functioning very highly, perhaps you're not really functioning well enough.

So yeah, we therapydocs tell you to drop it. Drop your coat on the floor, leave the dishes on the table for awhile, give the brain a rest and play with your kids.

Although Bree's perfectionist home-making make Susan feel nurtured, it's questionable whether or not her perfectionism really mattered all that much to Susan. I'm guessing that the perfect crème brulée is what we call the spurious variable in therapy. It just so happened.

The variable that matters, surely, is Bree's understanding. Her empathy cements the friendship. And let's not forget. Susan confides in Bree, she trusts her. I'd say pick Doors Number Two and Three, Trust and that corallary, sensing the freedom to speak intimately. A real blessing if you have that. It's not a given in life.

Indeed, the television is probably the best friend for millions of people who live alone.

So if you've got a friend who will make you cookies when you're down, you're incredibly lucky. And if she's understanding, and on top of that, makes really good cookies? Luckier still.



So true. My best friend saved my life once, despite my protesting that I was fine. (I had a severe bilateral pneumonia and couldn't breathe well enough to have a conversation on the phone.) I tried to refuse her attempts to take me to the hospital, but eventually got too tired to continue to insist. Turns out I had pneumonia in both lungs. I guess she was right, I was pretty sick.

Anyway, she saves my life, makes me really good cookies, and calls me almost every day (maybe to make sure my life doesn't need saving again). And she even lets me do stuff for her sometimes so that the relationship doesn't feel so one sided. Sure she's not perfect, nobody is, but she's pretty darn good. And I'm very fortunate to have her as a friend.
Anonymous said…
Nicely said. The external perfection has to be let go in favor of calmness, love, compromise. I was never a good housekeeper to begin with, but managing life requires too much to keep the dust bunnies under daily control. If I'm sleeping through the night and the creditors aren't calling, the dishes can wait.
Just stopping by to say Happy New Year. I hope 2008 has many blessings in store for you.
Dreaming again said…
Having friends like that ..and availing yourself to the help of the friendship are 2 separate issues.

I can name probably 10 people that would drop everything to help me (more than, but 10 off the top of my head and without going through my phone book). Many of them, ask me on a weekly basis what they can do for me.

I, instead, sit ..tired and worn out ... and don't even let them know I'm not functioning well, not even sure surviving would be the description, certainly not thriving.

I am, and I know this, incredibly blessed to have such friends, and so many of them. I guess I get into a cycle of either thinking I have to show them how strong I am ..or that I don't deserve their friendship, therefore, I won't avail myself to what they offer.

Stupid ... yes. Especially when you know all this and you're actively behaving in this way. I guess ... it's one form of self destruction that is not noticed by society.

My psychologist however, calls it 'isolating' ... *grimace*
therapydoc said…
And the trick, of course, isn't the taking so much as the giving back.
Polar Bear said…
Great post! I really enjoyed reading that. I'm a big fan of Desperate myself. But I live in New Zealand, and the new season hasn't started for us yet! It's nice to get a "peek" into the new season. Thanks!
Anonymous said…
"Therapists tend to pick at perfectionists as O.C., obsessive-compulsive, but that's really not fair."

This struck a chord with me. I find myself and my friends feel "guilty" or self-conscious or shame when we pay close attention to detail and try to manage our lives and those of our families. For example, this summer the 14 year old son of my friend went out of town with his baseball team. The transportation arrangements fell through due to illness, and my friend needed to make many calls to find alternate plans. This took her a couple of hours. Her remark was "I guess you think I'm being obsessive." I told her that I wish she wouldn't think like that - we've been told so many times that we are obsessive when we really are just trying to arrange the many details of our lives and our family. She was trying to help her son and she thought she was verging on the edge of mental illness - what is wrong with this?

I have also had a therapist make sarcastic remarks about my tendency to pay close attention to detail and be very organized. Perhaps that is my way of having control in my life, but it works for me and doesn't interfere in my personal relationships. I felt that he was out of line, and if he did have something to say he should have just come right out and said it.

Thanks for the great post - I love when I read something and it touches my heart.
therapydoc said…
Michaelangelo paid attention to detail, too. I feel we're all artists on our own pallets. Your welcome.
Anonymous said…
Mom makes perfect pies. So I don't even try!! But I do bake amazing cookies if I do say so myself!
Actually, I'd probably bake amazing pies too if I took the time to practice making the perfect crust as mother did, ha ha.
Perfectionists are created. The child who constantly hears "your personal best is not good enough," either audibly or through stern expression or by the withholding of acceptance and unconditional love becomes an approval seeker and people pleaser. "Try to please everyone, no one is pleased. Please yourself and one person is pleased." May sound a bit selfish, but oh so true. That episode of DW wasn't on in this part of the country, or if it was I was not aware of it. Oh well, I'll catch it in reruns.
therapydoc said…
All of these comments are amazing, aren't they?

We're getting close to talking about criticism. Oh, I can't wait.
Anonymous said…
Hey TherapyDoc-
I loved this post. I always wonder though what goes into deciding who copes with attempts at perfectionism, and who copes with eating cookies. How do you know when your attempts to be perfect are affecting others, and when your balance is on target? There are going to be times in life when you're trying to do too much, but you have no other choise as well.And how do you help people you see in the therapy room to see which of their coping mechanisms are working are which ones are not? Which obsessive people are in balance and which are not? I have a couple of clients now like that, and it feels hard to clarify at times.
therapydoc said…
RACHELZ, I know this is a cop out, but you get it over time. It really is a question of time, I think, and experience.

But even as an older doc, the right thing to do is ASK. You ask the patient exactly those kinds of questions, you don't assume.

You let the patient ponder those thoughts. They're great thoughts, great questions. Great stuff for therapy, no?
Katy Murr said…
maybe the patients sometimes are pondering these thoughts, but getting wrapped up in them, not knowing which way to go. I don't know a lot about therapy, it just interests me. How do you guide the patient if they're not sure which way to go with their thoughts? By trying to ask questions which lead somewhere?

I've not watched Desperate Housewives for a while... maybe I should. I like its humour.

Anonymous -

'I have also had a therapist make sarcastic remarks about my tendency to pay close attention to detail and be very organized.' this doesn't sound like a very good therapist, unless it was just somebody at an off-time, which happens to us all now and then... but sarcastic comments to a patient in therapy, about their behaviour? As I say, I don't know a lot about therapy, but from what I do know, they shouldn't be doing that, especially if it's making you feel crap about things, which it seems to have done. I mean, no-one should intentionally be doing that, but *especially* not your therapist.
Anonymous said…
Katy - it was a bad therapist. I don't know if I'll ever have therapy again.
Anonymous said…
Great article. Yes, I watch it. I tuned out during the long, boring second season but they have sucked me back in.

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Margo said…
It's always good to check back in with your blog and find a post that resonates.
I gave up my own blog for the time being because I didn't have the time to do it well, and being "perfect" at that as well would have certainly verged on obsessive-at-an-expense.
We can't do it all, at least not at the same time, right?

By the way, NOBODY makes cookies as well (or probably as often) as you. Um...or pasta.
therapydoc said…
Now there's a perfect friend. Remembers only the good ones.
Anonymous said…
You know, living abroad, I really miss my friends who I would do anything for and they would do anything for me. After reading your post, I just miss American TV. Better get to work on solving that writer's strike before everyone loses all their best friends.

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