I come from a long line of perfectionists. Never, since the time before dinosaurs roamed the earth, have the words “leave the dishes until morning” been uttered in our homes. This isn’t a knock. When you come up hard, the way my perfectionist forebears did, it can be a kind of survival skill: when there is so much out of your control but you can make damn sure there are no dishes in that sink and that’s a little bit of comfort where there is otherwise none. Or when the drive to ‘get it right’ helps move you out of a very bad situation.
But sometimes the things that serve us in survival mode, don’t serve us so well outside it. Only through Brene Brown’s work have I come to really understand that perfectionism is different than healthy striving for a goal. Perfectionism is based on shame, and has at its root the belief that unless this is absolutely perfect, or that is, or I am…then I feel shame. If it’s not perfect, it’s worthless. I am worthless. I am not enough.
When we don’t feel like enough as just ourselves, we start to try to make everything ELSE right so that maybe, we can be accepted. We wear ourselves out trying to have and do and be all the right things. We smile and smile.
Brene calls this ‘hustling’ for approval or acceptance. We know that when we feel it – when we’re hustling, instead of operating from our authentic center. I’m thankful she could give that a word. That hustle is such an ingrained habit for so many of us that it can be hard to even know when we’re doing it. Having something to call it helps me recognize the feeling.
There are as many reasons for perfectionism as there are perfectionists. In my own case, I grew up feeling like I had a lot to make up for. I was raised by a single mom; I can count on my hands the number of times I’ve seen my father. While I never went hungry or cold, we were broke; my mother struggled mightily to support us while dealing with her own serious health issues. More darkly, over the years our family’s little boat was buffeted by the winds of alcoholism, violence, and abuse. All of these things – a ‘broken’ family, poverty and trouble, poor health – were seen as moral failings, not life circumstances or a reason for compassion, in the time and place where I grew up. In the small, insular Catholic community where we lived, almost everything about our lives was wrong.
Academics were my saving grace. Here was something I could DO – something I was good at. Immersing myself in my studies provided escape from my stormy home life, and there were clear and objective criteria I could meet to tell me whether or not I had done well. Nothing like the vague moving targets of acceptance and belonging. It was heaven. Fortunately I was encouraged in my studies, and encouraged to go on to college – the first in my family.
I left for college buoyant with hope, sure that I would soon find my ‘tribe,’ feel the sense of belonging I had longed for, and experience, as so many people told me, the best years of my life.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
At the private college where I was a scholarship student, most of the people I met came from educated families, mostly middle and upper middle class. It seemed unlikely to me that my classmates had ever lived in a house with ice on the interior walls, or had ever awakened to the sound of a fist going through drywall. I had been a top student at my tiny high school, but when my freshman peers began talking about the “AP” courses they had in high school, I didn’t even know what that meant. (Advanced Placement, as it turned out – something that was not available at my rural high school at the time.) On the first day of my freshman literature class, the instructor opened to the table of contents in the enormous anthology that was serving as our text. He went through the table ticking off things “you’ll have already read.” I had not read a single work he mentioned. Academics, so long my safe haven, were now a source of shame.
Back at home, my abusive stepfather had escalated his isolation of my mother. Home was not a safe place, and after my freshman year he ensured I was not welcome there – for months I could not even call. With no home to go to, and feeling like a fish out of water at school, I was thoroughly unmoored – the sense of everything about my life being wrong, now extended to my self. Everything about me was wrong. Back in my home town on break, staying with kind relatives, I would get in my old car and drive the back roads between my former home and my high school, sobbing and chain-smoking, the once-familiar landscape now alien as the moon.
Eventually the dissonance was too much, and I left the private school. I went to work full time and managed, barely, to complete a degree at a decent state college. I met the man I’d marry. Anthony was from a background similar to mine, also a first-generation student, and a really good guy. (How I managed to not marry an abusive asshole confounds me to this day.)
Together, we made that one-generation leap into the middle class, which I thought would mean…well, everything. Happily ever after, right? I’d be accomplished, blissfully happy, everything would be easy, and I’d never wonder what to wear – my life like the pages of a magazine. But it turns out that the shit you walk through sticks to your shoes even as you move forward, leaving smelly footprints all over your new beige carpet.
I was the same person in different circumstances. That feeling that I was not enough stayed with me – even as I built a stable marriage and a solid career, had a great kid, and set about trying to give her some of the things (both material and not) that had been missing from my own childhood. By my early 40s I was being eaten alive by the thoughts of everything I had not yet been able to be, do, or have – and by the sense that time was running out.
I was angry. I was bitter. Why was I not where I wanted to be?
If it were possible to flog and criticize and hate yourself into perfection (or into anything at all, really), I would surely have done it by now. We all would have done it by now, wouldn’t we? I began to wonder if maybe – maybe – there was another way. What if I should be thinking less about accomplishments and milestones, and more about how I’d like to feel?
As my daughter Adrienne approaches adolescence, I’m painfully aware that how I treat myself, even how I think about myself, shows – and it’s her example, her pattern for how to do life, how to do womanhood. I do not want to leave smelly footprints on her new carpet.
And so with nothing more than the vague thought that there’s got to be another, a better, an easier and more loving way to live with myself, I’ve gone exploring. I’m not striving after some new me, not on a quest to perfect myself. There are lots of false starts, regressions, and roadblocks. But I’m finding tools I like, guided only by my own curiosity. The ice is cracking; I’m kinder to me than I used to be. My fuse grows longer. The progress isn’t linear – more like an upward spiral.
I thought it would be a shame to do all this exploration and keep it to myself. This blog was born from the hope that what I’m learning might help someone else to have a shorter road from self-loathing to compassion; from grinding, tiresome perfectionism to a radical appreciation of the imperfect, the wonky, the slightly fucked up. And if there’s nothing to learn from me, at least you know you have a companion on the journey.
I’m so glad you’re here.