Recovering Perfectionist

I mentioned in my first blog I would post some thoughts each week.  That was 12 weeks ago. I could list innumerable reasons why I haven’t posted anything else.  They range from illness (mine and others) to deaths of friends.  Then there were the typical distractions of compulsive cleaning of the house, rushing to see movies before the Academy Awards and some movies since then, tax prep, being sucked into other people’s drama, other writing projects and a list of untold obligations.  It occurred to me recently that there was one yet unnamed obstacle, perfectionism, haunting and begging me to tell the truth. I have no new post because none were perfect enough.

The phenomenon of perfectionism or should I refer to it as a syndrome is increasingly pervasive these days.  Actually I believe it’s always been present but I am noticing it and more people are admitting to it.  Within the last few weeks I’ve attended groups where inevitably the individuals gathered would disclose their battles with perfectionism.  The sad conclusion is that perfectionism keeps many people (including me) from accomplishing dreams, from experiencing self-acceptance, from truly living.  Moreover, attempting to maintain such high standards for everything is simply exhausting.  I suggested to one friend, as he mentioned a sign he passed on the way home, “Perfection is not required” that now he could join those of us who think of ourselves as “Recovering Perfectionists.”   I define a recovering perfectionist as someone who can at least acknowledge that he or she is a perfectionist, a person who has broken through the shackles of denial that often accompanies perfectionism.

I think of recovering perfectionists like I do recovering alcoholics.  It is a malaise that is always with us and admitting that we are perfectionists is the first step to recovery.  Similarly, I must work with healing my perfectionism every day, and in every moment.  Although I publicly confess my perfectionism, letting go of the compulsion to straighten pictures, clear clutter, organize my husband’s study as well as my own, and revise everything I write at least 25 times remain.  I realize if I spend my precious time succumbing to my perfectionist tendencies, I’ll never post to this blog, finish a book or engage in other activities that make my heart sing.

It’s unclear when and where my perfectionism began.  In fact, I didn’t know I was a perfectionist until my sister pointed it out to me several years ago.  After that I started observing how important it is for me to have things “just right.”  It could be a table setting, or how the books are arranged on the book shelf (by height of course).  Maybe it was how my hair looked or how a particular dish I was cooking turned out.  Of course the measurement of perfection is based on my extraordinarily high standards.  I don’t even like the previous sentence I composed even though I’ve revised it at least five times.

Then I noticed that I applied this high standard to other people and events as well.  If I attended a church event maybe a wedding my eyes focus on the one thing that isn’t perfect.  Maybe the plants outside a building haven’t been trimmed or the shrubs needed shaping.  I wonder now how long my world has been decorated with the mis-takes of life.  How can I have a happy heart if I am judging everybody and everything?

I remember once my spiritual director told me to look out of her office window.  We peered at some dead branches on a nearby tree.  She remarked that according to our perfect perception (she is a recovering perfectionist as well) that branch needed to be removed.  Yet dying tree limbs and browning shrubs are natural.  I couldn’t see the beauty of a breathtaking spring with crimson red azaleas and dazzling pink and white dogwood blossoms, or the brilliant yellow of a ginkgo tree in fall for zeroing in on the dangling branches and trampled leaves.  Where did I learn that the natural environment needed manicuring?  The noted, xxx Brian McLaren once said, “What you focus on determines what you miss.”  I realized that I was missing so much love and beauty everywhere even at weddings because I was drawn to what was missing; what wasn’t going well.

The other issue that perfectionists (recovering or not) contend with is a strong internal critic.  Oh my how I beat myself up for even a minor infraction.  If I am a minute late to an appointment I internally pummel myself with a verbal barrage for staying in the bed 1 or 2 minutes too long or not leaving the house when I should.  It is difficult for me to tolerate my own mess let alone anyone else’s.  Whoever my internal critic is, I know she needs more attention and perhaps some care and compassion.

I used to blame my father for my perfectionism.  He modeled it well and demanded it from each of his children.  But he is no longer around and I must take responsibility for my being.  Like most bad habits or conditions, I know it will take practice (and a lot of prayer) to let go of my perfectionistic proclivities.  And like those in alcohol anonymous, I will need to make a list of people I should make amends to.  God knows how many people (especially former students) have been subjected to my perfectionistic standards.  Of course my perfectionist students followed my advice and produced superior work.  However, as one outstanding young woman revealed to me one day, “Professor, I am fine with a B or B+.  I don’t need to earn an “A” in very class.  I want to live a life that is not so stressed out.”

Now that is an attitude worth emulating.  And as I read more blogs perfection is neither the goal nor the purpose for writing for most bloggers.  Instead of producing perfect writing I would rather provoke conversation about how to have a peaceful heart.  Thus, in the coming weeks and months I hope to make “good enough” just fine.  I look forward to more posts and greater peace for my heart.

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