So… I’m kind of a perfectionist.
[I can hear the people who know me best, snorting and laughing. My brother’s guffaws are loudest. JUST SHUSH, BROTHER. I KNOW.]
Really though, JUST KIND OF. I’m kind of a perfectionist.
My brother’s laughter is not without warrant. I used to be an over-the-top, anal retentive, angry, bossy, OCD, anxiety ridden, control freak perfectionist. I’m not anymore. [Seriously guys, really.]
After years and years of driving myself into the dirt, setting personal goals to deliver the world and then feeling like a failure if I didn’t OVERdeliver the whole effing universe, hating myself for never living up to what I could be instead of what I AM, I got tired of it.
Sure, there are still things that I get clenchy about.
Like making my bed. I can go from zero to bitchface in the same amount of time it takes a small child to jump into my halfway-made bed, which (I have found) is less than one second. I like straight, tight sheets and covers, pillows plumped just right, cases clean and all facing the same direction. Once the bed is made I don’t expect it to stay that way, but while I’m making it, BACK OFF.
I like my closet arranged “just so.” I arrange all the shirts on matching hangers, facing the same direction, in order of sleeve length and sub-categorized by color, partially because it makes me happy, but also because I can tell simply by looking which shirts are in the laundry, and what color laundry needs to be done next.
I like my kitchen tidy, floors clean, counters clean, carpet vacuumed, toys put away, books upright and between bookends. Some would say my house looks particularly neat and organized, but it’s not “because perfectionist.” I live in a 784 square foot house with three small kids, an extremely masculine male (aka tools and dirt and engine parts and things with wheels), and a bratty cat, so there’s no SPACE for mess. It’s a matter of efficiency, not one of perfection.
HONESTLY, I am no longer a freak-out perfectionist. I am now a KIND-OF-perfectionist, because I have finally learned the skill of “good enough.”
About seven years ago, I was married. At the time, I had been married for almost 10 years. My marriage, just like the rest of my life, was arranged and molded and outwardly sculpted to be “just so.”
We looked happy. We laughed together, every month we had friends over for dinner, he went out with friends every week. We went to church. He worked, I stayed home with our kids. We paid our bills on time, we had a car to drive, I had a little job at home to keep busy and bring in a bit of cash.
According to every outward appearance, we were pretty close to perfect.
According to every carefully orchestrated, tightly controlled, meticulously regulated outward appearance, we felt from the inside of our relationship that we appeared pretty close to perfect.
In reality, I was barely holding it together.
We were not close. We got along okay, but we were no more than roommates. I did not share my secrets with him. He did not share his secrets with me. We did not support one another. In fact, now that I think about it, we barely spoke. We lived in the same house, but that was about it. I raised the kids, he played video games. I cleaned the house, shopped, cooked meals, did laundry, he went to work and went out with friends.
We did not have sex. I did make a few attempts to look good and brush my hair and put out a “how you doin'” vibe, but it was quite literally never acted on or reciprocated. We were sexless, passionate-less, joy-less. It wasn’t BAD, but it for sure was not GOOD. We existed. We did not live.
We were broke. We were on food stamps. We made rent every month, but not without my tiny paycheck. The phrase “by the skin of our teeth” could be applied to all aspects of our finances, even with state assistance.
We went to church, but we did not follow church rules. We didn’t attend small group Bible study. We did not pray together, we did not study together. I did make an attempt once or twice, but it was awkward and uncomfortable. Digging into God’s Word threw highlighter ink over the cracks in our marriage, and brought to the surface all the personal garbage we were trying to hide from ourselves and one another. It felt fake. After several impotent attempts, we stopped.
I was depressed. Like, FOR REALS depressed. The kind of depressed that holds you in bed for days at a time. I was drinking on the reg. If I’d had access to prescription drugs, I would have absolutely taken them. If I had access to hard drugs, I would probably have taken those too. I was an addict without an outlet, and as any addict knows, without an outlet and addict will self-implode. I was bulimic, anorexic, body-hating, end-of-my-rope, wished-I-was-dead, self-destructive. I’m not sure that I would have actually committed suicide, “because kids,” but I was close. I didn’t realize that thoughts of suicide weren’t NORMAL. I thought about dying at least once a day.
