I can hear the cracks in the wall before the tidal wave lays me low. They sneak up on me – the whispers of shoulda, woulda, coulda. I am paralyzed by my imperfect perfectionism.
Before I can rally, I need a breather. I watch a movie, flip through a magazine or read a book – media filled with perfect people, perfect writing, perfect pictures of a well-adjusted life. I’d love to say I feel so self-confident that these images and words don’t push me farther under the bus of self-loathing. But it’s not true. When I’m feeling low, these are the proverbial kicks to the gut that say “See? I told you so!”
There is, as an NPR blog writer called it, a New Perfectionism. Perfect parenting, perfect workouts, perfect household hints, perfect ways to be an effective and efficient employee, perfect time management skills, perfect possibilities for every aspect of life. I don’t doubt that there are many people out there who aren’t anxious or overwhelmed or filled with self doubt. I am not one of them.
I’ve been reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. It’s been recommended to me at least 20 times, so I finally cracked it open on vacation. When it comes to my own introversion, it’s not been particularly enlightening. I’m good with the fact that I am an introvert who can function as an extrovert when needed. What I found interesting were the chapters about how extroversion became the ideal in our society – the valuing of personality over character. Selling one’s self became more important than ensuring you weren’t, deep down, a complete shithead.
The idea that how we appear is more valuable than our character is designed to teach us to judge a book by its cover – to sort, categorize and label people based on first impressions. If you have perfectionist tendencies, this value system exploits that need in an endless procession of how-to articles, cults of personality and advertising standards. Perfectionism sells.
While on vacation, it struck me that I’ve been so tired over the last year – working hard, struggling against entropy, trying to be better at everything. I’ve expended tremendous amounts of energy with very little in the way of return – or at least returns I’ve been able to recognize. I don’t want to be exhausted all the time and it’s not necessary. The New Perfectionism indeed – now I want to be the perfectly balanced person. Nice work, brain. Any more circular thinking you’d like to do?
Friends often say to me: You’re too hard on yourself. A cliché won’t stop 40 some years of pushing myself. And like any other character trait, there’s an upside. I have worked hard to become a productive member of society, to have stable relationships, to be a decent parent. Those things have not come easily to me. The downside is that not only am I tough on myself, but I’m often tough on others and I don’t know how to relax (And don’t tell me to relax – I’ll just want to punch someone in the face).
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to question this perfectionist mentality. I can’t physically sustain a driven life. Many activities, which take up vast quantities of time, aren’t really important. And lastly, I’ve moved beyond the survival and self-sufficiency stage. I’m here. I get to be a bit of a dilettante. I get to dabble and meander and be a little lazier.
I felt a huge mental harrumph after typing that last sentence. Says who? Now get back to work. Maybe it would be more honest to say that since I will likely continue to push myself, I should redirect those efforts towards fulfilling work, family time that doesn’t involve force marching everyone through chores, activities that enrich instead of deplete. There are choices to be made.
After reading The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz, the idea of choices took on a whole new meaning – and it explains much of the anxiety people feel in our modern society. By pursuing perfection, we are inundated with choices at every turn. Of course, Mr. Schwartz decided the proof was in the pudding by immediately following up with Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. With so many other volumes of What You Are Not Doing Perfectly on the shelves, I’ve resolved any paradox by choosing not to read it.
Faced with so many experts and how-to gurus, the choices are overwhelming. But these choices are only necessary if your perceived goal is perfectionism. And what is perfect? Perfect is often what you want other people to see when they look at you, your home, status, possessions, children or body. Perfection represents love, power, respect – any number of things to people, but perfectionist behavior rarely yields those results. It can be, as I’ve discovered, quite tiring and unrewarding.
If perfection is through the eyes of someone else, then perfect becomes subjective. If definitions of perfection are subjective, it can be ours to define. It may end up looking entirely different than as advertised. Contents may settle. Results may not be guaranteed. Objects might be closer than they appear. There might be unintended side effects – like uncontrollable laughter, unexpected napping, small pleasures and infinite joy.
Perfectionist thinking is hard to unravel. Letting go of the behavior sometimes involves doing a half-assed job, showing up late, putting it off until later, not ironing it, not doing a progressive number of reps, letting the picture hang crooked on the wall. The next step is figuring out what you’d like to do instead – something rewarding, pleasurable, luxurious, frivolous. I have piles of work to do. I wrote this blog post instead.