Letting Go of Perfectionism


There’s a catch-22 in writing about perfectionism. I have wanted to write about this for weeks but kept putting it off. I wanted to do more research. I needed to have the right inspiration… In reality, I was terrified — because if you’re going to write about perfectionism, it had better be perfect.

Let’s get this out of the way: This post isn’t perfect. I am not perfect. And dammit I hate that.

Perfectionism is my preferred defense mechanism. If I am smart enough, thin enough, selfless enough, pretty enough, impressive enough, etc. then no one will notice all the things that are wrong with me.

The Trap

It worked pretty well for a long time. Most people in my inner circle didn’t realize I had a problem with alcohol because I was so high functioning. Had anyone dare say anything, I had my hobbies, career advancements, relationships, and friendships to throw in their faces. I used it to justify my drinking to myself as well. Look, I work hard, I volunteer, I bake, I sew, I write… can’t I have Just One Thing?

The problem was, it worked too well. A couple of times I was brave enough (okay, drunk enough) to admit that I thought I had a problem, and people told me they didn’t think I did. I got the feeling they thought maybe I was being a touch overdramatic. Cringe.

But I also had a strong fear that I wouldn’t be found out. That I would be able to keep up the façade. – until one day I would develop cirrhosis. And then the jig would be up. People would know how imperfect I was and it would be forever metaphorically etched on my tombstone.

I don’t think I’m alone here

There is a huge misconception in this country about what an alcoholic actually is. People picture someone homeless stumbling around with nothing left talking to themselves. They don’t tend to picture a woman. Certainly not one in business attire. And it doesn’t take drinking a fifth of vodka a day to become addicted to alcohol.  A bottle of wine or two will do just as nicely. One of my favorite quotes from Ann Dowsett Johnston about her drinking is, “I drank way more than I should have and probably a lot less than you’re thinking.”

There is something going on here culturally too. It may just be the women I hang out with, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a woman who doesn’t consider herself a perfectionist. I hear it everywhere, “I’m such a perfectionist.” “I’m so OCD”, “I’m totally Type A”. Have you ever heard anyone say they’re type B? Because I haven’t.

I’m so OCD. But not in an unattractive way.

There is a message that if you aren’t a perfectionist, you are lazy. You let things go. And beware, because there are plenty of women out there who don’t. They are better than you, and everyone you love may just realize that.

One of my biggest fears in writing this post is that someone I know would see it and say, “Really? You? A perfectionist? Okay…”

In truth, I don’t know that I am a typical perfectionist. My house is somewhat messy. I’d love for it to be sparkly, but not enough to, y’know, clean it. My clothes aren’t perfectly ironed or expertly tailored, and I often wear flats despite knowing I look better in heels. I have even been known to eat ice cream in public after coming to the shocking realization that no one cares.

The strange thing is, I don’t expect perfection from others, so it seems egotistical that I should have to be perfect and no one else does. The truth is that I feel like my being perfect gets me just up to the level of everyone else’s normal. I don’t know where this comes from. But I do know that it speaks with the same voice that whispers that I should skip dinner. That I could have just one drink.

Imperfect mom

In a way, the thing that has shifted me away the most from perfectionism has been becoming a mother.  It’s a strange thing because I want the best for my child in ways I never did for myself.  But motherhood threw into sharp focus the fact that it’s just not possible.  Seeing that huge gap between myself and perfection and knowing it wasn’t something I could close was an ego blow.  But it was also a relief.  In knowing that it was impossible, I was able to let go now and again.

I know I can try with all my might to be the perfect mom.  To hand sew his Halloween costumes instead of buying them on Amazon.  To read educational books for hours and set up some sort of sensory water station like I see on Pinterest when we are stuck at home, instead of cuddling and watching tv together.  But in giving up some of those things, I also know that my son gets a mom that isn’t wound up like a rubber band ready to snap.

A slow fix

I don’t have a top ten list here of how to beat this. Nor do I have a cute exercise for you to change your thinking (although Steps 4 and 5 are a damn good start.) This is a process. Realizing it is an important step towards learning to question that perfectionistic voice. That’s been what has begun to help me. To stop for a second and ask myself,“Wait, is that really true?”

Is it true that I can’t have people over to my house because there are bags of clothes in my room I still haven’t donated?

Is it true that if I ask for a sick day to take my kid to the doctor that my boss will mommy track me?

Is it true that unless I get Botox, people are going to think my face looks like a shoe?

pretty much

I have to remind myself every day that adult life is not like middle school. I am not under a microscope. And if someone criticizes me for something, their word is not gospel. It’s just their opinion and worth no more than my own. It is my choice to jump down a shame rabbit hole. Or not.

Thoughts?  Want to tell me how perfect I am?  That I do look like a shoe? (I knew it.)  Have at it in the comments.