by Susan Turner
This article is going to be different from past ones as I will not be the only person writing it! Yep, you are getting a break from me! I asked a few of my friends to contribute to this topic as it is a very important one. If you are anything like me, you love to hear from as many people as possible on ways to overcome some traits which most definitely need modifying. And yes, I confess, perfectionism is a trait I continue to work on. Letting go of perfectionism is a process just like our agoraphobic/panic disorder recovery is. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if those of us who suffer with “having to be perfect” could wake up one day ….and poof…that aspect of ourselves was no longer with us? But alas, just like many of us wish we could open our eyes one sunny morning and panic would be no more, it just “ain’t” so. It “ain’t” going to happen! Work, yes, work is involved in ridding ourselves of a trait which can reek havoc in our lives and be extremely debilitating.
My striving for perfectionism came from feeling totally imperfect on the inside. Okay, I knew I was way imperfect, but I decided if I put on this “perfect” front I could fool everyone. Unlike many perfectionist people, though, I did not strive to be the perfect mother, wife or house keeper! Ah, if you could see my house(my kids, my husband!), you would know I am speaking the truth! My family knew I was far from perfect so it was the outside world’s eyes I was attempting to pull the wool over.
Perhaps, I mused, if the world thought I was perfect, then in some magical turn of events, their praise would enter my body and mind, making me less and less imperfect. As you probably already figured out, it didn’t work. No matter how much praise I received, the fuzzy warm feelings were fleeting. I was left empty and off to find something else I could be perfect at.
How have I gone about changing? How have I been able to begin letting go of perfectionism?
The first step actually occurred years and years ago. Way before I had my first panic attack. I may have related this little bit of folklore to you before, but I feel it bears repeating.
I use to do a million different arts, crafts and hobbies. For those of you who knit and crochet, you know it is not fun to have to ” rip back” your work. There you are happily crocheting or knitting away and all of a sudden a few rows down from the row you are you working you spot a MISTAKE! Of course, in reality, you would probably be the only one to notice it…but still….it HAS TO be fixed. YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MISTAKE IN YOUR WORK and that is that! Ripping back( pulling out the stitches) while crocheting is not too bad…but ripping back while knitting is a royal pain. But I did it! There could be no mistakes in my work. So a hobby which was suppose to be creative, relaxing and fun turned into utter frustration for me.
After I complained to a friend( I complain well (and a lot!) about having to rip back to fix my mistakes, she shared this little story with me.
There is a tribe of Indians who weave blankets and make money doing so. These Indians INTENTIONALLY make a mistake in each of their blankets! Why, you ask? I sure did! They make a mistake on purpose and leave it in their weavings to prove they are not perfect–only God is. What a concept! I was blown away by the tale.
I am not a religious nor spiritual person but for some reason, I understood why the Indians did what they did. Who knows? Maybe I needed an excuse! Whatever the reason was, from then on I was able to let a mistake or two( not real noticeable ones, mind you) in my crocheting or knitting go. It was hard, believe me…but after awhile I was okay with it. Unfortunately, unlike panic which generalized by the speed of light to every place outside my house after experiencing my first major attack at work…the Indian- intentionally- made- mistake did not generalize into any other part of my life!
I had gained a small victory in my fight against perfectionism, but the rest of my life was steeped in going for the gold!
As I mentioned above, I experienced my first panic attack at my job. I was working as a teacher’s assistant. One of my duties was to check the students’ spelling tests. The teachers I worked with gave practice tests Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Friday was the main test. Okay, so here I am Miss Perfectionism having to check over fifty tests four times a week. I went nuts going over and over each test. I COULD NOT MISS a word spelled incorrectly. Well, of course, on occasion no matter how diligent I was, I did miss a word. When the teacher pointed my mistake out to me, I was devastated. She was not in the least bit upset. She just wanted me to know. For me, the world had crashed down around me. The secret was out…SUSAN WAS NOT PERFECT!
I could recount instance upon instance where striving for perfection made me extremely anxious and caused me much distress. But I think you get the picture. None of us want to be slouchers…but… it is not healthy to forever chase after perfectionism. It can not be run down!
Can a middle ground be found? I think it can be.
I would now like to share with you what some of my friends( in recovery from panic <and perfectionism>) had to say when I asked them to help me out with this topic. Ah….I will be back, though, at the end of the article to tell you how I am doing at present on my quest to rid myself of “needing” to be perfect.
Everything had to look its best or I’d stress out trying to get it there. I would wrap a Christmas present with fancy paper and just the right shade of color for the bow or ribbon. Of course, they have to match…now, don’t they? My son’s socks had to go with his shorts. His cowlick had to have just the right amount of gel to keep it under control. When I took my car to the garage, of course, it had to clean on the inside and out. I didn’t want the people at the garage to think less of me, now did I? Just writing this out is exhausting me….ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! It didn’t take a day but in time I have changed my perfectionist habits. I still like things clean and neat, but the difference now is I don’t let my house define who I am nor does it control my life. My time is more enjoyable now. I, also, feel much differently about myself. I have lost those negative “SHOULDS” which go along with the need to have everything ” perfect.” Two little words have helped me so much…I say them over and over again…WHO CARES? Who cares if the mechanic sees my messy car? ( like they would even care anyhow) Who cares if my son’s cowlick decides to do what it does best! Who cares if the gifts I give aren’t wrapped neatly and color coordinated with ribbon and just the right bow? ( I know my kids don’t when they are ripping them open!) I still have more work to do, but I ‘m on my way to a much more relaxed life…and it feels good, too 🙂 Just ask my family.
