“Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.”
~ Anne Lamott
From a very early age, I showed strong signs of perfectionism. My grandma was a kindergarten teacher, and she would bring home workbooks from her classroom. At age 4, I jumped on them, determined to conquer the concepts taught to my older peers.
For the most part, I achieved what I set out to do. Except for telling time. At the end of the workbook, when the kindergarten material started merging into the 1st grade concepts, I struggled to come out proficient from the telling time lessons. Keep in mind, this was on a real clock, no digital time telling included. This was almost 40 years ago.
This about broke me. The perfectionism inside of me raged and my little body quivered with terror as I couldn’t grasp this concept.
Fast forward almost 40 years and I am continuing to see perfectionism pop up in my life. The all or nothing/black and white thinking. The unreasonably high expectations. The shame and guilt when I don’t do or achieve what I want or set out to do.
After reading the quote by Anne Lamott, I found a new understanding of perfectionism and my behavior. I asked myself if my high proactivity and intentionality is actually tied to fear. Is the motivation actually the fear of having a bigger “mess” to clean up and want to get things as “right” as possible the first time?
Perfectionism can only thrive in fear, shame, denial and secrecy.
For the longest time, people would suggest to me that I was being too hard on myself and trying to be perfect. I couldn’t see it. I laughed them off and thought that they were the ones who had the “issues”.
It wasn’t until I started hearing things like: “Progress, not perfection” and “Practice makes progress”, did I start to wonder if my thinking was a little skewed.
Soon, I realized that I felt like I was in a vice grip, and it felt hard to breathe most of the time. I had created such tight boxes full of rules that I couldn’t just live anymore. There was too much pressure and discouragement.
Writing is a place that I have experienced a lot of perfectionism. Since I was young, I have really enjoyed writing. Since I began sharing my writing publicly, some obstacles have come up. At different points in my writing journey over the past few years, I found myself experiencing pressure, fear and not wanting to write as it was feeling more like a chore than an enjoyable release and service.
The vice grip, hard to breathe feeling returned. Thankfully by this point, I was able to call this out for what it is – PERFECTIONISM.
Something I have done to squash the writing perfectionism is to write something and immediately publish it.
I know this is not recommended by most and I’m not saying it is appropriate in every situation, but it has helped me immensely in letting things stand as they are and not trying to perfect them to death.
This works in other areas of life too. Doing something in a “good enough” way and letting it be “good enough”. I applaud myself every time I can leave the kitchen after cleaning up and it’s not “perfect” or just the way I want it. To me that’s a victory and a means for celebration. I am practicing being ok even when something isn’t “perfect”.
I remember several years ago celebrating with my therapist about a Target trip. I had gotten home after a big shopping trip with many bags and brought them into the house. I was really tired and just didn’t want to put everything away just then. I actually left the bags there overnight and didn’t put everything away until the next day. That was a huge thing for me at that time. I had never even thought about allowing myself to do anything like that before.
Perfectionism is a thief of self-worth, identity, joy and peace. These are things I am willing to fight for. As more perfectionism is slain, there is more space for my truest priorities and values to emerge and grow.
There is also a lot more breathing! 😉
Walking along with you!