blog, monthly theme

Latent Lollygagger: Afflicted with Perfectionism

This month’s theme is Perfectionism.

I don’t remember a time I wasn’t a perfectionist. I can see six-year-old me, lining up my stuffed animals just so on my bed, which of course was made. I rearranged my room countless times, a Tetris-like affair given I had half a room to work with, sharing with a sister whose clothes oozed over the imaginary line and caused me daily consternation. I loved organizing and sorting and logic.

colored embroidery floss organized in a box
Photo by Héctor J. Rivas on Unsplash

I could not control my brother getting into trouble, or he and my dad screaming at each other. I could not control my sister’s mess or endless face surgeries due to a cleft lip, or her drama. I could not control the social politics of middle schoolers and high schoolers. So, I controlled my environment. I controlled my studiousness. I controlled the reaction I’d get from parents and teachers: she’s so smart, independent, resourceful, hard-working.

I certainly would never give them a reason to be… da dah dummmm… disappointed

This perfectionism is, like every trait, part nature and part nurture. I’m sure I’m wired in such a way that it’s easy for my defense mechanism to be perfectionism. Which in turn fed my ability to be independent which in turn fed my being left alone which in turn fed my need for attention and praise which I’d get by being the good one. The perfect one.

People I know also afflicted with perfectionism share a similar origin story: being the good one, the role model, not wanting to rock the boat, buffering difficult siblings. When we find each other, there is a collective nodding of heads and self-aware laughter at our ridiculous tendency to control things we cannot control, to over-think a solution because we’re trying so hard to find the perfect way, to drive ourselves crazy listening to all the voices in our heads telling us we might be doing it wrong.

I say “afflicted with” in all seriousness.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “Gee, yeah, boo hoo, it’s so hard wanting to be perfect, must be a total drag having drive and discipline and focus to be successful,” well, trust me, we perfectionists have you beat with that mindset because we are the first to tell ourselves we don’t deserve to complain.

The entire battle of perfectionism is that it sets up an impossible conflict: being perfect versus real life.

Real life will win every time.

And yet, we are cursed to keep trying to be perfect. I grew up internalizing that my entire existence, my identity, was tied to being good and perfect and that any mistake or misstep would mean I am a terrible person.

Dramatic, yes, but those neurons formed as a child are hard to break just by realizing they’re damaging.

While for me, there wasn’t one person or incident that I conjure when I imagine myself doing something “wrong,” but that’s pretty common for other people. For me, it’s a completely imagined inner critic judging my every move, quick to point out I could be better or there’s still more to do or wanting me to notice how wrong someone else is so that by comparison I’m right.

You can imagine that last part has come up a lot lately, turning quickly into indignation over people following shelter-in-place and distancing rules.

Yes, this means I am incredibly hard on myself. My inner dialogue is shockingly evil, something that makes me sad every time I notice I’m doing it.

That’s another battle, one that feels impossible but I hope over time I can win: the curse of self-awareness. The idea is to notice, not judge, and over time reform my neurons so that I’m not so tied to the perfectionism, or at least can buffer the voice telling me I’m “doing it wrong” with more friendly voices, soothing me, giving me permission to try and fail and be an imperfect human.

Right now, though, that noticing gives me one more thing to get down on myself for, I get sad that I’m being mean to myself, and then I can be mean to myself for being mean to myself.

I’m getting better. Sometimes it helps to laugh it off in a self-deprecating way: “Oops, there you go again, what a drag.” Sometimes I can replace the thoughts: “There is no right or wrong way to do this, just do the best you can.” Sometimes I can have a conversation: “What are you so afraid of? Thank you for trying to protect me but I’ve got this.”

And, tying back to last month’s topic of vulnerability, I can practice when I am vulnerable and realize that I am more connected to others in a real way when I’m able to expose my imperfections and struggles.

How does perfectionism affect your life? How do you embrace imperfectionism? Comment below or on my Facebook page.

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