losing it: perfectionism
This is an irregular (and intermittent, ha) series of posts about letting go of stuff (and nonsense) in order to be happier, healthier, and etc. Previously I’ve lost my clothes and my apologies and waited for the universe to whoomp me. (Any day now.) It’s all unabashedly inspired by Bindu Wiles and her Shed Project of 2010. Thanks Bindu!
It’s only fitting that my first post back after an unintentionally long blogging break is about perfectionism, because one of the reasons I’ve been away so long is that I’ve been struggling not just with what to write, but with whether I have anything interesting to say at all.
And the longer I left it, the more I kept thinking I needed to find some really special topic to write about. And I couldn’t. So this one will have to do.
Take that, perfectionism.
Yeah, I’m still working on this one… But I have made some progress already, even if it wasn’t by choice so much as necessity.
Call me Monica
I’ve been a perfectionist for as long as I can remember. You know that episode of Friends where Monica leaves her shoes flung about in the living room to show how spontaneous and relaxed she is, and then lies there unable to sleep because the thought of her shoes not neatly lined up is killing her? That’s how I always used to be.
I’ve rewritten cards, letters and school assignments on several occasions (and each one more than once) because they weren’t neat enough or needed one word changing in order to accurately convey the right sentiment.
I’ve spent hours shopping for perfect outfits, primping in front of mirrors (three hours before I went out was standard), feeling virtuous when my room was dust-free, my pyjamas ironed, my towels folded so that the ends were touching in perfect symmetry. If I’d thought of having a Monica-style ribbon drawer, I would have. (I did once catalogue my films on index cards, as Harry mocks Sally for doing.)
Colour me messy
But when you get a highly fatiguing illness, you get a few other things as well: you’re forced to live with the inability to do things like shower every day, tidy up whenever you want, and be organised to an anal retentive degree. You have to lower your standards. Then lower ‘em again. And again. Finally your standards will be floating about half an inch above the floor, feet dangling on dust bunnies.
Now you’re talking.
Messy rooms, microwaved meals, clothes you probably shouldn’t wear one more time but you’re gonna. You make adjustments, or you make yourself more ill.
There are some things I’ve accepted, adjusted to, and have the ability to block out entirely — like the piles of old books, bags, and unsorted papers in my bedroom, which remind me of that bit in Will & Grace where she says her room is so messy, “At this point it would be easier to just move.”.
But there are other things I have really strict rules about. Standards I CAN NOT let go of.
Before Christmas every year, I like everything to be tidy. I like the table in the front porch to be cleared of junk mail, keys, and books, and preferably anointed with a poinsettia, even though I rarely go down there and we rarely have visitors. I like my bedroom to have no papers strewn around and no piled-up toiletries on my chest of drawers, and preferably to be strung with festive paper chains.
But this year, when I tried to do those things, I couldn’t. I got breathless, and my muscles spasmed, and I had to lie down for hours. I realised it wasn’t worth it.
But the effort of not making things the way I wanted them, the way I thought they had to be, almost killed me. I was like Monica when she lies in bed obsessing over her shoes: knowing it doesn’t matter, but being irrationally unable to stop wanting everything to be just so. I didn’t want to have to have a Christmas where my room wasn’t tidy. It almost felt like it wasn’t worth bothering at all. When I survived it, even enjoyed parts of it, I couldn’t quite believe it.
I realise this is ridiculous. That no-one’s enjoyment of an event is predicated on how tidy their house is. But I really feel that if things are superficially “perfect”, it will make me happy. I know this is an illusion I’ll have to drop if I ever want to have a better life. But the more ill I feel, the more I miss out on, the more I desperately try to control my immediate environment, to get it just right, as if that will actually solve my problems.
Even worse? Perfectionism is how I got so ill in the first place: I kept on pushing myself far beyond what I could cope with. I couldn’t even acknowledge anything was really wrong with me for a long time. I didn’t let myself rest, to be imperfect, in case people judged me; in case I fell apart.
That’s what it all comes down to, I guess. If I let all the superficial stuff I obsess over fall away, what’s left? Depression, disappointment, insecurity, fear. All those far from perfect feelings.
And the beat goes on
Even though I know it’s how I got ill in the first place, I can’t seem to stop pushing myself, beating myself up.
I’m doing a course in computer design software a couple of hours a week, and it’s not coming easily: partly because I have concentration difficulties, partly because this is not my natural skill set, and partly because I don’t have the energy to practice as much as I’d like or become as good as I want.
I keep getting frustrated with myself, wishing I was better, stressing over an upcoming test, even getting worked up about how hard I find it just to get to class in the first place.
I forget altogether that I’m only doing this for fun. Not for a grade, not for recognition. Just to get out of the house, do something different, learn a little something. It’s not supposed to make me unhappy.
But my innate perfectionism makes it really hard for me to have the appropriate amount of perspective.
A change will do me good
I know I have to let go of my rigid ideas of how I think life should be in order to actually appreciate how life is; to be open to surprises; to let happiness in. I’m trying. And in small ways, I’m succeeding.
It was my birthday last week, and I wanted to have nicely painted nails. I felt like it was compulsory, in fact. But I couldn’t do it. I was too low in energy and had more important things to do in the days beforehand, so I ended up being bare-nailed on my birthday.
I felt like I could have looked better, like I should have been able to be “perfect” and it made me a little sad (I know, I’m pathological) but I survived, and I didn’t beat myself up about it.
A couple of weeks before that, I was having a nice weekend of nothing pressing to attend to. (Don’t you love those?) My plan for the day was just to watch TV and sleep.
Then, as I was sitting on the sofa, heart rate slowing, eyes glazing over, I was hit with the sudden realisation that I was behind with my course work and should really get in at least an hour’s revision even if I didn’t feel like it. I sighed, reached for my notebook, and then thought… FORGET IT. (All right, it may have been another F word.) Sure, I could do with catching up and revising for the upcoming test, and I will do some work on that soon, but it’s not important enough that I can’t let myself take time off.
In the past, I’ve had a tendency to quit when I got to this point: when I realised I wasn’t doing well at something, and couldn’t be brilliant at it, at least not without a lot of pain and disappointment along the way: ice skating, tap dancing, Italian, disco dancing (oh shush, it was the eighties)… I attempted and abandoned them all.
There’s a high chance I won’t do well in the upcoming test, that my pride will be bruised, that I could even fail and have to admit that it doesn’t really matter, that self-esteem shouldn’t come from external success, tidiness, or arbitrary personal standards.
I still hope I don’t do badly, of course, but if I do, I know I’ll survive. In fact, it could be the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
after words:: I’ve decided to use this space (The Bit At The Bottom™) to write stuff. I’ll share recommendations, suggestions, obsessions and opinions. Kind of like those cards at the end of Chuck Lorre’s sitcoms, but you don’t have to sit through an episode of Two and a Half Men. First up: if I wasn’t losing my perfectionism, I’d call this this short smart post from Danielle LaPorte the p-word.