Hairshirts and the Good Enough Writer

canstockphoto6711776Up until the 1960s, the hairshirt, or cilice, was worn by nuns and monks as a sign of repentance and atonement for sins. It was an undergarment usually made of rough cloth or bristly animal fur, occasionally with metal spikes, to create constant discomfort. My hairshirt is carefully constructed, not of animal fur or metal chains, but of anxiety, shame and depression. Taught early on that my value lie in aspiring for perfection, in not making mistakes, in being highly critical and highly criticized, I do not wear mistakes well.

The last few weeks have been comprised of some big mistakes. Everything from leaving keys in the lock of an outside door overnight, to being so confounded by multiple contracts that I billed a client incorrectly. I was not murdered in my sleep and things are being worked out with the client, but I’m embarrassed by my episodes of incompetence.

I am a highly organized, competent and grounded person most of the time. When I make mistakes, I feel crushed. Depression slides over me like a dark, wet blanket. I want to hide. I want to quit. I want to run away. I don’t want to make eye contact and my stomach is in knots.  Intellectually, I know this is not a healthy, proportional response to mistakes. I know it’s baggage that I’ve lugged along for decades. It’s painful to be perceptive and yet ineffective at changing one’s gut reaction.

Sometimes I rush to fix my mistakes or make over an entire system to ensure the same mistake can’t be made again. What I’m doing is not leaving time to grieve over this loss of imagined perfectionism. And it is ALL imagined, this world I often live in – where I would never make a mistake, where I am a superhuman, where I will be loved because I do everything right. It never existed except in my head. It was a seed planted long ago and it is nurtured by stress.

I’m the person to whom people are constantly saying “let it go” or “relax”. To which I mentally respond “bite me!” I should point out that telling uptight people to relax is akin to telling a starving person that they need to eat. A big duh is coming your way. As one friend pointed out, I don’t do anything in half measures. I’m intense, focused and determined. Until I fry my diodes. And then things seem to fall apart.

The counterattack is recognizing that my perceptions are not reality. It is talking back to the voice in my head that calls me stupid and irresponsible. It is reminding myself that I would never say these things to another person in the face of their own mistakes. It is practicing what Buddhists call maitri, or unconditional friendliness to oneself.

The journey from self-loathing to unconditional friendliness is neither easy, nor linear. I must constantly retrace my steps. The real trick is to catch myself in the act of attempting perfection, to stop myself from pursuing love and self-acceptance through doing perfectly, when doing good enough will suffice.

I’ve met a lot of people like me. In that dismissive way in which we categorize people, they’re called Type A personalities. Studies have focused primarily on middle-aged men, but here’s a picture of a middle-aged woman: wife, mother, PTO president, part-time business manager, volunteer, writer, gardener, caretaker of pets, children, elders and home. Throw in some unpredictable peri-menopausal hormones and you’ve got FrankenWhine, just waiting to be chased away by angry villagers.

Perfectionism means it will never be enough. Despite all the wonderful, fortunate things in my life, I’m living in a mindset that says I’ll always be hungry and dissatisfied. Except at this very moment. Writing is my way home, my escape from the mental trap of perfectionism. When I write, I feel good enough. And when I don’t write, I drive myself to excel at everything else. Often everything else has something to say in the matter.

Writing is the salve to all self-inflicted wounds for me. It is a world where mistakes are encouraged, tangents expected and thoughts run like muddy little hooligans across white carpet. Time stands still and everything else can wait. The writing is not perfect, but the act of doing it takes away that indefinable longing. It nourishes me, re-sets my emotional clock, plants me back in a world where I am loved because of my imperfections, accepted in spite of my peculiarities and no longer in need of external redemption.

Sometimes my mistakes are simply reminders in disguise. With a gentle nudge, I stop trying to be perfect and get back to being me, the writer.

33 Comments on “Hairshirts and the Good Enough Writer

  1. I can so identify with this desire for perfection in everything I do – and how my value lies there. I began it as a way of controlling things. If I did everything right, then bad things wouldn’t happen, chaos would be kept at bay. It sounds logical in the psyche but it just doesn’t wash. It something very difficult to extract yourself from. Excellent post ~ as usual 🙂

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    • I thought somehow by this point in life, I’d work through this and resolve it, but stress turns me into a nutcase, trying to do everything for everyone. You’re so right about the control factor – especially when coming from a chaotic childhood. It’s only been in the last year as I’ve dug into writing that I get a sense of what it would be like to be free of nagging perfectionism. Writing is one of those things where you don’t gain ground by being safe or perfect.

