A case for embracing being imperfect.
I have been a perfectionist since I can remember, I just didn’t know it. In third grade, I was chosen to be a hallway monitor at my school. This was a huge responsibility and we were made to promise that we wouldn’t leave our post for any reason, otherwise a kindergartener might get lost on their way to the lunchroom.
I internalized that responsibility far too much. One day, as my shift began I realized I needed to use the bathroom…badly. I crossed my legs, and glanced at the clock, willing my ten-minute shift to speed by.
By the time the second hand completed two rotations I was in agony. My bladder was going to explode. I was sure of it. They would find me dead on the ground, pee seeping out of every orifice.
I didn’t make it through the next minute. My bladder revolted and a warm stream of liquid trickled down my leg just as the kindergarteners entered the hallway to go from recess to lunch. It filled up my navy and red plaid knee socks first, then my black mary janes. As the stream of kids got halfway down the hallway, an unmistakable yellow puddle spread beneath my feet. Of course, the other kids noticed. Still, I didn’t leave my hallway post.
This was a huge responsibility.
It wasn’t until Mrs. Gafney, my first-grade teacher, saw me and wrapped me in her arms to usher me to the nurse’s office that I moved.
“Oh dear, why didn’t you go to the bathroom if you needed to?” She pushed her glasses up her nose as she asked.
“I-I-I wasn’t supposed to leave. It’s my responsibility,” I sniffed.
“Oh, honey!” She wrapped me in a hug that I’ve never forgotten.
This level of perfectionism continued to rule my life. In high school, I worked after school, ran the school newspaper, and cheered on the varsity squad. I still maintained a straight-A average. When I got an A in AP English my senior year I wondered how I could have made it an A+. The trend continued through college and the beginning of my career.
Psychology Today defines perfectionism as the need to avoid failure at all costs. Perfectionists think that other people will only love and approve of them if they are flawless. If not dealt with perfectionist tendencies can lead to procrastination, risk avoidance, and a lack of creativity, not to mention depression, and anxiety.
My perfectionism affected the choices I made about college and career and caused me to develop a serious case of imposter syndrome when I became successful. I have self-oriented perfectionism. That means that I put the pressure on myself, that it didn’t come from my parents. However, I also expect those around me to be perfect. That’s one of the reasons my first marriage failed.
Why it’s a problem…
I developed severe anxiety in college, with panic attacks popping up during finals week every semester. I didn’t want to take medication, because I didn’t want to be seen as weak, so I suffered. Eventually, when I passed out from one of these panic attacks, my boyfriend convinced me that medication was necessary.
That helped the anxiety, but not the perfectionism. Perfectionism has made me afraid my entire life. Perfectionism is what caused me, in my sophomore year, to change my major from creative writing and journalism to a menu of social science majors, and finally to education. As a young woman, I was afraid of writing, of sharing pieces of myself. What if I was judged? What if someone didn’t like what I wrote? That fear took over and crippled my creativity.
In Nine Little-Known Signs of Perfectionism Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. says that while perfectionists often have trouble self-identifying, that there are concrete signs such as an always-put-together-appearance, living by to-do lists, having trouble relaxing, unwillingness to delegate, and a need to have everything in its exact spot.
Here’s the spot where I hang my head in shame because it took me so long to figure out that this is why I’m forever running around, trying to complete everything on my own at work, and at home. It’s also why it is so difficult for me to pick up the phone and call my in-laws when one of the kids needs a ride and I have four other places to be. It’s the reason I have a career that is successful but has never really felt like me. I didn’t self-identify.
I had a therapist walk me through this.
I had let my perfectionism take over and it had paralyzed me. I stopped pushing myself and stopped taking risks because I was afraid of being judged and rejected. I didn’t try so that I wouldn’t fail.
It got worse.
My wake up call…
Even that realization wasn’t enough for me to decide to make a change in the way I’m living my life. It took debilitating chronic pain and anxiety, and the realization that I was unknowingly passing my perfectionist tendencies on to my children to make me think that my life needed a little restructuring.
I couldn’t drive, type, hold a book, or exercise because of chronic pain that filled my joints. I’m still trying to determine the source of that pain, but, in the meantime, I’m practicing being imperfect.
My son, at 8 years old developed such anxiety about standardized tests that he couldn’t sleep for a week leading up to the test, or during it. He took what the school said about a healthy breakfast and made sure I was making him eggs and whole-wheat toast every morning. He took twice as long as the other kids to finish the tests even though he reads well above grade level. He took pages and pages of notes. He reworked every math problem three or four times to make sure he got it right. No one told him he needed to do this. His teachers, and I all said that the test wasn’t that big of a deal.
My little boy was a ball of stress and anxiety because of the pressure to be perfect that he put on himself.
I had passed these tendencies on to him by demanding that I and others around me adhere to unrealistic expectations. I was done.
What to do about it…
At the advice of my therapist, I started small.
First, I turned in a paper for a masters class without revising. I was close to the deadline, so I just pressed submit and walked away. I got a B+ on that paper instead of an A.
Next on my list, going to bed with dishes still in the sink. This one is, admittedly, still tough for me.
I’m a work in progress.
When my coworkers offered to help me with a large project, I said no, that I could handle it. Then, I said yes, and delegated some of the pieces. The finished product isn’t what I would have done on my own, it was better.
I made a list of all the negative consequences of my perfectionist ways. I was seen as controlling by my family, I take on extra work and burn myself out, I’m always exhausted, I have anxiety, panic attacks and an unhealthy rigidity with diet and exercise.
I’ve been working at letting these things go, one by one. I still snap sometimes if there are shoes on the living room floor, and I definitely feel better when I eat a healthy, balanced diet. But, if you come over to my house and notice that there are some crumbs on the counter, a few dishes in the sink and that dinner tonight is premade (but still organic, and with minimal ingredients) chicken fingers with some raw vegetables just know that I did it on purpose.