Perfectionism. Silly word. I mean, really. Who are we kidding? I call myself a recovering perfectionist, yet the whole idea of “perfectionism” feels false. Impossible really. As if anything I could ever possibly do or create or fix or rearrange would ever have even a smidgen of “perfection”? Because what we usually mean when we say “perfectionist” refers to manipulating material things, or our spaces, or perhaps trying to have the “perfect” relationship with our kids and spouses. Otherwise known as control. And why on earth would I ever think that being a perfect perfectionist would bring me peace joy love and happiness? Well, I used to totally believe that. Perhaps you might recognize this syndrome too.
You know the drill. Here’s one example. Thanksgiving. At her house, with the extended family and dear friends. In her late 20’s, a super-driven workaholic, who dreams of creating the “perfect” Thanksgiving experience for her guests. She can do this! I’ll, no I mean, she’ll show them how mature gracious warm thoughtful and perfect she is! Perfectly clean and tasteful house, eclectic decor, comfy and pretty. Knickknacks arranged just so, not a molecule of dust on any surface (even the tops of the doors!). Candles, pumpkins and dried corn arranged just so. Her new expensive perfect white brocade tablecloth, Grandma’s silver and good china, lots of crystal and sparkly things. She even taught herself calligraphy in order to make the perfect place cards. Perfect playlist softly in the background. Perfectly pretty, static, frozen in time. You get the picture.
And then there’s the 2 full days of cooking and baking herself into a sweaty frenzy. Others have offered to bring dishes, but no, she’s gonna do it all herself. Because she wants to show them how perfectly she can do it all. No time to talk to anyone, to enjoy her mornings off work, to play with her husband and pets, go for a walk or watch the sunset. All the while fooling myself, ahem, herself into believing that this slow burn of ridiculous selfless work is her way of showing her love for these people. Oh no! She forgot whipped cream!! Emergency!!! It throws her into a full-blown last-minute tizzy. And did I mention that she’s taking no calls? She can’t possible talk to anyone while striving to be perfect!
At this point (let’s say an hour before the guests are due to arrive), I am, oops, make that she is nobody that anybody wants to be around. She is not feeling or being nice, and will probably forgo a shower because she. just. doesn’t. have. time. (Do you sense a wee bit of martyrdom in this perfectionist scenario?) All systems are focused on the miraculous perfection that will magically reveal itself when that first guest walks through the door. Until that moment, she’s a whirling dervish of prickly crankiness. Maybe that’s why husband has taken the dogs out for a nice long walk…….
Do I need to go on? Do I need to describe how she’s delighted to welcome their guests (did she forget deodorant? Sheesh!) and yet has a nagging desire for them all to immediately turn around and leave because she’s exhausted? Yes, please oooh and ahhh at her lovely decor, yummy perfect appetizers (hot and cold, mind you), and beautiful PERFECT tablescape. Thank you very much, may she hand you a doggy bag already? Can we just call it? A free bottle of very expensive wine to the first person willing to say adios! Of course that doesn’t happen. She has spent all her “perfection” energy, and now just feels numb as she proceeds through the afternoon and evening. She’s not a lot of fun. She feels like the zombie hostess, very quiet, just going through the paces. There is no peace joy love or happiness within her tonight. The dishes are piling up. Someone dropped one of Grandma’s plates. Resentful feelings keep welling up inside her, confusing her. She’s good with the concept of this day of gratitude, but she’s feeling lost. And not feeling the gratitude at all, even though her loved ones are showering her with praise. But she’s not listening. She doesn’t feel any of that because she hasn’t yet learned to be honest with herself. She feels like she must play a role in order to be loved by others. Whether or not that’s true, sadly, the only person she’s not concerned about loving her is her.
That is how I used to think. For years. Decades, really. And now I realize that what I’m really recovering from is a false concept, something that never was possible to begin with. Only in our dreams can we attain perfection. They have none of the messy realities of full-blooded real breathing unpredictable natural life. We can tailor our dreams to our desires. We can control them. And therein lies the key. That word, control. Why do we think we can control how others feel about us by what we do? How do we think we can make others love us by what we do? Having been a guest at someone’s home like the one above, I can tell you that it is uncomfortable for everyone. You’ve probably experienced something similar. It’s no fun to witness someone exhaustively slaving away for your benefit, while you’re pretending to have a jolly good time. It doesn’t feel like love, it feels like duty. And everyone’s playing a role, like actors in a bad play about unrealistic expectations of what a “perfect” Thanksgiving is supposed to be.