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      • You know the idea of “good enough” is hard to swallow for types like us – but working as an artist I have come to understand that people who don’t do what I do are impressed with my more modest efforts – sometimes those efforts have more life in them that the things I labor over polishing them until they are perfect. I think I’m learning to let it go, but then I just wrote that I saw a hundred things wrong with a photo – a photo that is selling. What do I know about perfect?

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        • I have often found that writing which I’ve tortured and prodded for hours, is less well-received than something that only had a once over. That’s the nature of art, I suppose. I figure that all that laboring means that my skills are being strengthened for the next potentially shorter go-around. Unfortunately, critical and criticized seems to be 2 sides of the same coin and I know I’m hypercritical of other people’s writing, but I’ve learned to walk myself back from it to find the positive aspects of their work. I don’t imagine I’ll do that for myself, ironically!

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  2. Very well written post.

    I often find myself helping and doing wonders for others – my level of perfection seems to do amazing stuff for them, but unfortunately doesn’t do it for me. Sounds familiar?

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    • Thanks! Your astute observation about how other people see your capabilities, but recognizing that it doesn’t fulfill you is one that I’ve realized as well. I often think about the statement: Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should or that you have to.

      I get so tapped out that I’m no good to anyone, much less myself. I’m trying to turn that ship around, but it’s a hard skill to learn – realizing that self-care is not inherently selfish.

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  3. “I should point out that telling uptight people to relax is akin to telling a starving person that they need to eat.”

    This couldn’t be more true. Like you, I am very Type A. I spend most of my days living in an imagined world of perfectionism where I scold myself repeatedly for even the smallest of mistakes. It’s so important, especially for those of us that constantly push ourselves for more/better, to have an outlet to take away frustrations, allow mistakes, and most importantly – allow us to be us. I’m glad writing is your outlet… it brings so much comfort and intrigue to your readers 🙂

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    • Whenever someone tells me to relax, I’d really like to punch them, so I can attest to the fact that it does not work!

      I’m trying to differentiate being a perfectionist from being ambitious or driven, but it’s a very fine line. Writing has, over the last year, made me happier although when I’m not doing it, I’m a bit of a jerk. Working on the consistency angle!

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  4. So honest! You’ll never be accused of being in denial. I especially loved your line, “Perfectionism means it will never be enough”. As a recovering perfectionist myself, I think this line should be the first step of a yet to be written twelve step recovery program for perfection addicts. Thanks so much for this!

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    • Thanks – denial left the building about a decade or so ago, so I’ve got lots of material to work with! I think acknowledging any addictive personality traits or addictions are about trying to fill a bottomless pit. It’s taken me a long time to realize that my perfectionism will never be a good band aid for whatever ails me, because it’s external and in many cases, out of my control.

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  5. A great and honest post again Michelle. I used to have a little bit of the perfectionist in me when I was younger. In my case it probably came from the fact that as a child I was considered close to “perfect” by my environment, I couldn’t do anything wrong. A mistake I made could ruin several days, I would roll around in my misdeeds and feel really bad about myself. In time I’ve managed to more and more accept myself “as is” . I am still quite far from an 80/20 person …but nowadays I usually forgive myself fairly quickly and then forget about it, unless there’s something I really need to correct. I’ve left the keys in the front door overnight a few times….

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    • Thanks for reading and commenting. I was never good enough as a kid and really got some messages that are hard to undo. However, awareness is a good thing. The keys in the door wouldn’t be such a big deal, except that I live in the middle of a metro area and I have a kid. I really freaked myself out! I’m trying to be more accepting of myself, but I have a ways to go. Age really helps – it gets exhausting to beat up on one’s self!

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  6. I am, by nature a perfectionist, but somewhere along the line I learned to recognize when whatever it is I am doing IS my best possible effort — and i accept it. It’s taken a life time.

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    • I imagine I’ll be torturing myself until I cross the finish line, but if I can learn to let a few things go along the way, I’ll consider it progress! Sometimes recognizing when something doesn’t require my best effort is a skill as well.

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      • Absolutely. We’re all a work in progress.

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  7. I love this. The secret to sanity, to keeping an even keel, to being who you are is writing. Because by writing you can let out the bad, take in the good and be who you want to be. (It’s a lot like being on stage)

    I wish we could do a Vulcan mind meld — I don’t worry about mistakes and errors. I figure they all work out in the end. I could use a little more A in my personality type. Perhaps a deal …

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    • I feel fortunate to have found that “thing” that keeps me sane and gives me such pleasure. Sometimes, when everything else is going awry, it hits me that I haven’t been doing much of what helps keep me anchored.

