“Healthy striving is self-focused: ‘How can I improve?’ Perfectionism is other-focused: ‘What will they think?’” ~ Brené Brown
I can still smell the burnt potatoes.
I was frantically moving about, hosting my daughter’s second birthday. I was five months pregnant, exhausted, and dehydrated. I was alone, as usual.
Several asked if I needed help, but my perfectionism was in full flair, and there was no chance I’d ever admit I was desperate for someone, anyone, to come take some of the pressure off. That pressure is the weight of perfectionism, a weight I carried for a long time—trying to do it all, be it all.
I made everything look perfectly put together on the outside; in fact, I likely looked exactly the part of whatever role I was cast. That day, I was cast as, “Do it all mom!”
I was teaching a full load of courses at a local college by night, and by day, I was “super mom,” managing a toddler with a side of nausea.
Of course, I was hosting a “perfect” party for my two-year-old and managing to pull everything off, never revealing the impeding weight of my perfectionism.
I had a moment in the kitchen after feeling angry at the way people asked if I needed their help, “Can I help with anything? Is there anything I can help with?” As though my pregnant belly and forehead glistening with sweat (that’s fatigue, not a pregnancy glow) didn’t scream, “Yes!” Nevertheless, smiling, I politely urged, “No, thanks so much. I’ve got it.”
I continued visibly juggling—checking on everyone, making sure introductions were made and conversation was flowing, cooking, setting up, quickly grabbing that cup off of my grandmother’s table before it left a ring, “Sure, I’ll get you some coffee,” (beating myself up that I didn’t have it ready in advance).
At that moment in my kitchen, I looked around at what I had created, a beautiful party, and it was only when I overheard a comment about how lovely and creative it was that it felt worth it. In that moment, I felt worthy. Sadly, that moment was later conquered by a negative review, but I’ll keep to the point.
It was easier for me to be angry with someone for the way they asked if I needed help than to be angry with myself for refusing it repeatedly. I’m exhausted just typing these words, and that was my life. That was my life before I began recovering from perfectionism.
I pulled off a great party that day (despite burning the potatoes), but I was a mess on the inside.
Brené Brown explains it well, “Healthy striving is self-focused: ‘How can I improve?’ Perfectionism is other-focused: ‘What will they think?’”
These are the lessons I’ve learned as a recovering perfectionist:
Life is like laundry: You will never get it all done.
Perfectionists operate from a constant state of striving for something unreachable.
I remember organizing my toys instead of playing with them. I liked creating order out of chaos. I would show my mother, and her praise fulfilled my worth. Even now, I struggle with letting go of achieving “perfect order.” I remind myself, “mess” is a sign of life. As long as there is laundry to do and dishes to clean, I’m comforted in knowing life is happening.
The difference I experience in my recovery is not that I’m less organized but rather that I don’t need recognition for my efforts. As a mom and a professor, I struggle with my perfectionist worrying: “Am I enough for them? Am I doing enough? Am I doing everything right?”
The answer is yes! Even when I’m not my best, I revel in knowing my comfort with my imperfections serves to break the cycle. It is in my imperfect moments when my students and children see me the most. When you are enough, whatever you accomplish is too.
Don’t create for a reaction.
The devil is in the details when the details are reaction driven.
My perfectionist attention to detail produces thoughtful gifts and displays of creativity. I enjoy the details and get excited about sharing my thoughtful creativity with those for whom it is intended, only to find myself disappointed when their reaction doesn’t match my level of enthusiasm.
Calling someone’s reaction “my rejection,” I became disheartened and decided to stop giving so much of myself. I knew this wasn’t serving me because it didn’t feel authentic. I like the details, noticed or not, appreciated or not. I stopped focusing on others’ reactions and stayed focused on creation. It is from this mindset, I never feel disappointed.
I like Brene Brown’s words, “Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.” When we give with the expectation of someone else’s reaction, much like approval, we will never get what we’re looking for. What we do will never be enough if we always seek someone else’s reaction or affirmation.
Amazingly, we end up resenting someone for whom we were showing love (through the details of our creation). My focus affirms my recovery. The “perfect gift” doesn’t have to have a “perfect reaction” or affirmation. It was the creation and giving of the gift that is where the love was experienced. Our need for approval is where that love gets reduced.
Let go, and let someone help.
Perfectionism comes from fear (of being exposed), exposure of times we didn’t feel safe. It creates a sense of control when you did not have control over your need to feel safe in your environment or secure within your own skin.
Perfectionism is an illusion, a false sense of security, and one we work hard to protect. “If I’m perfect, I’ll be loved, no one will notice my pain, no one will see what’s missing or what’s different…” and there are many more flawed premises.
Consequently, we don’t let people get too close, and we don’t ask for help nor do we take it when it’s offered. All in fear of being exposed. A hard lesson I’ve learned: Don’t be surprised that when you refuse help repeatedly people stop offering it, and later, when you need it the most, it won’t be there.
I have learned to say, “Thank you” more often than, “I’ve got it,” but this is difficult to do.
It lets people closer instead of keeping them at a distance, and that’s when they get close to our insecurities.
It helps me to think of asking for help from a business stance: The CEO of a business isn’t able to oversee every detail and has to trust and rely on others to help carry out the vision and daily operations of the company. Life is no different. You are the CEO of your life, and as such have to let go of perfectionism to trust others to help you with the details. This is collaborative. When approval isn’t our focus, “doing it all” becomes unnecessary.
In recovery, saying “thank you” to someone lending a hand shows my vulnerability. Nothing positive comes from needing to do it all. It is exhausting and lonely. Letting others help requires letting others in. Your attitude shifts from, “Life is hard,” to, “We’re all in this together;” connection is collaborative.
Focus on the good reviews.
My teaching is evaluated every semester, and no matter how many positive reviews I receive, there is always that one bad review. Guess what I focus on? Seriously. I have questioned, doubted, made changes, justified myself…Perfectionists unite!
You understand. Among friends, teachers, and coaches of my children, even members of my family, there will invariably be a bad review. My biological father left when I was six years old, never came back, and my stepfather who took his place was strict and exacting, leaving to-do lists instead of connecting with me. As a result, I only believed in conditional love.
If I focus on the occasional “bad review,” no matter where it comes from, my self- worth goes with it. I have spent too much time vying for the love of my bad reviewer. As a recovered perfectionist, I know what someone says negatively about me often says more about them, and I choose to focus on the good reviews, the ones that encourage growth, not approval.
Celebrate progress over perfection.
As a recovered perfectionist, I live by this phrase. I haven’t changed who I am in my recovery. I am organized; I love to give thoughtful gifts and create beautiful spaces; I have a high need for control and still struggle to ask for help.
Understanding I don’t have to change for anyone to love me changed everything for me. I have learned no one is keeping score or coming to hand me some award, and, likewise, there is no one coming to take away the love I feel.
Perfectionism is outcome driven, and it is an unattainable outcome because perfectionism itself is an illusion. Shifting my perception to the process allows for imperfections; without imperfections, there is no growth.
I let go of perfectionism and love myself unconditionally. I know I’m a work in progress, but so is life. I know in moments of relapse, my mere awareness of perfectionism is progress, and I’ve come a long way—no longer consumed with what someone else thinks, I continue to improve. I continue to grow.