Sunday, 9 June 2013

Battling perfectionism

I am a perfectionist.

I am a perfectionist, and some days I will defend it with all my heart, hands balled into tight fists as I shout, there's nothing wrong with this! What's wrong with perfectionism, anyway? What's wrong with doing the very best you can possibly do in every possible area of your life? What's wrong with that?

So what if I refold the towels my husband (incorrectly) folds? They fit better on the shelf my way. So what if I have to clean and organize my house top-to-bottom before having company over? Our loved ones deserve it. So what if I spend half my life paralyzed by minor decisions? It's worth it to take the time and be sure before committing to something that might not be quite right otherwise.

But when I look at my life, at myself, at my relationships and anxieties and fears, I can't pretend for long that there's nothing wrong with that.


Perfectionism makes me a poor friend. I want to invite you over. I do. I care about you and enjoy spending time with you but what if I don't have the right food in my house? What if I have nothing to offer you, no homemade cookies to go along with our tea, no guest-worthy food to serve for lunch or dinner? What if I don't find the time to scrub my shower before you arrive? And then I panic because I don't know what to make and I don't have time to go grocery shopping today and the kids create a new mess just as I quickly as I clean another one up and my laundry hamper is never empty and why would you want to come over anyway? I'm probably just imposing, and you'll accept politely because you're kind and generous but I know it's really just another obligation to add to your calendar...and so I don't invite you over.

I'm sorry.

Perfectionism limits the kindness I extend to others. You just gave birth, you beautiful mother you, and I want to serve you with meals and thoughtful gifts and oh, I would love to help you in any way I can while you recover. But I don't know what to make, don't want to burden you with another casserole to add to the collection in your freezer. Maybe something warm and fresh? Although you probably have something planned already; I could call ahead to be sure but then you'd feel like you had to tidy up and be presentable (or at least I would in that situation, I'd run around like a mad woman just to be sure everything was in order before you arrived with the meal that was intended to bless me with rest). You are incredible and I'm afraid my attempts at kindness will only end up being a burden. And a gift? You probably have more baby clothes than you have closet space, trinkets are just something else to be dusted, I don't know what books you already have and maybe you'll think this outfit is silly or ugly and who'd put their baby in that anyway? I could help, though. I know that most days, having someone else put on a load of laundry would be gift enough times a thousand, but I'd probably come off awkward or creepy or imposing, as if you need me to do your laundry for you anyway. In the end, I offer a generic-but-heartfelt let me know what I can do to help, but I know you won't ask because I never do either.

I'm sorry.

Perfectionism keeps me from carrying out in body what my heart desires. I want to offer something to those in need but I'm afraid it won't be enough, it'll be wrong somehow, not good enough or helpful enough or offered in the right way. I want to help but I'm afraid my help will be more burden than anything else. I want to send photos of the children to their grandparents but they're just cellphone pictures and they deserve nice bright clear beautiful pictures, and I need to sort them and choose them and edit them and I get behind and it gets overwhelming and so I send nothing. I want to share my thoughts but what do I have to offer anyway? I want to write but what do I have to say that doesn't waste the time of the one who will read it? I want to sew but how do I ever choose just the right fabric for this project? And everything takes so much longer because it must be thorough and checked and rechecked and redone and polished and just so in the end, and even then I'm as likely as not to decide to toss the whole thing out anyway. Not good enough.

I'm sorry.

Perfectionism heaps shame on my family. I know my husband notices when I quietly refold a wrinkled shirt before slipping it in its drawer. I have to nearly sit on my hands to keep from taking over my son's projects - let him fold his own damn paper airplanes, who cares if they're six-year-old quality instead of perfect? I get angry too quickly, do too much myself, because am I the only own who bothers to do anything right the first time? Look, you just swept the floor and there are huge crumbs under the table! Don't you know we have company coming? They'll think we're disgusting, that we can't even concern ourselves with their comfort enough to remove the bits of Cheerios and toast from under their chairs! Oh forget it, I'll redo it myself, just keep the kids out of here or they'll scatter my dust pile across the floor.

I'm so, so sorry.

And after all that...still those thoughts creep back in. Who wants wrinkled shirts from poorly folded clothing anyway? Why wouldn't you put your best effort into whatever you're doing? Why not do everything as thoroughly and as correctly as you are able?

I can read all the reasons why not and still that voice lingers.

I'm sorry.

The lie of perfectionism is that the goal will ever be achieved. I am juggling, constantly juggling, and I can't keep all those perfect balls in the air. I get one just so and another one crashes to the ground, then another and another until I give up and let the rest of them fall to my feet as well. If I can't do everything, why bother doing anything?

