This essay is an excerpt from Kelly’s new essay collection, Final Girl: And Other Essays on Grief, Trauma, and Mental Illness, which is out today from Raven Books.
As my daughter and I readied her room for a sleepover on a Saturday, she surveyed our accomplishments carefully. Her hands darted out to straighten her comforter. She shifted her pink and green stuffed caterpillar, Cady, to the left and then the right. Cady ultimately landed in the spot that she started from.
“I want everything to be perfect,” she shouted. Her excitement about her best friend and the sleepover could no longer be contained; shouting became the preferred way to communicate.
I flinched and quickly recovered. With a pained smile, I hastily noted, “Good enough. Everything just needs to be good enough.”
I found myself hoping again that she can avoid the pitfalls of being like me.
“Good enough,” she repeated as she ran out of her room.
I sighed and followed her. I found myself hoping again that she can avoid the pitfalls of being like me. Or that I can avoid the pitfalls of one of the adults who raised me.
I am a recovering perfectionist. As a kid, I became obsessed with things being perfect. Perfection was the ideal I was chasing with speed, determination, and desperation. Making things perfect was a method to control the world around me. I could never handle chaos well, and perfection felt like a refined sibling of the order I required.
I needed schedules. I needed to know what happened next. I needed to understand what I would be facing each day before I faced it. Being a child of divorce made scheduling easy, but predicting what might happen very, very hard. I turned my outward struggle inward. My anxiety channeled into the pursuit of perfection.
If I could just make things perfect (or if I could just make myself perfect), I would have the order I required. And so, I had almost perfect grades every six weeks and no behavioral problems at school. I was unfailingly polite to most adults. I tried very hard to not be noticed, which my shyness made easy. I analyzed my friends and the other kids at school to figure out what they were wearing, how they talked, and what they cared about. I mimicked them effectively and hid who I happened to be.
And yet, perfection proved elusive and difficult. I tried harder. It slipped out of my reach.
If I couldn’t make things perfect, then, I would be perfect, or at least match my definition of perfection. I would never need any help. I would be a good friend, sister, and child. Always. No one would ever have to worry about me because I had things under control. My cheerfulness was my shield, and few people were able to see beyond what I wanted them to see. What I learned was that honesty about my parents’ divorce or my biological father’s moods made me appear less than perfect. I appeared weird, damaged, or wounded. Perfection allowed none of these to be apparent. I refused to be labeled as any of them. I refused to admit that I was likely all of them.
My anxiety channeled into the pursuit of perfection.
There were cracks in the façade early on. I couldn’t maintain the illusion of perfection when I was alone, so it became harder to maintain in public moments too. The cracks grew. The mask started to disintegrate.
When I was ten, I melted down dramatically on Christmas. I hated holidays because I was shuffled back and forth between my divorced parents. I dreaded them. I wished I could somehow fast-forward until they were over. So, I spent half of the day with my mother and the other half with my father. On Christmas morning, my mother gave me a porcelain doll with golden curls, rosy cheeks, and a beautiful dress. My father picked me up at lunch and brought me to my paternal grandmother’s house. I couldn’t bring myself to put down the doll, so I took her with me to play. I went directly to one of the bedrooms, away from all the adults.
As I tried to climb under the bed to hide, I scratched the doll’s face on the open box springs. Her perfect face marred by an ugly gray stripe on her cheek. There was no one to blame but my own stupidity. Tears ran down my face, and I couldn’t stop crying. As I tried to will myself to stop crying, I only cried harder, big gulping sobs. My father noticed my wailing and became angry, so angry. He yelled at me for what felt like ages. After his rage fizzled out, he explained sternly that my sobbing over a stupid doll was how he knew I loved my mother more than him. I wanted to contradict him, but I could barely catch my breath. When he walked away, I rubbed at the scratch on the doll’s face, with my chubby hands, hoping to wipe away the damage that seemed to follow me.
If I cried quietly, no one would hear me. So, I hadn’t really cried, right?
Three years later, I decided I was done with crying, especially about my father, his outbursts, and his hurtful barbs. I would stop crying altogether. I hid in the bathroom at his house again and again and taking shallow breaths to avoid sobbing and to calm my shaking body. If I cried quietly, no one would hear me. So, I hadn’t really cried, right? I splashed water on my face minutes later and plastered on my best fake smile, which never quite reached my eyes.
I would be perfect. I steeled myself. There was no weakness in me. I couldn’t be hurt, even if I knew I was already broken. I was hard as ice.
Two more years later, I let my best friend know about my father as we skipped an Optimist club meeting. He already had his license, so he picked me up on Mondays to go the meeting. Sometimes, we actually went, but others, we went to Sonic and ate fries and cheese sticks in the back of his forest-green truck. I took a chance and mentioned the turmoil at my father’s house. I let the mask slip and hoped it wasn’t a mistake.
“That’s fucked up,” he said.
“I know,” I replied, trying to believe the words I uttered.
The more I failed at being perfect, the more I chased it. Perfection was something I craved. I never seemed to notice that misery that so often followed. I had to be the overachieving student no matter what it cost me. I had to be the perfect employee even when I hated a job. I had to be the dutiful daughter when I would have really rather set my hair on fire. I had to be the best student in seminars. I had to be perfect fiancée and then wife.
My resentment grew as I tried to fulfill all of these roles simultaneously; my hatred for myself became an incandescent flame.
Perfection was an enemy I refused to see, which kept me from being vulnerable or honest. It made me silence my hurts, so that others wouldn’t judge me as harshly as I had learned to judge myself.
The more I failed at being perfect, the more I chased it.
I would like to say there was a breaking point. A dramatic moment in which I realized that I turned to perfection to avoid my own suffering and I vowed to be done with it once and for all. That never really happened. I just let go of perfection gradually and learned that my flaws are what make me interesting and lovable and human. My flaws helped make me who I am now.
It took me years to realize that things don’t have to be perfect and that perfection is an impossible ideal. I now strive for good enough or okay. My best friend from high school who became my husband bought me a “world’s okayest mom” mug a couple of years ago, and I love it. I appreciate the bewildered looks I receive from other mamas who can’t seem to fathom why I would be proud of “okay.”
I can manage okay. No, I can own okay.
It is not that I’ve lowered my expectations as much as rearranged them. I no longer look for perfect things or perfect moments because I missed so much. I want to dwell in the imperfect ones. The moments that surprise me with joy and humor. The moments in which I learn something about the world around me and all of its imperfections. These are so much better than the ones I tried to chase down.
I would never find contentment in some ideal that never corresponded to my life anyway.
And yet, perfectionism never fully left me either. I can feel it creep up on me even now. I try to bat it away. I’m staring down two books that I need to write, and I want to look away or maybe run away screaming. I worry that they won’t be my best, or more disturbingly, that they won’t be what I imagine them to be. I take a deep breath and stare them down anyway. They just have to be good enough. They just have to be okay. And I realize that I’m not just talking about the projects but also about me.
I’m learning to be okay, and one day, I might get there.
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