Updated: Jan 4, 2019
One hard look at perfectionism from infancy to adulthood.
Saying Goodbye to Perfection
“I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that alot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.” -Anne Lamott
As I mentioned in my first blog post, 2018 was a doozy. It kicked the life out of me so much so that I had to start a new one. I had to reassess everything about my life, who I am and how I was going to live moving forward. It caused me to make a mental list of my imperfections and learn how to rid them from my life. Surprisingly I had never done this exercise before. Which is actually not so surprising because I have always been a perfectionist and perfectionists don't really like to focus on our imperfections. Apparently I wasn't perfect after all. Who knew?
I'm kidding. I knew. I always knew I wasn't perfect and I may have even said that I didn't need things to be perfect because I knew it wouldn't be perfect to want everything to be perfect. Did I lose you?
I have always wondered if I was born a perfectionist or if it was bestowed upon me from my parents. In fact, I can remember being a child, under 10 years old, and my mom was reading a book about perfectionism. I asked her what it meant to be a perfectionist and I vaguely remember her reply implying that I had a problem that was called perfectionism and she was trying to learn more about it. I am guessing the 8-year old me didn't like that very much. After all, it's not perfect to have a problem that makes you feel the need to be perfect. Also, why the hell would it be a problem to want to be perfect? None of this was making sense. I don't think it truly made sense to me until this year.
In the past, wanting to be perfect meant I cared about other people. I wanted them to have a nice time, be impressed, and not be able to complain about anything. That should have been my first hint that it's not entirely all genetic. I had learned as a child that pleasing others made me feel special and gave me a sense of power and control.
I have since learned that perfectionism is closely tied into codependency; a word I hate and will explore a lot in this blog. If you're a people-pleaser you may be codependent or vice versa. Why else would everything need to be perfect? For ourselves? Probably not. If I never saw another human being in my life would I need a perfectly presentable house or ten fewer pounds of fat or spotless skin? Actually, I'm not really sure because I'm a perfectionist. I don't think I would need those things because no one else would be there. And, isn't that the point? There is no one else to please except me. While, in a perfect world, I may still want a spotless house, perfect skin and no extra body fat, I doubt any of it would truly matter if I were only trying to make me happy.
When I was a preschooler I used to come up to my mom and ask her to wipe off my hands if they got even a bit dirty. Before I could even speak I complained of getting dirty. When the kids were all rolling down the hills, I would sneak to the flattest part of the hill and tip-toe down carefully, making sure I didn't fall and that no one saw the terror in my eyes. I didn't want to be caught not joining in but I also didn't want grass stains or bruises. I especially did not want to feel a loss of control. If the kids were running around the yard barefoot I would take ten more minutes to find my shoes and socks before stepping out of the house.
Perfectionism has served me well in many ways. I got nearly all A's throughout school, learned how to sing, act and dance (triple threat) as a child and became very handy in the kitchen where attention to detail pays off. It wasn't until after college where I think perfectionism started taking control over my life. I was so terrified of failing at my biggest passions, music and acting, that I was too scared to even attempt it as an adult. I left college having done some really terrific regional theater/film and obtaining a degree in theater performance but when I moved to Los Angeles to follow my dream, I found every excuse in the book not to audition. So I got a real job which turned into a better job and a better job until all of a sudden I was an event planner and, as the years went by, an Executive Director and eventually a Marketing Director and then COO. It might sound impressive to some folks, but every time I think of it, I think of how I failed to become what I wanted to become: an actress and a singer; an artist. I still can't go to a play without feeling a deep sense of shame for what I never attempted to do.
Perfectionism is just an excuse to not be myself.
By striving to be perfect I have become someone who I never wanted to be. That doesn't mean I'm not proud of my accomplishments but it means it's time to start refocusing on what I truly want. Perfectionism is just an excuse to not be myself. Because if it's not me then it won't be me who fails. So, by trying to be perfect, failure is not a possibility.
I know this is not true. Failure is always a possibility and we grow through failure. It has been a relief most days to release that need to be perfect. To find comfort in knowing that what someone else thinks of me does not define who I am or what I accomplish. It has helped me prioritize what really matters: spending time with my family and love. Love is what really matters. If I'm too focused on being perfect I can't be present for those that I love.
So while I'm making progress and finding more ways to live in the moment and re-prioritize, I have some scary goals set for 2019 that will require me to throw perfectionism to the wind. If you've had a chance to look around my blog you've noticed a "creative space" section. I've written hundreds of poems and songs over the last decade and while plenty are garbage, I've actually written a fair number of songs with lyrics, melody and chords. I'm not a great piano or guitar player so I've used that as an excuse to not share my music with anyone other than a few select friends. This is where shame comes in again. I'm ashamed that I have created so many songs that are so close to being performance-ready but I don't feel like the instrumentation is complex enough and that my simple guitar playing will be all anyone notices. I'm ashamed that I used to be able to sing more than three octaves and had incredible breath control and now I'm two decades out of practice. These are lame excuses. There are plenty of musicians who have simple chords, simple guitar playing and even simple lyrics or melodies. There are plenty of singers out there that sing with heart and that's why their songs resonate with others. Not because they are perfectly on pitch or have perfect lyrics or accompaniments, but because they are sharing a bit of their soul. So I'd like to share a bit of my soul with you. If you don't like my posts or poems or songs, I won't blame you, but I won't let it drag me down or deter me from continuing to create. Even if there is only one person out there that relates to what I write or what songs I create, I will have succeeded. Even if there is nobody that relates, I have succeeded because I did it for me.
Just to show that I still have a LONG way to go in my recovery from perfectionism, I have already proof-read this post multiple times and removed phrases that I thought you might find pretentious or any section that made it seem like I was trying too hard. I can't have you thinking that, now can I? Clearly I have a lot of progress to make but I'm aware and that's half the battle. Or so they say.