I woke up this morning with an all- too familiar anvil of negativity welling in my stomach.
If only it were nausea or some other physical/biological maladity – then some strong tea, a shower, Advil or an otherwise straightforward approach might cure it. But alas, I must roll up my sleeves and do some internal emotional dirty-work.
Here’s the thing, I’m a perfectionist.
It started as a child.
Raised a Catholic, I was taught that heaven (the pinnacle of perfection) was the holy grail of achievements. Of course, to get in, one had to avoid sin and temptation (but if a sin occurred, then confess one’s sins) and be a good person. To my young, relatively black and white mind, “good person” was synonymous with “perfect person.” If I wanted passage into the land of milk and honey, I better not make any mistakes – afterall, I only get one life, I’ve got to get this “right” on my one, and only, try.
My parents held us (my brother and I) to high expectations. If I brought home a grade report from school with an A-, they would ask “what do you think you could do next time to ensure an A+?” And then there was the “we know you’re capable of high grades, you have lots of potential, so we should expect nothing less.” Of course there is great debate over parenting techniques, and it is healthy to set goals and some level of expectation for children. Plus, I know my parents weren’t intentionally trying to put undue pressure on me, and that I’m responsible for how I perceived and implemented their wishes. But therein again, my young feast or famine mind internalized their expectations as written in stone.
In particular, not only would I feel like a bad person if I did not achieve high grades, I felt like an incompetent failure – like I had let down my parents, and most importantly myself (because while I could tune out my parents’ commentary, leave the house or simply go to my room – I could never escape myself). Sometimes a poor grade could be further generalized to the idea that I was a worthless person who should have done better. Again, there was simply no margin for error.
At any rate, couple perfectionist tendencies with being goal driven (or maybe one begot the other), and you have the perfect alchemy for the textbook definition of a high achiever.
Achievement is not a negative, neither is perfectionism.
But like everything else in life, there must be balance.
The perfectionist (at least this one), doesn’t really understand the term balance. Well, understand might not be the right word. Because intellectually, balance makes sense – a scale requires an even amount of weight on both sides in order to sit level; the human body requires even inputs of food, exercise, care, sleep, etc. to function properly; in baking a cake, too much flour will alter the consistency (and taste). But on an emotional level, perfectionists are always hungry – for perfection.
And here’s the thing about perfection, it is the ultimate goal, the holy grail of life accomplishment.
Because it’s never achieved- it is in essence, the goal that keeps on giving.
I could always write a report with less grammatical errors, take a better-lit photograph, lose more weight, reach deeper into my subconscious and clear a few more emotional cobwebs…
Feeling exhausted? Sometimes I do.
The last time I checked, my closet doesn’t have a Superwoman outfit hanging between the dresses and pants.
But I feel like it should. Because remember, I’m a perfectionist – I’m not allowed to make mistakes.
Here’s the problem (well, one of many): I’m human.
I no longer base my self worth and self image entirely on religious teachings or my parents’ expectations, but as a product of both my past and many years of ingrained thoughts, behaviors and expectations, I feel the weight of my humanness. The weight of my personal imperfections.
To some this might be liberating – “I’m imperfect! This is great, I can make mistakes and it’ll be okay!”
But to me it’s frustrating and troubling – “I’m imperfect! This is not good, I’m supposed to be better than this. I’m supposed to be able to meet any challenge and conquer it!”
Of course one of the most interesting combinations is a pair of perfectionists – enter Dan.
Naturally we relate on many levels: a constant desire for improvement and feedback, craving a challenge, working towards task mastery, etc. And we can commiserate on the woes of unmet expectations for ourselves and the general experience that is the journey towards that ever unattainable, but oh-so-alluring, state of perfection.
Intellectually, we both know it’s irrational to think we can do everything and anything we want to do perfectly. We know we’re imperfect and are likely never to reach a world-class level of performance in the things we do. But we must try to get as close to that standard as possible.
Emotionally though, perfectionism is rough. I’m just speaking for me here, but self-loathing is not too uncommon. Neither is a constant focus on critique and criticism. Someone can give me praise or a compliment and I’ll feel a momentary burst of elation, but it will soon be forgotten under the accumulated mountain of critique and feedback I’m trying to address. I focus on what needs improvement first, and dismiss what’s working well, or what I’m doing well.
And that brings us to how I felt this morning when I woke up.
I’d spent the night before stewing in the realm of “needs improvement.” Drumming up the ever-growing laundry list of things to work on, address, tend to, better, and this was not limited to my personal growth, but it expanded into what I want to better about my work situation, my relationships, my health… my life. The mass of unmet expectations, misunderstandings, lack of ______(fill in the blank), from all corners of my existence felt overwhelming. Because of course, I wanted to run to the closet, grab Superwoman garb and address all the “issues” within my personal sit-com, bringing everything to closure within 30 minutes complete with bettered self-awareness, some comedic remarks, and a sense of general contentment with the world.
This morning while out walking I realized just how much that big giant fiery orb of discontentment and negativity was costing me. It cost me the ability to have an enjoyable morning, it cost me the ability to be more supportive and understanding of Dan (who has been working long hours lately), it cost me some moments of sleep last night, and it cost me the energy to enjoy all the: met expectations, true understandings, strong emotional connections, accomplishments achieved.
I know I won’t change my perfectionist behaviors/thoughts overnight, and truthfully they may persist over my lifetime, but every now and then, I need to crack a hole in my bubble of self-improvement and goal achievement, and take a breath of air – a moment to soak in all that is good, and well, and positive.
It’s hard – I’m not wired to appreciate the tasks that have been checked off the list, the good things people do, and the changes made that worked – but I’m going to really try. I think I’ll start by writing down one positive/good thing each morning. Just one for now; perhaps I’ll allow myself to reflect on more than one item in the time to come.
How do you appreciate the “good” in your life?
Thanks for reading,