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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This was an excellent post Patti – I am trying to get less worked up about the three things you mentioned and not beat myself up if the apartment is messy and I’ve missed the gym for a couple of weeks. It’s almost impossible to keep all of the balls in the air, especially when you are juggling them alone.
I know you’ve mentioned your younger sister, and I have to assume you have no older siblings – you are a classic oldest sister! I guess I’m a classic youngest, too, because I don’t feel that same urge to perfectionism. I’m responsible, and maybe a little OCD when it comes to having papers tidied and clothes hanging straight, but I do it to make me happy, not others. Typical selfish little brat! 😛
LOL, Val – you’ve got me, I am the eldest by 12 years, with the classic oldest/only personality. My youngest sister is my best friend – you youngest’s are a lot of fun. xox
I try to convince people every day that they don’t have to be perfect and they should be a bit nicer to themselves. Positive feedback on something that a student found difficult is far more important than pointing out every mistake, I think. Especially as most ‘mistakes’ are rather insignificant in the big scheme of things. Your post also made me realise that I’m not a perfectionist: at work I don’t give my all (but enough) and at home… Well, there’s always someone’s suitcase in the middle of the living room, and I’ve learned to live with it. And I’ve only ever been obsessively perfectionist about something I’m truly interested in, couldn’t care less about other people’s expectations concerning what I should do with my life.
Brava to you Tiina. You have a healthy outlook, and a suitcase in the living room means someone is visiting – lovely! xo
Inspiring post as ever. I was a perfectionist myself and missed out on many things because if I couldn’t do it perfectly I didn’t do it at all. I was afraid to show weakness and accept my failures. I know better now. Congrats for the new form of the blog!
thanks Angie. I did similarly – I wouldn’t play sports because I wasn’t “great”. Now I’ll try almost anything : >
Sage words. I had a similar attitude growing up and learned over time to moderate it. It’s good to accomplish things but not to ruin your life in the process. I’ve achieved balance which works for me. Good post!
Glad to read this, Ally. Balance is beautiful. xo
Loved this post Patti. I’m so sad I won’t be in NYC when you are there. It is funny how many bloggers have type A personalities and were or are perfectionists.
I also used to be more obsessive about cleaning but then will think to myself, when I’m on my deathbed will I be sad I didn’t clean more? Ha!
Sometimes I will admit it is hard to convince ourselves everything will be okay when we are in the thick of things. The older we get, generally the more shit we’ve been through and it makes you appreciate the days when there is less to wade through.
You are so right. Once we’ve lived through it a few times (illnesses, hurricanes, financial losses) we grow in our ability to cope. “Days when there is less to wade through” is a wonderful phrase! xo
This time of life is so confusing. During my 50’s I got rid of my perfectionism and replaced it for …sloppy. I could use a little perfectionism right now.
Balance is always the key! : > I had a supervisor at the mental health clinic who sais she wanted “just a little anorexia and a little OCD.”
Great advice especially the saying yes to everything.
I’m far too impulsive a person to be a perfectionist, I jump in and think about the consequences later. I’m surprised I’m still alive sometimes. xxx
Impulsive can be wonderful! xox
Oh sorry Lynn – I mean improved vision is a wonderful thing, but we can do without seeing the dust : >
I had to laugh about your comment on housecleaning and failing eyesight. I just had cataract surgery and now see a lot of dust, spider webs, and smudges that I didn’t before. But I’m getting my urge to clean everything under control!