Sitting in the waiting room was going to kill me. Not because of the wait, but because of the crooked wall hangings. Every single picture on the wall was off-kilter, some drastically so and some barely noticeable. But I noticed. I always notice. It took everything in my power to not get up and straighten each piece—it would be pointless. Why? Because they are typically anchored to the wall and immovable. Don’t ask me how I know that!
Seriously, how could anyone hang something so crooked in the first place? How was that ever acceptable? Is there no pride in one’s work anymore? Doesn’t the staff notice? What’s wrong with people???
I have a disease, and its name is perfectionism.
Ever since I was a little girl I have been drawn to the perfect. I never wanted to play in the grass for fear of getting my shoes dirty. I would re-write homework assignments so there wouldn’t be anything scribbled out or “oops” written in the margins. I even remember a little boy running his hand through my hair and messing it up—I cried.
As an adult, I know there is no such thing as perfect, it is humanly impossible for anything or anyone to be truly perfect. But holy cow my behavior and my mindset still try and achieve it. The worst part is that I often justify my case using Bible verses like Ecclesiastes 9:10, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.”
Hold on, when did “giving your all” get translated into perfect?
Exactly! When has working hard and doing your very best equaled perfection? I dare say never. The Bible says with “all your might” not “with all your might… perfectly.” Somewhere I got the signals crossed and I have been a hot mess ever since.
I don’t know if my bent-toward-perfection was innate or learned, or a combination of both. I do know that it has been a heavy chain—similar to Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol—that I have been carrying for far too long.
When I am stressed or fighting depression, my perfectionism is 100 times worse. I become ultra-focused and obsessed with things being right… well, what I consider right. My poor husband some days is afraid to even move for fear I will snap about something being out of place. It’s ridiculous—I know it. But it takes me over like a wave that comes crashing down.
I know perfection is based on a need for control, and I am working on releasing control. But for me, I think it goes much deeper.
I finally figured out that perfectionism is a tool I use to be accepted by others.
So, when people walk into my home and see everything is in place, the animals are well-behaved, they will like me. They will accept me. I will be awarded the seal of approval. Or if I am meeting someone for the first time it is critical that my hair, makeup, and clothes are on point because first impressions are everything. If I look like I have my you-know-what together then the chances of acceptance are far greater.
But see, none of that is real. I could be the most beautiful woman in the world and still not be liked. I could have a home that is so pristine you could eat off the floors and still be snubbed. Perfect doesn’t guarantee anything, and perfect does not bring happiness. It only serves up heaping amounts of worry, stress, and busywork.
If someone only loves me because of clean floors, then they don’t truly love me. People want to see and interact with real people… and real people are not perfect.
After so many years, perfection has become a security blanket.
Think of Linus and his little blue blanket that he drags around wherever he goes. That’s perfectionism for me. It is so familiar and cozy, but the warmth perfectionism brings is only temporary. My default behavior is comforting to me in the moment, but it creates a divide between me and other people. It creates a divide within myself.
Then my therapist told me it comes down to choice.
I was complaining to my therapist about the mess my animals make in the home. I have seven pee pads strewn around and it drives me insane! I absolutely hate, yes hate, having pee pads throughout the house. Oh, and the cat is destroying the carpet—we are renters for goodness sake! Not to mention EVERY wall in the home is white with white baseboards; I have nightmares about scuffs on the walls.
In the midst of my rant, she smiled and simply said, “You made a choice.” I did. At some point, I decided that having animals in the home was more valuable than my perfectionism. I chose little Coco Chanel and Sweetness because of the love and warmth they bring OVER my need to have a perfect home.
This was a breakthrough moment for me. I suddenly understood that I could have perfectionistic tendencies, but they don’t have to have me! When a co-worker helps with a project that isn’t up to my perfectionistic standards, I can choose to be thankful for the assistance and the fact that the project is done. I love to cross-stitch, but oftentimes I make mistakes. No one would ever know, but I know. Instead of obsessing over the lack of perfection, I can choose to focus on the person I am creating the piece for and find joy in the giving. I have the ability to choose and that is what can break the chains.
I am still a perfection addict, but I am recovering.
There are things I see every day that are out of place, cockeyed, or just plain wrong. I will always want to be the fix-it lady, and that’s okay. I think it is good to embrace the side of me that has a strong affinity to detail; it actually bodes well for me in the workplace. But I need to pick my moments. Is harping on my husband about the crumbs on the floor really worth the fight it might cause? Um, no. So, I can choose to not say anything and later get the dust buster… or let Coco find them.
Recently, family asked if they could stay with us. Normally my response would be yes, but when I realized I would be out of town the entire week before they arrived, I hesitated. When would I get the house clean? Who will show them how to set up the pull-out sofa? Will Ken do all the right things to keep it clean before they arrive? Ken can’t make our bed as well I can—it will be a mess!
I am embarrassed to admit that is where my head went. But I am glad to share that we did say yes. Of course—it’s family! For me this was a victory. How sad it would be to miss out on precious time with loved ones because I’m concerned about messy beds or crumby floors?
[Side note: My husband, Ken, is actually a great housekeeper; I just often fail to give him credit because I forget to take my ridiculous looking perfect glasses off!]
I do believe the chains of perfectionism can be broken… one choice at a time.
Like any addiction, the moment we think we are powerless, the addiction wins. But we are not powerless; I am not powerless. I have the power of choice. Let’s be realistic, I am not going to stop doing my hair and makeup and keeping my home nice, but I am going to look at my why and make better choices along the way. Perhaps the number one thing I can ask when I am in a heated moment of perfection is, “At what cost?” What will I miss out on in my fight to be perfect, and is it worth it? More often than not, it is not worth it.
So, in the spirit of choice, I’m off to go love on my animals… and pick up a pee pad or two.