I won’t say that my crappy life was caused by my perfectionist tendencies, but I will sa-
No, WAIT A SECOND. MY CRAPPY LIFE WAS TOTALLY CAUSED BY MY PERFECTIONIST TENDENCIES, combined with my desperate need to live up to the expectations of other people.
I had to be perfect according to everyone else, “or else.” Except THERE WAS NO “OR ELSE,” THERE WAS ONLY “BE PERFECT. PERIOD.”
I got married so people didn’t freak out that I was living with a boy.
I lived with a boy so people didn’t freak out that I preferred girls.
I stayed married so people wouldn’t hate me for leaving, regardless of why I left.
I stayed in school and killed myself to obtain a degree I didn’t necessarily need, for a job I wanted mostly because of the prestige and appearance.
When I went out, I wore clothes that made other women jealous so I’d feel powerful and beautiful.
I starved myself so people would want to have sex with me, because we all know that “how doable you are” is the same as self-worth.
I went to the gym so I could say “I went to the gym,” because I was afraid I would get to a size where other people thought I was fat if I didn’t, and because wearing a Golds Gym swag shirt showed people I was strong and tough. Never mind that I starved before I got there, binged and purged after, and hated the stupid treadmill the whole effing time.
(I did like the weights, but I didn’t use them nearly enough.)
I liked basketball, but I hated that my high school team lost every game, and even though I was the best technical player on the team, I was a pain in the ass. I wasn’t PERFECT, and it pissed me off. I missed shots. I missed free throws. I didn’t run as fast as the fastest girl, I wasn’t as tall as the tallest girl, I wasn’t as strong as the strongest girl.
I didn’t like college because I was average. My skate-through-studies attitude that got me straight A’s in high school, got me barely a passing grade in pre-med. I was not a genius anymore, I was NORMAL. I hated being average. I hated showing up for a class that I knew I would you’re-not-perfect-you-already-failed fail.
Less than perfect.
Except I didn’t. Not then, and not now. But I couldn’t see that, because all I saw was how I fell short of the mark. Nevermind that “the mark” was unreasonable, unattainable, and so far outside conceivable reality that it bordered on delusional fantasy, STILL. I FELL SHORT.
“I am such a worthless loser.”
In one way or another, every. single. thing. in all of my life has been dented and stifled by my need for perfection.
One day, after my divorce, after I’d moved back in with my parents (a new, totally different kind of torture, don’t move back home as an adult if you can help it), I was decorating cookies for Christmas. My sister-in-law was there, and she was cranking out cookies like a machine. In the time it took her to adorn six cookies, I had barely finished one.
I’ll be honest – at the time, I thought “WTF is wrong with you, Lady, you’re being lazy.” You can’t put out half-assed cookies, it’s cutting corners. You can’t put out cookies that don’t look like perfection, it’s a waste of time. THAT does not exhibit my best work. THAT is not my best effort, and every single thing we do has to be BEST EFFORT. I can do better than that, and so I will.
I worked on my one cookie for a couple hours. (no, i’m not exaggerating.) I scraped off frosting and started over at least two times, because I wasn’t happy with the result.
When they were done they were supposed to look like this, but all I could see were FLAWS.
…ridiculous, right? Cute, wonderful, amazing, kind of show-off-y. The perfect kind of perfect cookie to give away at Christmas.
“Look how great I am” cookies.
After a bit, my sister-in-law took a break, went to the bathroom, and probably took a nap, for the amount of time I was stuck at the kitchen table. Eventually she came into the kitchen, recognized that I was still stuck on cookie-number-one, and said to me, “OHMYGOODNESS THAT’S GOOD ENOUGH, you’re not making those look like that for them, you’re doing it for you. Just stop, it’s not fun anymore when you demand so much from yourself.”
