Many of you can relate to this story: the little girl who was “always good”, got A’s in school, worked hard, dieted and exercised her way to thinness, and tried to make everyone happy. The Perfectionist.
That was my story, at least until midlife. I was horrified by weight gain, displeasing my boss, leaving a bed unmade – so many balls to keep juggling, perfectly, in the air. It was exhausting and draining and stole joy. Not only did I experience it directly; I worked with hundred of patients whose main issue was “I can’t keep up with my demands on myself.”
Perfectionism starts young, with our earliest messages: “Always do your best,” “We expect better from you,” “Don’t let us down,” “There is no try, only do,” and others. When our young brains get programmed to always “do better/you’re not enough” it’s challenging as adults to change the channel.
Perfect has its place, and you won’t find me advocating for sloth, dishonesty, or barely-good-enough in our life pursuits. I want my airline pilot, emergency room surgeon, and veterinarian to be perfectionists. They’re doing Things That Really Matter to be done perfectly. Not many of the achievements in my own life fall into that category. I did want to be the best psychotherapist, and studied hard to that end. There were some people I wasn’t able to help, because I am not perfect.
Many of my other accomplishments, though, are good enough if I reach good-enough. Here’s the challenging part: to separate Things That Really Matter from Things That Don’t when you’ve aimed for straight A’s all your life. As I have aged, I am teaching myself that at least the following things Don’t Matter Much:
- Housework. I have suffered from compulsive cleaning, as a way to reduce anxiety. I recognize it, and it’s been a difficult one to shake. My failing eyesight is a plus in overcoming this obsession! New programming: “The house can be a little messy, and everything is still going to be OK.”
- Exercise/weight/size. I had anorexia in the late 1960’s before it was well understood or treated. My parents said things like “Stop doing that!” So it has taken me decades to relax about my exercise regimen and weight. Now I only weigh myself on occasion, and accept that weight fluctuates. In my late 50’s my waistline started to expand, for no obvious reason. That helped me accept that: “Bodies change. They change, and it happens to everyone and everything is going to be OK.”
- Saying yes to everyone, about anything. Giving this up has been the best step I’ve taken to leave people-pleasing behind. “No” is a complete sentence, and a mentally healthy one. The world keeps turning whether I join the choir (no) or take a trip with my in-laws (no, thank you though), or travel to Vancouver for a blogger meet-up (yes, please).
Reprogramming from perfectionism takes time and repetition, and it embraces: “Good enough is good enough here,” “There are no perfect bodies,” “Healthy is better than crazy about food,” “Most people don’t even notice what you’re up to,” “Sit down and read a novel, it’s OK,” and “Really, you are fine, just as you are.” The givers of the early messages have no power over me any more. I am in charge of my head. And nobody’s perfect.
These are pretty perfect:
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