I’ve never been much of a perfectionist. My husband will attest to that…but… I do like to keep a neat as a pin house. Closets are my biggies. Everything has to be lined up. I would never leave my house without everything being just so. I am not sure if this was a perfectionist behavior or more of a phobia. I had visions of something happening to me when I was out and… I didn’t want anyone coming into my house thinking I was less than a perfect housekeeper.
I have really come a long way where my house is concerned. Now I can leave with beds unmade and dishes in the sink. I could never have been able to do this before. I’ve changed my “what if” thinking revolving around my agoraphobic recovery. I, also, have changed my ” what if they see my house like this” negative talk to “Too bad if they don’t like how my house looks, they can clean it themselves! ”
When I was a child, I lived with parents who were perfect in their cleanliness…and also obsessed with helping the ” universe.” I grew up demeaned for what my parents perceived to be a lack of neatness on my part. I was, also, ridiculed if I did not stop to help every street person or someone who had been in an accident. These rules were stringently observed and religiously obeyed. I did take on some of my parents’ ways.
My family ran to every poor home and helped strangers on the street. I, too, helped others because of my upbringing. I volunteered in hospitals. When in college I volunteered in the department studying brain patterning. Everyone came before me. My parents died when I was in my twenties. My older relatives assumed I would take their place. They expected me to travel across the country running to help every relative and to entertain all the time. I did my share of entertaining but due to my panic attacks, I could not travel to help all of those who felt I should. I lied to my relatives for years giving them a multitude of excuses as to why I could not come to them. In time I realized that I had to let go of my parents’ ways. I had to be myself. So…I told my relatives the truth. I told them I had panic attacks. I could not always be there for them. When relatives visited me, my home was not in the ultimate state of cleanliness my mother’s house had been. For many years, I suffered shame due to my lack of neatness. But now, I am happy with me. My house is not dirty, it is warm and lived in. I do help those that I CAN AND WANT TO help. I can’t travel to the ends of the earth as my parents did nor do I want to anymore. At this stage in my recovery from agoraphobia I do want to travel more, to be there for those I love, but only for those who accept me for who and what I am. I still live with my mother on my shoulder at times. When she is with me, I take a magazine or book and read it in the tub. This is my symbol of freedom from her after thirty years!!
My area of perfectionism lies in not making mistakes. Having a low self-esteem to begin with, making a mistake made me think even less of myself. I had to boost my self-esteem some way and the only thing I could think of was to be “perfect.” Study hard, get good grades, say the right things at the right time, wear the right clothes, please all of the people all of the time…the list goes on and on. Needless to say, it’s a lot of work being “perfect.” Changing wasn’t easy. It meant letting go of a lot of negative self-talk that had become the norm for me. It got easier when I had kids because a lot of the positive reinforcement I gave them, I also gave myself. When they made a mistake, I helped them to learn from it, and consequently, I began to realize that sometimes it’s good to make mistakes, because we learn from them.
“Would you like to come over for dinner?”
“You and the children can spend the weekend. It will be fun!”
These are some of the things I avoided saying for many years. I always had an excuse: the house is too small, I don’t have time to make dinner for company, I’m not interesting enough to entertain. But the reality is that I am a perfectionist and the thought of people around for extended periods of time bothers me. I’m afraid I won’t have enough time for myself, afraid that people won’t like my cooking, afraid I’ll be boring, afraid I won’t be able sleep while other people are in the house. and afraid my life will be scrutinized. In short…I am afraid I won’t be perfect.
I’m making an effort to change. I ‘ve found a few techniques which help with dinner guests. First, I force myself to invite someone over. Then I make only tried and true recipes and tell them it’s going to be a causal dinner. I accept their offer to bring something( it takes the pressure and focus off me). I have my husband and children help with cleaning the house.
The situation is similar with overnight guests. I only invite close friends and relatives….and even then I have to force the words out of my mouth! I give them lots of privacy. I go into my room early enough at night to have time to myself.
I’m still not an easy-going person who can joyfully entertain day after day. I have to gear up for it. But I have noticed that after a couple of years of having my children’s’ friends spend the night occasionally, I no longer worry about that type of guest.
I know that it gets easier as I force myself to do the things which make me uncomfortable. I’m always very proud once I invite someone over and even more proud once I have pulled it off!
I hope you enjoyed reading what some of my friends had to say about there dealings with perfectionism. See…you are not alone! There are many many just like you out in the world.
Okay…so how am I doing on my quest to overcome perfectionism? Well…not too badly! Not sure what is up with me but over the last year or so, I have learned to laugh at myself more. This is not to say that if I was still working at school and I didn’t find a spelling error on a child’s paper I would be thrilled and make a joke out of it…but…I am lightening up. The word ” DUH” has become a big part of my vocabulary…and I use it often to make fun of the some of the mistakes I make. Once I realized my friends did not think less of me( and probably were grateful I was not the robot I appeared to be!) when I made a mistake, I felt as if a gigantic weight had been lifted off my shoulders. This is not to say I run around happily making mistake after mistake because that just is not in my personality. But I have learned that mistakes can be fixed, mistakes can be forgiven, and mistakes will not bring my world crashing down around me. Well, not little mistakes, anyway! HA. And interestingly enough, once I lightened up about my mistakes(because no matter how perfect I tried to be… unfortunately…I still made them), I developed a sense of humor! Surprise! I had been pretty humorless before. I laugh at me and my friends laugh with me. Many times I don’t mind being the butt of a joke which I had created by making a mistake.
Today, I feel so much “lighter!” It is a very heavy burden striving for unattainable
Until next issue…
have a great fall…
and lighten up…
life is way too short…
to carry around our perfectionist baggage
day after day after day…
(This posted article was originally published in our ENcourage Connection Newsletter, print version.)