      I don’t find much pleasure in being a Type A, but at least if I can realize it, maybe I can head off some of the more destructive thought patterns. Perfectionism is a compulsion that can be soul-crushing. Accomplishments without pleasure aren’t really worth it. It would be nice to swap a few traits in exchange for balance!

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  8. It’s back-breaking, constant work to keep that Observer in place, to maintain an attitude of gentle curiosity about the crazy thoughts our brains cook up. I salute you!

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    • It is exhausting to have to keep countering the self-destructive messages, which is why writing is such a solace – my brain can go completely unsupervised and unregulated when I write. Thanks for checking in!

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  9. I think we all lug some impossible burden through this life. Mine is not the demand of perfection, but is every bit as unattainable and impractical. I just want everyone to like me. Despite the implied simplicity, it’s anything but an easy thing. Plus, I’m not actually all that likeable in my own estimation; maybe that’s why I strive for it in the first place. Unlike perfection-ism, wanting popularity isn’t even an admirable trait.

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    • I think all these behavior traits really boil down to the singular human desire to be loved and accepted. Perfectionism is one route: “If I do everything right, I will be loved.” Wanting to be liked is a basic desire and nothing to be blithely disregarded. I think one has to determine how far one will go to attain that and at what cost. Perfectionism has a cost as does bending yourself to be agreeable to other humans at the expense of self.

      I get tired of hearing about self-acceptance because it is incredibly hard work and has become this pithy bumper sticker. If you don’t innately have it, you’re not going to get it reading O Magazine.

      My best strategy at this point is to recognize the perfection compulsion and walk myself back from it. It is a constant struggle, but one worth pursuing, if only to make myself slightly less miserable.

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      • I’ll just keep writing – even if nothing comes of it, I’ll spend a little less time annoying those around me (until I ask them if they’ve read my blog lately).

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        • Do keep writing, Dave – I really enjoy your sense of humor and it is obvious you enjoy it (most of the time). I am embarrassed when I catch myself referring to my blog posts when talking to people in person or asking if they’ve read it. They stop making eye contact with me after awhile.

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  10. I sort of have a pretty laid back “good enough” attitude with most things, EXCEPT writing. Damn writing. Writing IS my hair shirt but I have to wear it.

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    • I wondered, after writing this, if it said something about my writing that it is one of the few places I “run free”. I’ve just finished reading Why We Write, essays by 20 established authors. Their experiences writing vary wildly – some are tortured writers and others, like me, enjoy the process from start to finish. On the other hand, I’m currently under no deadlines or contract obligations to anyone for my writing and I suspect that makes a difference as well. No matter if our shirts are hairy or hairless, you’re right, if you have the writing bug, there’s no choice in the matter but to embrace it, itchy as it might be.

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  11. Holy cow, Michelle! We’ve been leading parallel lives the past couple weeks. The screw-ups, the guilt and shame, the frustration…each little bit of it. And of course “my Dan” has been doing and saying all the wrong things to try and help, because EVERYTHING is the wrong thing. I’m hoping a 3day weekend will serve as the reset button, but so far it’s just giving me more opportunities to screw up.

    Let me know how to do the kindness thing, and how well it works. Maybe send up flares for me to follow?

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    • Hi Diana! I think I’m just burnt out and exhausted and all the signs are pointing to a much needed break from activities and work. I try to remind myself that I’m doing the best I can at this point in time, while also looking at how I can scale back, refresh and renew. I hear a lot of people expressing burnout at this time of year – so many things going on.

      I read somewhere that while pain exists in life, the suffering is often self-generated. For me, learning to let go of my mistakes limits the suffering. And it is a kindness to one’s self. I also think that some feelings are ruts – we constantly spin without generating anything but our own misery. It’s hard to undo those patterns of thinking, but so important when we’re tapped out.

      Here’s hoping for some kindness on both our houses!

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  12. Beautifully said. It’s so easy for intelligent people to diagnose their ills and shortcomings and even to prescribe what should be done to cure or at least alleviate them–but it’s just as hard as for anyone else to actually *enact* the curative process. Sigh. The human condition indeed! Good that you recognize the need to cut yourself some slack now and again! xo!

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    • Thanks for reading and commenting! I’m not particularly good at cutting myself slack, which was why writing over the last year or so has been a very enlightening experience. Sometimes bliss can overcome perfectionism!

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