Monday, April 25, 2005

A Critique of Pure Perfectionism

I am a life-long perfectionist. As a child I hated anything asymmetrical because it wasn't perfect. I began styling my own hair at age 8 because I could not STAND to let my mother do it. She CLEARLY did not care enough about perfection to verify that there were no bumps in my pulled-back ponytail EVEN THOUGH I COULD FEEL THEM or that the pins in my hair were PERFECTLY PLACED in a coordinate plane I mentally mapped over my skull to get them just so. Someone give that poor woman a medal. As I grew up, I had to grow out of some of those things. I hated my own writing, but I couldn't abstain from writing papers, so I had to learn to improve without fretting over how far I had to go. But my default attitude hasn't really changed.

One woman told me that perfectionism itself was ungodly - at times it gave us pretentions of equality with God and at other times it paralyzed us from doing what we ought to do, even if imperfectly, rather than leaving it undone. The former thought is sheer Bovine Scatlogy. The whole point of being a perfectionist is that you always have the right to think you screwed up and you're the lowest kind of filth because NOTHING you ever do is "perfect enough." ;) Still, there are times when my efforts to achieve my goals have given me the impression that I'm better than those who don't have such lofty ambitions. It's just that I so often fall short that I usually feel inferior, not superior. As far as the other half goes, she's absolutely right. Which makes her unoriginal because seriously, EVERYONE IS TELLING ME THAT these days. The UNIVERSE is harping on me to stop letting perfectionism stop me. I hear it out of the mouths of people I pass in a shopping mall, pastors from the pulpit, even a housekeeping website I recently visited. I'm very glad of this because I am so dense that I have to hear it ALL the TIME.

It's not that I don't organize my desk because I'm lazy or I just don't care; it's that I know it must be done and I want to do the BE ALL/END ALL job of cleaning the darn thing. I can't make do with a half-baked job. I can't create that filing cabinet without knowing precisely which category labels I should put in there to divide the information in such a way that I always have a place for everything and everything stays in its place. BUT, since I cannot do that and I doubt my own capacity to begin with, I live with a totally messy desk until it affects my work and then I break down and spend two hours cleaning it, fretting over each and every scrap of paper or coupon I must file when it could have taken 5 minutes a day over time. Plus I wouldn't have two new gray hairs, a deepened worry-line, and worse cramps this cycle.

Well, when I put it that way . . .

I just have to try. That housekeeping website I mentioned gave me a shove in the right direction. Sure, half the things they write are too fluffy/annoying, but they're always saying "you're not behind, you just have to START," and "housework, even when done imperfectly, is still valuable." So I've decided to start small. I try to make my bed every morning, I keep the kitchen relatively clear of dishes by taking care of them right away, and I get dressed fully every morning. (That last one is crucial 'cause I often have stuff shipped from work and I HATE it when the UPS man rings the doorbell and I have to start my heart beating again, throw on jeans and pull a hooded sweatshirt over my head and down to my hips to make sure it covers the fly that I didn't have time to zip, and finally dash like an olympic athlete to sign for a package. yiiiikes!) I also apply the 15-minute rule, doing things in tiny increments so I can't get distracted or disheartened by the miles I have to go before perfection is achieved and I have a chance to actually get it done, a few minutes at a time.

I hope my mental practice of just DOING something instead of fearing and doing nothing helps me because I think the biggest danger of my perfectionism is the epic levels of guilt I make myself endure. It took us almost 3/4 of a year to finish our thank-you cards from the wedding and the entire time, whenever I thought of it, I felt so ashamed that "anguish" probably best describes my mental state. I wanted so badly to share my gratefulness with everyone who was so generous to us, but I couldn't do it right, and I had already failed do it fast enough, and I just wanted to crawl into a hole and never emerge. I hope I never let anything become that big a burden.

For those of you who don't suffer this malady, be glad. It's makes ya nuts. And be kind to those of us who do because it is hard to be so darn perfect all the time! >;)


Cap'n Ganch said...

for a long time i thought i was just lazy with certain things (especially tidiness and thank you cards) but realized that i never want to start because if i can't do it right ... i don't want to do it.

it's easier just to say, "i've been busy" and be done with it.

sbp said...

Yeah, that whole pretensions to being God thing was obviously thought up by a non-perfectionist.

I would say, And who really wants to DO anything anyway, but the thing is, even when you're putting it off and "not caring," you care so much you have to do something else to distract you from what you're caring about not feeling able to do.

Yay, we're all crazy!