Lately, I have been working on my issues with perfectionism. To clarify, it’s not that I think I’m perfect (far from it!); rather I’m constantly striving for certain areas of my life to be a certain way. I mostly do this in regards to myself and not where other people are concerned. I don’t expect others to be perfect or to say or do the “right” things, but I expect my outcomes to be a perfect as they can be by following ridiculous rules that I create for myself. Just exactly who do I think this will help? The answer of course is nobody. I may feel I’ve achieved something by doing things a certain way, but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter at all. And in the end, I mainly hurt myself.
How did I get to become such a perfectionist? Maybe it’s because I was so shy as a child, I’ve developed some certain self-esteem issues (I am comfortable and happy with who I am, but I often feel that others don’t see me as anything but dull, boring, and awkward, and therefore assume they believe I’m not good enough, that I don’t measure up to what they think I “should” be). Maybe it’s because I just decided that I wanted everything to be just so and in its place (as opposed to my father who often misplaced things and got mad when he couldn’t find them). Who knows? The official research on this topic is mixed—some believe we are taught to behave this way, and some believe we are born with a pre-determined personality and mental composition. It’s the classic nature versus nurture argument. If you ask me (and this is only my opinion), personalities and ways of thinking are a combination of the two. We may be born with a certain personality and mental makeup, but how we are raised helps to shape them into a sharper picture (not that my parents even taught me to feel I am less than worthy—that part came from me).
As I’m learning more and more about perfectionism as a state of mind, I am learning more about myself. Perfectionism isn’t just the attempt to have things a certain way—it can also breed anger, resentment, self-consciousness, anxiety, and many more emotions and feelings. It’s quite possible that my struggle with perfectionist thoughts is greatly tied into my anxiety.
I am currently reading Never Good Enough: Freeing yourself from the chains of perfectionism by Monica Ramirez Basco. I’m not even half-way through the book, yet I see a lot of myself and my way of thinking in what she has to say. Some of it has even surprised me a little. For example:
- I am a very detail-oriented person. I can tell just by looking at a picture on the wall if it’s off by a hair. This can be a great thing when working on projects—details are often important. But it can also be a debilitating thing when one spends too much time on the details, wasting time that would be better spent focusing on the overall project.
- I often set unrealistic goals for myself. In one weekend, I’ll have a running list of items I want to get done (blog post, start a project, see friends, etc.), plus the things I have to get done (grocery shopping), and the things I feel I should get done (yoga, going for a hike). I often feel stressed about how much I “have” to do. And come Sunday night, when the list of undone things is bigger than the list of done things, I feel stressed. But in truth, I’m not being realistic about how much can be done in one weekend. And the only one who is putting pressure on me to get these things done is me.
- I create too many ridiculous rules for myself. I will do this in this way when it’s this circumstance and do it the other way when it’s the other circumstance. Again, this can be a good thing depending on what the circumstance is, but when it comes to using what plate for what type of meal, who cares? Also, I tend to not let myself to go bed at night until all of the chores are finished for the evening. Will the world stop turning just because I left laundry, unfolded in the dryer? Of course not.
- I have high expectations for myself and often unrealistic expectations of others. I am a very giving person. I am almost too kind and polite for my own good. How can that be bad, you ask? I am giving because I like to be, because I choose to be. I don’t do things for people because I want anything in return. However, I like my efforts to be recognized. A simple “thank you” goes a long way. To me, that’s just being polite. But others don’t necessarily see it that way. Let’s say I send someone a birthday gift. It’s polite to send a thank you in some way, whether it’s a phone call, a thank you card, or a simple email. The truth is though, not everyone feels it’s important to thank someone for sending a gift, especially when the occasion calls for it (like a birthday or Christmas). Not everyone thinks to do such a thing—it’s not the norm in today’s society. I get that, but when it comes to family and friends, I tend to expect a little more from them, maybe for the simple reason that they are my friends and family. And I tend to take it personally if they don’t extend a simple acknowledgement of what I did for them. But it’s not fair of me to do so. Just because they’re friends and family doesn’t mean they’re clued in to how I would do things, which isn’t the golden rule.