Perfectionism is an endless treadmill. Its high time we all step off. And concern ourselves with falling in love with ourselves. Because that’s who those who truly love us love. Who we are. Not what we do. The real authentic genuine us.
Learn calligraphy because we just want to, not because we need to have others’ praise. Spend our precious time getting to know our own joy, not trying to figure out how to make someone else notice us. Figure out what’s important to our soul, and then jump in full speed ahead. Learn to do things the way we want to do them, not the way we think we’re “supposed to” do them. Think beyond the ways we were taught to do things, the way its “always” been done. Or comparing our way with others’ ways. Its our life, and no one else’s. Shortcuts, ignored dusty corners, pre-washed salad greens, substitutions, take-out, personal time, messy drawers, time to stop and listen to those around us, and make-up free errand days are all the province of recovered perfectionists. As are peace joy love and happiness. I know this to be true.
OK, here’s one little example. But really it’s huge for me. Because I had such a block about it. In my new liberated post-perfectionist life, I tackle things that I’ve “always wanted to do” but was afraid to do for fear of doing them “imperfectly”. I’m not always “successful”, yet it sure is fun making the attempt. How many years have I wanted to make pickles? How many cucumbers have rotted in my fridge? How many hours have I spent researching canning veggies? Asking brave home-canning experts about it? And always coming back to the same conclusion: its just too dang dangerous! I mean is a homemade pickle worth the risk of botulism? Killing my family? Not for me! If I can’t make them the “right” way, then I’m not going to make them at all. And so I drop off yet another newly bought home canning kit to the Salvation Army…………. and then, as providence would have it, I am forced to confront this wall of shame I have constructed. This summer a couple different friends with prolific gardens inundated us with pickling cucumbers. I’m talking bushels. Like a truck dumped this pile onto my kitchen table. Yet still, I will not can.
So I go to Pinterest and type in something like “easy pickles” and lo and behold, find a couple recipes for fresh pickles that I cobble together. Who knew??? Not I!! You just soak the sliced cukes in a vinegar/water/herb/spice solution, weighted down overnight in the fridge and voila!
Crispy fresh tangy dill pickles! Easy peasy and soooo much tastier and crisper than canned. I even store them in pretty mason jars in the fridge! I love them. Everyone loves them. They have become a popular gift. I mean I could start a business if I was so inclined. But the point to all of it is this: I found my own way to do something that has nagged at me for years. It is not the “perfectionist” way that the old me would have insisted on. And given up on. It is relaxed and delightful. It pleases me to no end. The fact that others like them too is an added bonus, but not the main point.
1-1/2 cups distilled white vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1-1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon each: mustard seeds, coriander seeds, dill seeds
2 cups hot (tap hot) water
2 pounds pickling (small) cucumbers, sliced 1/4″ thick
1/2 cup chopped fresh dill
4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped (or more, to taste)
In a mixing bowl, make brine by combining vinegar, sugar, salt, and all seeds. Add hot water and stir until sugar dissolves. Cool to room temperature. In a large bowl, toss together cukes, dill and garlic. Pour brine over and turn cukes to coat them. Weigh down with a plate or shallow bowl with a couple cans or jars on top, to keep all the cukes in the brine. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Transfer to an airtight container, store in fridge. Will keep for 2 weeks or more.
After all this, I haven’t banished the word PERFECT from my vocabulary. Quite the contrary. The -ism of it implies a judgment about the epitome of orderliness, appearance and control. While a degree of those qualities is necessary, even desirable, for a happy life, striving-at-all-costs for the ideal of perfectionism is not. I actually use the word PERFECT much more now, because for me it has a completely different meaning. It describes SOUL JOY for me. Like how making those pickles was a perfect experience for me, and they were perfect because of that. When I hear words of love, truth and authenticity from those around me, those are perfect words. When I see the delight bursting from a friend covered with paint and a messy work area, that is a perfect scene. When I let go and allow my living space to be lived in and not maintained as a show place, that is my perfect home. When I hear a child learning to read or to sing a new song, with all the repetitions and starting-overs, that is a perfect sound.
The continuum of life, the process, the journey well-traveled with eyes wide open, that is PERFECTION.