It sounds just as foolish and self-defeating in writing as it is in reality, but I catch myself clinging to it nonetheless. I tell myself to prioritize. I assure myself that some seasons demand letting some things go. I remind myself that I am the only one - the only person on this entire planet - holding myself to these impossible ideals. No one else expects perfection in every area of my life. It's all on me.

And yet when I dig underneath the noble-sounding ideals of hard work and a job well done and so on and so forth, it all comes down to the same thing - what will they think? They - friends, family, casual acquaintances, complete strangers, they. They will think I'm a mess. They will think I'm foolish or weird. They will think I'm a bad mother, a bad wife, a bad friend, a bad whatever. They will think I can't keep up with basic housework. They will think I'm unintelligent. They will think I've failed them. They will think...

I just want everyone to think well of me. That's what it really comes down to. Just one more unachievable goal. I don't remember a time when I wasn't a people-pleasing perfectionist...but I do think it's time to figure out how to let it go.

I'll start by leaving these imperfect words just as they are.

21 comments:

  1. I struggle with perfectionism as well. Thank you for opening up in this post, it makes me feel less neurotic and alone ;)

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  2. So many hugs to you. I do the re-folding thing too, and I have to watch myself, because I remember my mom yelling at me for not folding things right and it always made me feel awful. As far as "what will they think" my husband keeps telling me "If they're the kind of people who are going to (for example) inspect our shower when we've invited them for dinner, then they aren't the kind of people we want around us." I also remember that I don't inspect people's homes so they probably aren't doing it to mine. I still haven't found a way to combat the perfectionism that stops me from being a good friend. If you find a way, will you share?

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    1. What your husband said is so true, but so hard to remember. I'll let you know if I find a way.

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  3. ((Hugs))

    thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! I read myself in them, as I, too, am the same way with company coming over, jobs to be done around the house, or watching projects to be finished.
    I do remember my mom once said she used to be the same way and it will get better with age. So I'm (somewhat) patiently waiting for that "getting better" to kick in... one day at a time.

    Hope you are doing well.

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    1. Well that's hopeful! You'll have to thank your mom on my behalf for that bit of encouragement. :)

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  4. Perfectionism is such a burden. You're fabulously self aware though and in some ways that makes it even harder... it adds an extra burden of guilt too. :(
    You owe it to yourself to love YOU with (or without!) your imperfections. Your friends will love you with or without folded towels, clean showers and baked goods! They will love you for you.
    Best of luck with this battle. Huge respect to you for sharing so openly. xx

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  5. Yep! I can relate to so much of what you've written here.

    I didn't really realize how much my insistence on doing things the "right" way was affecting my parenting until I was trying to get my daughter to fill out one of those "All About My Dad" surveys that are supposed to be cute because of the clever answers they come up with. The question we got stuck on was "My dad is _____ years old". I wanted her to come up with some crazy number (because that was the intention of the craft), and she wanted to know what the correct answer was (she's got my perfectionist tendencies, too!). We found ourselves in a stand-off because we both wanted the "correct" answer and neither of us would budge. It ended in tears and completely defeated the purpose of making the craft together.

    I wish I could say we haven't had any issues yet, but the truth of it is, my perfectionism rears its ugly head more often than I like to admit.

    So thank you for sharing your own challenges with this. I admire your self-awareness and your clarity in understanding the deep fears that fuel the perfectionism.

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    1. Oh my, Kristyn, that exact same situation happened here two Father's Days ago. I eventually had to put it away for the time being and try again the next day with a more positive/determined-not-to-be-too-intense attitude. We're doing those surveys again tomorrow in preparation for Father's Day this weekend, so it's a good reminder to just go with things rather than get hyperfocused on getting the "right"/cute answers out of them. Seeing those perfectionist traits show up in my parenting is the hardest part for me.

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  6. I struggle with perfectionism, too. I really appreciate you opening up and writing this. Maybe I CAN learn to let go a little bit! Perfectionism is a self imposed prison.

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    1. Such a good description. Best wishes to you as you work to overcome this as well.

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  7. Oh boy can I relate to this. Especially with the kids projects. Sad thing is I remember my mom having the same problem ad her and I arguing over it the same way I do with my oldest. Talk about a cycle I'd like to break.

    Actually my oldest got so mad at me the other day (about something else) and told me she didn't want to go home anymore, 'home is disgusting' she said as she slammed the car door... and I couldn't help but wonder when I had said so myself. Because I probably did. And what is that teaching her? That what we have isn't good enough.

    Lord help me to believe that I am enough, that what we have is enough, that mostly clean is clean enough. That my children, and what they make and do is MORE than enough.