In that moment, a light bulb went off in my head.
I stopped what I was doing, put my paint brush and tweezers down (yes, to decorate cookies, I TOLD YOU I WAS A PERFECTIONIST), and said, “You know what? You’re right.”
For the first time in my whole life, “good enough” made total sense. I decided, right then, that my time and worth are more important than meeting a self-imposed expectation, particularly one based on the perception of others.
Even after the realization, perfection is in my blood. The switch that flipped to make me understand “good enough” didn’t STAY flipped. It flips back and forth all the time.
I wish I could explain to you how hard it is for me to do “good enough.”
IT IS STILL REALLY HARD.
Deep down inside, way, deep, deep down, I am still a freak-out perfectionist. I have to fight it every. day. I LIKE things “just so.” I would love nothing more than to wake up every day to a perfectly clean house, raise perfectly behaved children, walk around in a perfectly sized, perfect weight, perfectly toned body, put only perfect foods in my mouth, perfectly execute my perfect job, perfectly love my perfect mate, and perfectly sleep the perfect amount every single night.
hahahaha yeah right.
LIFE DOESN’T WORK LIKE THAT.
Life, in and of itself, is only ever “good enough.” Not one thing in life is without flaw or room for improvement. Not one thing about our bodies or the human condition is without imperfection or flaw.
I say often “the only thing we can ever do perfectly is DIE,” and even then sometimes people screw that up.
For me, living in this imperfect world means I have to WORK to be “good enough,” not because I’m worthless, but because I expect myself to be perfect. Working to be “good enough” isn’t a struggle uphill, it’s a struggle to stop moving. To stop fighting. To UNCLENCH. “Good enough” is hard for me, because I get in my head an expectation of perfection, and then when I can’t meet that expectation, I feel worthless.
I’m not worthless, I’m just not perfect.
I’m “good enough.”
I’m convinced that my anorexia, bulimia, self-hate, self-doubt, depression, failed marriage, and all the times I tried to get better at all the things and then quit, is because I did not understand the concept of “good enough.” I was killing myself slowly, rotting alive in an otherwise vibrant life, because I did not recognize my unrealistic expectations, and I did not accept that I could be ANYTHING if I wasn’t perfect.
When I think about “good enough,” and as I created the title for this blog post, I realized something.
“Is “good enough” an ART?” …yeaaaah, probably not, because it’s not really creative in nature. It’s intentional and logical.
“Is it a GIFT?” …maybe, but not really. Gifts come easy. No one handed this to me, I had to work for it. I HAVE to work for it, every single bite of every single meal of every single day. Every effort, every goal, every time I aspire to be better than I was yesterday, I have to relearn how to be “good enough.”
“Is it a VIRTUE?” Yeah no. I know a lot of people who do it way, way, way too much. It’s a good thing, but it’s not the ONLY thing.
For me, “good enough” is a SKILL. It’s something that I have to consciously work for. It’s something I have to fight for, with purpose and intention, effort and consciousness.
For us addicts and disordered eaters, “good enough” is the key to freedom. It is the difference between using food as punishment and reward, and using food as fuel for our bodies.
For us body dysmorphics and self-haters, “good enough” is the key to self-love. It is the difference between hating what we see in the mirror, and loving our skin and everything that exists inside of it.
For all of us, “good enough” is the link between intention and action. It is forgiveness for not hitting a goal we set for ourselves. It is motivation to do better next time.
It is grace.
We could all do with a bit more of that. Right?
To all of you fellow freak-out perfectionists out there, here’s sending you a perfectly timed fist bump. Keep going. Push hard, and do your best to be “good enough.” Stop expecting so much of yourself. EASE UP A BIT. I know you, how you work, I know you are harder on yourself than any other person could possibly be, and harder on yourself than you would ever be on anyone else.
Stop that, because you’re great.
Just as you are.
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