On Perfectionism

For as long as I can remember, I have felt an innate drive to do my very best in every task or endeavor regardless of size or seeming import. I'm not a corner-cutter, and I like hard work; struggling through the gritty, decidedly unglamorous aspects of any job makes the outcome that much more meaningful. When I was young, my mom used to offer my sister and me odd jobs around the house as a means of making a little extra money for our cash boxes. Did you have one of those? I think they came from the Lillian Vernon catalog. I can't recall what color mine was, but I do remember that it had a combination lock built into the front, my initials engraved in a small silver plague just above that, a slot in the top for dropping coins/bills in, and a small metal handle for easy transport. Elia had one too, and if memory serves, she was as enthusiastic a saver as was I.

Anyway, Mom would often make lists of jobs that needed to be done, and we could take 'em or leave 'em. They weren't fun -think gutter cleaning, shower curtain cloroxing, etc- but we could make a few bucks, and I often decided to take them on because they were a means to my larger end. Cleaning gutters was the absolute pits. South Louisiana weather tends towards the hot-and-humid-always variety, and you just never knew what sort of slimy creatures might be hiding in the compacted pine needles, leaves and other natural junk. At that time in my life, I hated being dirty, I did not want to be wet unless I was in the shower, and I loathed all manner of bug.

I remember one particularly grueling day: the sun was blazing down, I was sweaty and dirty, the gutters seemed to be filling as fast as I could empty them, and out of desperation I started singing -while suspended out a window- "I'm the luckiest girl in the world...." It was facetious, but looking back, those sorts of tasks taught me incredible lessons about hard work and just getting a job done right and well the first time around. I was lucky to have those experiences, to have financially comfortable parents who were nonetheless determined to make us feel lucky about our lot and to value hard work of any sort.

Yet as with most everything, there are extremes, behavioral fundamentalisms if you will. Whether gutters or homework or appearance or whatever, I worked hard, sometimes, often, listing too much towards the side of perfectionism. It was difficult for me to stay in the present when a future goal was always on the line: there was always more that could be done. And although I'm much more of an optimist now, I was, growing up, really a glass-half-empty kinda girl.

Looking back -hell, looking now!- I think perfectionism was my effort to control the pessimism and anxiety I felt during much of adolescence and early adulthood. If I could do something faultlessly, there would be no reason for anyone to judge or feel upset with me. If I was agreeable, helpful, a straight-A student, tidy, accomplished, thoughtful and kind, I could keep at bay any negativity or dislike from others; that way, I'd only have my own self-judgment to manage. This equation seemed safer, but I see now that it also ingrained a striving towards perfect that has often been exhausting to maintain. Additionally, it makes the times when I do upset or disappoint or sadden others that much harder for me to handle.

As I have grown older, I have not stopped analyzing and working on myself. I believe we are all works in progress, and that there never comes a time in life in which any of us has nothing left to learn. Times change, we change, those we love change or surprise us. Life is a vast set of dynamic Venn diagrams, and each of us is but one element in many of those. To stay open is exciting, yet personal growth is usually quite difficult. That said, I think such growth is infinitely rewarding.

In my latter-thirties, I feel a comfort and confidence in myself that has long been elusive. It is thrilling but also vexing at times. As I grow more into the person I believe is the truest me, I simultaneously must (and want to) shed some of that attempted-perfectionist shell. It can feel terrifying. It can feel not worth it. But I think and hope that it is. It has taken me a long time and a lot of nervous-stomach managing to come to an acceptance that as no one is liked by everyone, perhaps I needn't hold myself to that standard. In the same vein, it has been scary to accept that by living honestly and openly and authentically, I will upset others at times. Yet when I look at those whom I most admire, they are the individuals who speak and live their truths. Respectfully but without apology or disclaimer.

This is not to say that I don't care what others think. On the contrary, I believe I might still care too much; the yoke of perfectionism is a gripping one. And, one of the forces that most inspires and fulfills me is reaching out to, connecting with and supporting others.

But I've tired of feeling beholden to others' opinions or expectations when what that really means is that my own are suppressed.  I am an ambitious woman who likes to succeed. I have learned that usually, it doesn't hurt to ask: for help; for clarification; for acknowledgement when it's due; whether the restaurant will sell me their water carafe because I love it (yes, they are usually willing to sell anything!). To stand up for oneself is simply to show that self respect, but it doesn't always come easily to people, and often, this is especially true for women. As a side note, I think this is what has made Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In message go viral so quickly: her saying that ambition is OK and doesn't make you less of anything (necessarily) is serving as the confirmation and support many of us need to truly lean in to our lives.

In second grade, there were two girls who really gave me trouble. They taunted and teased me, and I just didn't know how to handle any of it. It wasn't in my nature to say, "hey, stop, you're hurting my feelings" and so I just took it in. My mom, wisely, took me to a great child psychologist who helped me learn to stand up for myself, who helped me see that I needed to attend to myself in addition to others. Though I started learning this skill decades ago, I've still not mastered it. It's hard as get-out. Yesterday, at the farmers market, the cheese lady gave me the wrong amount of change (too  little). I spent a full two minutes, tense and concerned, figuring out if I should simply accept it ("she did work hard to make the cheese; she is handling lots of customers") before I finally got up the nerve to go back and say, "I"m sorry but you gave me the wrong amount of change."

For pete's sakes, I apologized AND felt badly about something that wasn't my fault. So clearly there is work to be done. But it MUST be done.

The point is that I am coming to peace with the blunt fact that I am who I am. Not perfect. Not an endless font of patience. Not without opinions and beliefs. Not willing to keep my mouth snapped shut all the time. Not a thornless being. We all have deficiencies, blemishes, flaws: to share instead of hiding them seems to be an untapped means of connecting with each other. So I am trying to find comfort in being the imperfect self that I truly am, recognizing that though some won't like it, others will. I think I will. And I think I owe it to my boys to model that real people mess up, err, say the wrong thing sometimes; but they don't stop trying to better themselves and they derive pride in the honest process of self-discovery.

Voltaire said that the perfect (or best) is the enemy of the good. I am a good person, and I know how hard I work to be a positive presence in the lives of my friends, family, acquaintances and community. And I think that in many ways, that's good enough. Maybe it's better than perfect.

The yoke is loosening; I am shaking it free.