I have described myself several times as a “recovering perfectionist” and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The phrase mirrors the saying used by those who are or who have battled alcoholism. While some people who have been through AA prefer to term “recovered” alcoholic, others embrace the term “recovering alcoholic” as a reminder that their relationship to alcohol will never be normal and that the work of recovery is not done, but needs to continue.
I feel similarly when it comes to my perfectionism. That may seem strange or possibly even offensive to some, but I can’t tell you how many times I have self sabotaged, ruined relationships, or felt totally helpless due to my struggle with a compulsion to be perfect. It was this kind of thinking that led me to the conclusion in my late teens that I would never get married because I would never find someone perfect enough or be perfect enough to get married. A way of thinking that, thank God, I started to chip away at in time to realize I wanted to marry the love of my life. It was something I thought made me totally freakish, it was something I mostly suffered through silently. It wasn’t until motherhood confronted me with the total impossibility of perfection that I really started to process how much help my worldview needed.
I’ve written before about one of the things is at the root of my perfectionism- the idea of starting from 100% in school vs. what it looks like to view things as starting from 0%. Those perfect scores were something I clung to throughout school. It probably didn’t help that due to my all girls Catholic high school having pretty lofty academic standards I found myself a group of planner obsessed perfectionists who were smart and poised enough to feel like perfection at all levels was attainable if you only worked hard enough. We had the activity resumes and caffeine addictions to prove it. For some reason we thought it was normal to have to talk each other down from hyperventilating before AP tests or to have to go to the nurse’s office because we hadn’t slept in a few days (literally the nurse’s office at my high school was basically a nap room that occasionally dispensed Tylenol because so few of us got a reasonable amount of sleep.) Don’t get me wrong, I LOVED my high school. And I think that immense pressure we put on ourselves forced us to be there for each other in a way that bonded us together that is fairly unique compared to other schools. But what I really love is that we are still there for each other as we start to realize that we don’t have to do all the things to be worthy, and that we are there to tell each other- well, I knew that about YOU all along… I just didn’t quite understand that it also applied to ME. It’s like we went through the same trauma and addiction together. And when episodes of spiraling out start to happen, those high school friends are still some of the best people to pull me out of the tail spin of perfectionism and remind me of my new priorities.
My perfectionism is still a daily struggle and something I don’t want to pass down to my children. I fight to be vulnerable and open up about my flaws. I fight to love what I have instead of bashing what I haven’t mastered yet. I’ve tried to replace fear of failure with curiosity and excitement about what might be next (thank you yoga) and I’ve tried to celebrate progress not perfection. But it’s still a daily struggle. I beat myself up for the mistakes I make. I want the picture perfect end product instead of the gloriously busy middle. I find gift cards that have expired or are to stores that don’t even exist anymore because I didn’t spend them in a reasonable amount of time while I was holding off for the PERFECT purchase (This is a reminder to myself to SPEND the lovely gifts I was given for my birthday instead of hoarding them for no logical reason… As if someone is going to judge me on if I picked a worthy enough expenditure, and as if I should care if they did.)
So what do I do? I keep writing about it. I keep processing the struggle and I put reminders to myself everywhere I can. From my bulletin board to my coffee cup. In my Powersheets. In the conversations I have with my husband about how we can communicate better and what my struggles are. Along the same lines, I have friends who are willing to be vulnerable as well and are willing to hold me accountable. I have one friend who masterfully described the image of having to drown her perfection daily in order to keep it from consuming her. That resonates deeply with me as it is a choice I have to make daily if I don’t want to slip back into old thought patterns. I also try to remind myself that my faith is not compatible with perfectionism. God meets us where we are, but it’s pretty hard to grow in a relationship with him if you’re busy saying “I’ve got this, don’t worry about it” all the time, or the opposite end of the perfectionist trap- “I’ll come see you when I have it a little more together. I don’t have this yet, I’ll come see you when I do.” Instead of just being real and praying right now in the mess. (Ringing any 12 step bells yet?)
Maybe in a few more decades I’ll forget about perfectionism for more than a day or two at a time and I won’t feel the need to use the term “recovering perfectionist” anymore. Maybe that obsession will no longer be an obstacle to my mental health because I’ll have spent as many years working to change my perspective on how to lie as I did building up my original perspective of trying to be the golden child who could do no wrong. Until then… I’ll keep admitting my recovering status, and I’m happy to talk with anyone who may be on that same road or wondering if they need to make a similar life change. I think it’s an easy thing to brush off with a sarcastic joke, especially in a world where comparison and “FOMO” are just a “normal” part of life in the social media age. But I don’t think it’s normal to torture yourself with impossible standards, so if you need to talk, recovering perfectionist to recovering perfectionist, I’m here.