- I tend to get annoyed when mistakes are made. I understand that no one is perfect and that mistakes will be made. We’re all just human, after all. But when it comes to something I’m working on, I feel annoyance when something doesn’t come out the way I intended it. Let’s say I write a paper for a class. I ask my husband to look it over, to check spelling and grammar and the like. He says everything looks good. I send the paper off to my professor. In the meantime, my husband notices a mistake. Now, rather than being annoyed at myself for having made the mistake in the first place (or just accepting that mistakes are made), I get annoyed with my husband for not catching the mistake, especially because I asked him to look for such things. Again, that’s not fair of me. His not noticing the mistake is just as much of a mistake as my making the mistake in the first place. And, in the end, it is only a mistake.
- I am a very neat and organized person. I tend to get anxious when things are out of place. When we have a party and things are “messed up” or get moved from their home location, sometimes all I can think about is, It’s okay, we’ll clean up after everyone leaves. Sometimes I even find myself “fixing” things while the party is still going on knowing full well that it won’t stay that way for long. Sometimes it’s just a compulsive habit, an itch that must be scratched.
- I have a lot of self-doubt. This is kind of a gray area because I know I’m a capable person. But I tend not to trust myself in certain situations even though I know how to handle it. When my husband and I go on road trips, he drives and I navigate. He is a more aggressive driver, which is good in a metropolitan place like New York City (and to get anywhere from Long Island, one has to travel through some part of New York City). I am a better navigator. I have a good sense of direction and study the roads we’ll be traveling so that I know where we’re going. However, when I’m traveling alone, I get very nervous because I don’t trust my sense of direction, even though it has served me well in every other situation I have been in. Somehow, I believe that I will screw it up because I’m the one driving and navigating, relying only on myself to get me where I need to be.
These are just a few of the traits of a perfectionist. Recognizing these traits in myself is the first step. The tricky part is not indulging in them and/or learning how to react to them differently. Sandra’s recent letter to herself really struck a chord with me. It’s all about how, years ago, she felt she had to be perfect, better than “good enough.” The message she sent to herself was how she wasted so much time focusing on such things:
“I now know, ‘It doesn't have to be perfect. It just has to get done,’ and ‘Progress, not perfection,’ are a smarter, less frustrating way to mosey through most of this world. And, so long as I am striving for excellence, I will achieve my goals and teach my kids an importance lesson along the way.”
I thank Sandra, because not only did she teach herself and her children an important lesson, she has also taught me the same lesson. Standing on this side of perfectionism, I can see her standing on the other side, telling me I can and will get through this trapped thinking.
I can’t say that my perfectionist thinking will change overnight—nothing is that easy. It is something I will have to work on for a long time. But I’ve come a long way too. I’ve been giving myself little challenges (leave the laundry for another day or two; my sneakers can stay in the living room overnight; the dishes can wait until tomorrow; go ahead and leave that spider web, as it will watch any other bugs that invade my home). I have to say it’s not only fun to see what challenges I can come up with, it’s downright liberating! I have more time to myself and to spend with my husband, more time to focus on the things that truly matter in life.
This is a new subject for my HappinessBinder—I will add the notes I’ve taken from the book to my “Gratitude” section because I am thankful for friends who can show me the way and for recognizing the things in myself that I need to work on.
I am not one to promote teen pop stars (especially those who hail from the Disney scene), but I think Selena Gomez has summed it up perfectly:
“I’m no beauty queen
I’m just beautiful me
You’ve got every right
To a beautiful life
Who says you’re not perfect
Who says you’re not worth it
Who says you’re the only one that’s hurting
That’s the price of beauty
Who says you’re not pretty
Who says you’re not beautiful
For me, the answer to her question is “me.” I am the only one who has told me to strive for perfection, and I’m the only one to whom these rules and expectations matter. But why should they really? What is “perfect”? With all of our imperfections—whatever they may be, including perfectionism—who says we’re not already perfect, just the way we are? We don’t need to strive for anything else than to be the best person we can be, folded laundry or not.