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  8. ohhh man. I could have written these exact words. I've hit the wall at this point though and the "If I can't do everything, why bother doing anything?" mentality has been hard to shake. Things are getting out of hand and it's like part of me has just given up and I can't convince that part to keep trying, to even get back to the level I was at 6 months ago. I used to vacumn sweep and mop everyday, and shampoo the carpets twice a month. The floors have't been cleaned in weeks and haven't been shampooed in over a 2 months. I used to be creative and come up with fun craft projects for my son and I to do a few times a week, now I look at my craft closet and just see a mess that I can't makes heads or tails of, so I just close the door. I used to spend hours while the kid was sleeping browsing AllRecipes.com and outlining a healthy menu with new and exciting recipes for the week. Now I just grab the same old quick and easy meals at the grocery store and I'm pretty sure even my 2 year old is getting tired of pasta at this point. I know a lot of it has to do with my separation from my son's dad finally hitting me emotionally after a year but the more I let things go and let myself down the harder it is to get back up and try to make things good again. ughh

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    1. So sorry for your struggles as well. That downward spiral is so hard to break out of. My prayers are with you.

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  9. Oh Cynthia, I really hear you on this one! My husband's mantra during the first ten years of our marriage were "it doesn't matter what other people think. It matters what YOU think." And for a long time I couldn't tell the difference.

    Have you read/watched any of Brene's work? Like this one - https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=X4Qm9cGRub0&feature=youtube_gdata_player

    Mindfulness meditation can also really help, especially in identifying those perfectionist thoughts without letting them take control.

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  10. Thank you, thank you for this post. You have put into words things I have felt for years but have been unable to articulate. . .not calling friends because of not wanting to be a burden, not making food for new mom friends. . . I never really realized, until reading this, why I was doing this. I thought I was lazy.

    Thank you for sharing.

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  11. My, I really related to this post! These same thought have often gone through my head over the years, and it is so frustrating how its stops me from connecting with friends and family. I stopped, to take a break from our summer project of cleaning out the garage, and came in to read a few blog posts. What timing, I was already in full perfectionist mom mode, and being critical of my dear patient hubby's organizing skills. Within the first hour saying "oh just give that tote here, I'll pack it". I have also done the re-fold the towels thing! Thanks for posting this, it is a good reminder for me to be more mindful of my perfectionism, and how it affects those around me. :)

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  13. Yes. This. Thank you so much for sharing yourself like this. I cried, reading your words, because it's like you have a surveillance camera inside my head and it hurts to know there are other people in the world who are cruel to themselves like this. Like I am. Like you are. We learned to be cruel to ourselves because it's what our mothers modeled for us, and oh my didn't we learn that lesson well? I mean, we're perfectionists, after all. And masochists to boot.

    Things started to get better for me after I read the book "Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control" by Allan Mallinger and Jeannette de Wyze. And then I did some reading about Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (which is different from straight-up OCD). Those things (combined with regular therapy sessions) all contributed to better understanding and insights about what was making me tick, and that allowed me to start considering generosity. For me. Allowed me to start thinking that maybe all this worrying and hand wringing about crumbs and wrinkles was actually making my life worse.

    It's the piece about heaping shame on my family that finally broke the dam. Because yes, he sees me when I refold his shirts or his towels, when I grumble about the dirty floor and get my Task Blinders on. When taking out the trash becomes more important that five more minutes in the sandbox with my son. Because SOMEONE has to do it or ... OR? What? THEY will find out. They will finally have irrefutable proof that I'm incapable. Or inattentive.

    Of course, that last bit was absolutely true. I WAS being inattentive - I was actively ignoring the husband and the son so that I could serve the ever-present and unseen They. The they that I can never escape because even though they may have been real people at one time, now they exist only in my head. And they can't actually see my floor or my closet or my perfectly-faced canned goods. They have no idea what I'm doing in reality. They exist only so that I can beat myself up. So that I can continue to believe I'm incapable, unlovable, mean, short-sighted, unprepared, dirty, and foolish.

    And it's simply not true. They lie.

    I ultimately began to get some space and peace around this when I made the choice to love me. To start adopting everyone else's perspective of me - because the real people in my life think I'm amazing and beautiful and capable and intelligent. They think I'm too hard on myself. So, I chose to be vulnerable and trust someone else, and actually believe I was lovable. Perfect just as I am. Just as divinity made me.

    I see you, Cynthia. I've been reading your blog for about a year and I hear your words, I know your struggles as an introverted perfectionist mother trying to do it all. I see you looking at yourself and striving to be a fully-formed person, to live into the divinity you know lives inside you. To model confidence and love for your children. I see a beautiful, wonderful, caring mother and a sensitive human and someone whose vulnerable. You're vulnerable every time you share one of these struggles with us. And that vulnerability makes you strong. Tells all of us how committed to courage and authenticity you are.

    I know how hard it is to stop listening to Them. And I think you can do it - I believe in you. Even though I do not know you personally, please believe me when I say I love you. You are lovable. You are whole and perfect just as you are. Those bitches in your head are just jealous.

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