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Recovering Perfectionist

My all or nothing attitude is just one characteristic of being a perfectionist.

I am a recovering perfectionist. I believe there are different levels of perfectionism, and I I fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. I don’t participate in catastrophic thinking; the world won’t end if I don’t complete every single thing to perfection, but I have been known to criticize myself if things don’t live up to my expectations. My standards have always been pretty high, yet I no longer expect perfection, but I expect excellence.

We develop our standards during our childhood; our parents, teachers, coaches, and spiritual advisers teach us their expectations and we learn from our experiences by trying to live up to them or not. The lessons I’ve learned throughout the years have allowed me to reconstruct my standards and behaviors, and as a recovering perfectionist, I continue to reconstruct.

I’m sure you can come up with several examples of how you developed your own standards and expectations. For me, I can still hear my step-mother scolding me: If you’re going to do it, do it right. These words were usually said as the clothes I had just laundered, folded, and put away were dumped onto the floor from the dresser drawers. “Now do it right.” Right was her way. If you’re going to do it, do it right.

When I was learning to sew, I used my babysitting money to purchase a long dress pattern to use as a bathing suit cover-up and some blue floral fabric from the clearance section of the local department store. I loved the print on the fabric, but the fabric was damaged– there was a large white streak running through the floral design. Carefully, I unfolded the pattern pieces and arranged them on the fabric trying to avoid the damaged areas; however, there was no way to completely lay the pattern out without some of the pattern falling along the streak. I cut out the pieces and followed the directions printed on the pattern. I was excited to be sewing. It took a few times to figure out how to sew the sleeves in, and even though the gathers weren’t even on both sleeves, I had learned a lot. I remember the dress had slits on both sides from the floor to about my knee. I tried on the dress and was excited that it fit, but I was disappointed that on one side a white streak ran along the outside seam just below the waist to the middle of the thigh. I told myself it wasn’t a big deal, besides, it was going to be perfect as a bathing suit cover-up.

I was having trouble understanding the directions for doing a blind hem, but after several attempts, I figured it out. The hem was a bit wonky, but at thirteen years old, I was still pretty proud. I put the dress on and went upstairs to show my step-mother and sister-in-law. My enthusiasm was quickly diminished as I was criticized for the faulty hem, and when the white streak was exposed as I turned, I was ridiculed for wasting my time. If you’re going to do it, do it right. I was instructed to bring back the seam ripper– most seamstresses are well acquainted with this tool– and was forced to take the garment apart completely. I was told “It wasn’t good enough.” I heard, “You’re not good enough.” If you’re going to do it, do it right.

My experiences in school were the same way. I struggled in math…a lot. To make up for not being perfect, I either acted as the class clown or became invisible in the back of the room. When I told my favorite English teacher that I wanted to be a playwright, he laughed and told me that I should be realistic…as a female, my job was to get married and become a mother. Maybe this explains why Leave it to Beaver was one of my favorite television shows and I daydreamed I would be just like June Cleaver. That didn’t work out, but after my divorce, the first thing I bought for myself was a string of pearls just like June Cleaver’s.

My collected experiences formulated my core beliefs whether they were sensible or not. For many years, I wouldn’t even do some projects, chores, or activities if I didn’t think I could do them right. At times, I still need to confront this attitude of perfection. Through self-awareness and reflection, I confront my beliefs…the beliefs that dictate how I conduct everyday life. I have discovered that my beliefs are not all bad, but they can hold me back from accomplishing some of my goals, and they can cause frustration and anger as I climb onto the hamster wheel instead of doing what I want or need to do. If you’re going to do it, do it right.

My all or nothing attitude is just one characteristic of being a perfectionist. When I avoid situations and activities, it’s not just procrastination; I don’t want to fail. It’s taken some doing, but now if something is important to me, I remember that it isn’t an all or nothing situation. Rather than focus on the outcomes, I focus on the process. I practice the pivot, a reframing of my thoughts and feelings, one of the most effective ways to replace self-critical and unrealistic perfectionistic thoughts. 

Another habit I’ve developed to work toward my perfectionist recovery is creating realistic schedules, steps, and progress toward projects. As it turns out, procrastination is temporary in most situations. It is valuable to prioritize tasks and set goals. I work with the end in mind; it helps to identify the desired outcomes and break the requirements into doable steps. Projects like spring cleaning and yard work are more manageable when divided into smaller tasks. It is also important to be realistic with scheduling the tasks and the expectations of the outcomes. It’s important not to get so caught up in every last detail or I’ll never begin. I remind myself, it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing scenario.

Along with creating realistic goals and schedules, I reward myself. Rewards don’t have to be expensive; rewards can be anything from a meal out with friends to time alone to read the latest bestseller or to take a walk along a quiet trail.

As a recovering perfectionist, I’ve lightened up on myself; I no longer have to beat myself up over the head for unrealistic standards and expectations. Instead, I celebrate the positives, the achievements, and the blessings. I can step back and look at the situation in a more realistic manner; I can choose how I think about the situation and how I want to feel. There is no need to beat myself up anymore; matter of fact, there was never a need to beat myself up over things that at the end of the day, aren’t very big things. As Richard Carlson said, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” And while we are at it, it’s great to take the advice of Nike and “Just do it.”

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