How to (Try to) Not Be a Perfectionist

A boyfriend from many moons ago told me he liked me “because you never stress over anything.” When I mentioned this to my close friends, they burst out laughing.

“OK, has he met you?” they asked.

Their laughter offended me for a few seconds (jeez, I’m not that bad, am I?) I was surprised my friends had noticed my anxiety, since in my mind, I had tricked everyone into thinking I was super casual. But soon I realized it meant that they loved me for me. The former boyfriend didn’t, but they did.

I didn’t need to be perfect.

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It is an embarrassing confession—I am a perfectionist. I am such a perfectionist that I searched “em dash” to copy and paste into the previous sentence rather than using two dashes, like this: – – . Technically, an em dash is correct, but it is also overkill (feel free to mock my flagrant use of em dashes in the rest of my writing).

When anxiety spikes and I need to feel in control, I try to organize my surroundings and ensure that my output is perfect. Straighten the throw pillows, rearrange the closet, obsess over dashes. Then the problems begin—the scrupulating, the inflexibility, the stress. The paralysis over taking any step, like Jenni Berrett said so beautifully on Ravishly.

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Growing up in a poor family in the Midwest added to my perfectionist tendencies. I needed to prove myself, to prove that I wasn’t what others claimed of me—ignorant, uneducated, lazy. My fight to become successful was a struggle against class and social order.

To prove I was worthy of a college acceptance, I assumed I needed to do all the things: stage managing, tennis, newspaper, weekend job. My junior year of high school was my worst year, and I have never been more tired. (I contracted mono and didn’t even know it; I figured it was part and parcel of my omnipresent exhaustion).

Throughout the rest of my life, I have been fighting against re-creating that year. I have been trying to accept imperfection. Here are a few small strategies that help me when I am in the thick of a need to feel perfect:

  1. Monotask. Complete to one item at a time. This is very difficult, and I often fail. But spit out your toothpaste and then button your shirt. Never both at once, since that could end in a mint-flavored disaster. This often helps me feel more in control.
  2. Shut down social media for a day. I avoid most social media on the weekends. Those perfect pictures are not helping you feel more comfortable with imperfection.
  3. Do one small thing that makes you feel vulnerable. The other day, I asked a friend that I haven’t seen in a while out to drinks. I was afraid she would be busy and I would feel disappointed. But, instead, she was all for it and we had a great time.

I am heading back to the Midwest next weekend. Stay tuned for updates from the Heartland.

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