It Sucks to be a Perfectionist

My name is Emily, and I’m a perfectionist.

Perfectionism is an awful disease that afflicts millions of people. In my case, it all started in my childhood.

My 5th grade teacher allowed us to choose our own spelling words. I wanted to compete with the other kids in my classroom who were super smart by picking unreasonably long spelling words for my list.

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And now, at the age of 38, it manifests itself in ways like this:

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And when someone does something really nice for me, it is sometimes debilitating:

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I sometimes don’t do things that I need or want to do because I have this core belief that certain things need to be perfect.

I want my home to be perfect.

I want to say the perfect thing to others.

And I want to write perfectly. Here’s me, after I hit publish on a blog post:

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After my divorce, I had a bunch of paperwork related tasks to do. One of them involved going to the BMV and asking them to change my address on my registration and then getting a form to get my ex-husband’s name off of my vehicle’s title. I had been in a scary car accident at the time, and my car had been totaled completely. I needed to remove my ex-husband’s name from the title in order for the insurance company to reimburse me.

The process was fairly simple, and my brother loaned me a car while I was waiting to complete the process started by the insurance company.

The process could have been completed in a week.

Five months later, though, I was still driving my brother’s car. He had his own vehicle–this was just an old car he was thinking of selling, but had loaned it to me.

However, I still needed to get the car back to him and get my own vehicle. And for some reason, the task seemed OVERWHELMING. Like in my mind, the idea of driving to the BMV to do this task felt comparable to climbing Mount Everest or something.

And the more I beat myself up for not doing it, the harder it was to just FREAKING do it.

And the cycle of procrastination began:

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That cycle is just so disturbingly true for me.

The only thing I have found that has helped me to stop the cycle of procrastination is to JUST FREAKING DO the overwhelming task.

My friend, Lora, gave me the wise advice to just “take the emotion out of the task and check it off your list.”

I don’t why this way of thinking about it helped me so much, but it did. So, back to the car story–I started telling myself that this BMV thing was no big whup. I was just going to wake up, put my clothes on, and drive there. No biggie. And whatever happened at the BMV would be okay, because I somehow convinced myself that I had no emotion AT ALL attached to the outcome.

And it was just SO simple once I did that. And after it was done, I wanted to go outside and jump for joy and drink a bottle of wine and yell, “I DID IT!” because it was such a relief to not have it hanging over my head.

For me the lesson is that I give things more importance in my mind than what they sometimes deserve. In the case of the car situation, I felt so sad about the car accident which had precipitated the task at hand, that I just didn’t want to deal with the aftermath of the paperwork. I chose avoidance instead of completion.

In the case that I mentioned earlier, where someone writes me a nice email and I want to find the RIGHT words to respond, I just feel stuck and decide to come back to it. And then suddenly, I’m writing an apology email that’s full of reasons I haven’t responded, instead of just a simple, “Thank you for your note. Your words meant so much to me.” I do this, I suppose, not only because I want to do things perfectly, but because I’ve attached so much emotion to the task of responding. I just want to make this other person happy, in the way he or she made me happy. I feel so deeply grateful, that I almost have to put aside the gratitude for a moment–that deep and happy emotion–and respond immediately with the most truest sentences that come to my mind–instead of over-analyzing a response that will “make him or her” feel good.

It sucks to be a perfectionist. But I’m working on defeating it. I want to model healthier thought patterns for my daughter. I want her to not feel afraid to make mistakes. I want her to know that doing her best is more important than doing it perfectly.

And I want her to know, as I’m starting to realize, that doing something “good enough” really sometimes is enough.

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