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In Which I am Sick and Tired of Being a Perfectionist

December 17, 2014

I’ve just about had it with my perfectionism, lately.

I’ve been dancing around these issues all semester—this worrying over my self-image and my lack of creative production.

I’m at the end of a semester in which I was supposed to have finished the first draft of my dissertation, only to find myself with two half-chapters still to finish, as well as an introduction and a conclusion. My house, a mess under the best of circumstances, continues to plague me with crumbling walls, filthy carpets, leaky pipes and clutter. I try to help a family member who is dealing with loss and several medical issues, but often find myself treating her sadness as somehow attributable to something I did. When I’m not micromanaging, I isolate myself from my family and I avoid going to campus. Because the fear of failure has been so strong lately. Because I believe a long list of lies that I’ve been telling myself since childhood, most of which center on my having to be perfect at something or it’s not worth doing.

Since my disastrous oral exam three years ago (note that even though I passed it, I keep treating it as a serious failure), which happened to coincide with a major crisis in my marriage and with my faith, I dove headfirst into reading damned near everything I could get my hands on regarding spirituality, mysticism, self-help, and Buddhist meditation. I’ve been far more passionate about this than I’ve been about my dissertation.

The great problem with taking spirituality seriously, however, is that you do in fact get forced to look at all of the things that you don’t want to see. Learning how to meditate isn’t about stress relief, or looking peaceful on a carpet as you listen to Deepak Chopra. Meditation ends up uncorking the genie, my friends. You stop being able to lie to yourself about what’s going on in your life.

In my case, it’s that there isn’t actually anything wrong with me—it’s that I somehow need for there to be.

Martha Beck, one of my favorite gurus, has an article that she wrote for O Magazine in which she praises author Anne Lamott’s idea of the “shitty first draft,”  in her writing, and also reminds us that perfectionism can really hold us back. In fact, we keep “getting perfectionistic about our attempts to stop being perfectionists.”

Martha also describes what she calls the “Pefectionist Credo”: “If I try hard enough and I’m very careful and I follow all the rules, everything will go right and everyone will love me and I’ll feel good all the time.”

This sounds familiar…

In one of those coincidences that, in retrospect, aren’t coincidences, this week I picked up a copy of Elizabeth Lombardo’s Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love off of the “New Releases” shelf at my local library. One of the most helpful ideas Lombardo provides was the concept of the “rulebook,” where we subconsciously have created very long lists of rules that we live by and hold others to. Our issues with perfectionism, and our strong emotional reactions to ourselves and others come when we feel these rules have been “broken.”

My personal rulebook, I’ve realized, includes such gems as:

  • You must be perfect or no one will like you.
  • Outside opinion determines your success and/or personal safety.
  • There is only one right way to do things or to present yourself.
  • Academic success will lead to a perfect career, enough money, and respect from the outside world.
  • It is possible to achieve perfection and to do all of the right things, and you are allowed to judge the people that don’t.
  • If you don’t “look right,” have the right class status, act “correctly,” or have a clean house, you are a bad person.
  • You must protect your children from all harm at all times.
  • You cannot show undue emotion. Tears and temper tantrums will not be tolerated, and embarrass yourself and others.
  • You must placate all of the difficult people in your life at all times so that you will be safe. You are not allowed to say “no.”
  • There is no safety until you eliminate, neutralize, or get around/run away from all outside threats.
  • You can control everything if you try hard enough.

Because I can’t live up to this internal rulebook, (and frankly, it’s miserable trying to), I end up being fiercely judgmental of myself and others. I spend entire days stewing over the past or imagining a future where everything will go wrong. I believe the stories that I tell myself about the past and future—usually, that everything is either my fault, or, I find ways to blame others for how difficult I think my life is. (I wonder now just how many times I’ve used things like being a child of divorce, being poor, being “shy,” “overweight,” or “awkward,” being married, being a mother, being a caregiver, or being somehow wronged by another person, as an excuse?)

I’m a cultural historian. I really should know better than anyone just how narratives play out, but it turns out to be an entirely different story when those narratives are in your own head. (Frankly, isn’t history just a collective story that we tell ourselves? The dream we all dream together?)

I run the same tales through my head daily, about my inadequacies, and how very hard I think my life is, or how this family member or that restricted me, or how my academic dreams haven’t turned out the way I had hoped…and this leaves me feeling like I shouldn’t bother. Usually, there goes another day when I don’t write anything.

Not that writing my dissertation should be the litmus test of my self-worth. But I think it’s indicative of the larger problem. My perfectionism is preventing me from seeing my dissertation as the academic exercise that it is. It’s just an extended argument about gender and nineteenth-century concepts of anatomy and addiction. It’s not my future, it’s not my life, and it’s certainly not anything like this evil Dissertation Monster that I’ve created and that scares me so much.

Because my life didn’t follow my rulebook—in fact, my life and my family have been great gifts, I think, sent to gloriously blow my rulebook to itty bitty burnt shreds—I’ve been pretty paralyzed these past few years. The more I read and the more I meditate and the more I come to terms with what is going on inside of me…the more I think it is time to be brave. (Brené Brown would call this “digging deep,” or “daring greatly.”)

I think it is time to finish my dissertation, even if it is completely shitty, doesn’t remotely follow my ambitious original timeline, and doesn’t ensure me any sort of secure academic career.

I think it is time to accept my family and my in-laws and my family of origin exactly as they are, and to thank them for knocking my preconceptions out of me on a daily basis.

I think it is time to stop hiding in my house and to find myself again.

One of Martha Beck’s solutions to perfectionism is to revel in doing something badly. So I’m endeavoring to blog badly. To write badly. To actually finish things instead of deciding that they are worthless before they are done. To know that I am the best mother I can be, and that I don’t need to be a Pinterest Mom or She Who Ensures that Her Children Are Perfect at All Times. To know that despite not choosing the caregiving path, I have tried my best to be as compassionate and helpful as I can be. To know that despite the fact that I feel like I let everyone down on a daily basis, the one whom I should never let down is myself.

So why can’t I blog badly right here? Why should this be just another sanitized blog where all I show you are my book reviews and my academic pretensions? What is the point of a “platform” if it’s not an honest one?

As human beings, we have the great privilege of being present. Of being able to start over again moment by moment and day by day.

So I’m starting again. Right now. As gloriously imperfectly as I can.


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