WOW! This blog is becoming my new, free therapy. You know, therapists/psychologists/shrinks – they don’t say much, they just listen a lot and ask a question here and there. It can give us comfort because we feel like they have some expertise or power that we don’t have ourselves; they have answers that we don’t. Or, if you’re like me, you don’t want to dump on your friends and family – they have their own problems to deal with, plus you don’t want them to know all the crazy stuff going on in your head – so you can pay someone to listen! They don’t know you outside of this experience, so you can just lay it all out there, AND you’re not inconveniencing anyone in the process, because it is this person’s job to do this. It’s a service you’re paying for! And that’s all good. But at the end of it all, WE have the answers and insights within us all along. Most of us just need to keep spewing it out there until we reach that insight ourselves, and THAT is what this blog is doing for me. Thanks guys!
Of course, misery loves company, so making it public is maybe letting other “crazy” people feel less along, too. I may have already said this to you all, but it’s worth repeating. I feel that I am a terribly average American woman. I’m 5 ft. 5 in., I’m overweight, I work full-time, I have credit card and student loan debt, and I have the luxury (yes, luxury) of being able to look at myself and see what I can do better. I didn’t have an extraordinarily bad or good childhood. I don’t lead an extraordinary life. I’m just regular, average. Now, I’ve been told that I’m really not average, and maybe that’s true in some aspects of my life and person; but in all of the things that people see everyday, I really am average. I can prove it, too! Come to the sale rack at any department store with me sometime: size 71/2 – 8 shoes? Nope; 36C bras? Nope; size 12 pants? Only the very ugly ones left! See, AVERAGE.
So when I say I suffer from perfectionism, I am pretty sure I’m not alone. (And, yes, I’m about to get Brene Brown on you again!) Can you guess what I was reading this morning? Yeah, so here are a few quotes I had to highlight (All from Brene’s book, Daring Greatly – Kindle edition, so I don’t have page numbers for you..):
“Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval. Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule following, people pleasing, appearance, sports).”
“Perfectionism is correlated with depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis or missed opportunities.”
” ‘ I remind myself, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of good.” (Cribbed from Voltaire) A twenty-minute walk that I do is better than the four-mile run that I don’t do. The imperfect book that gets published is better than the perfect book that never leaves my computer. The dinner party of take-out Chinese food is better than the elegant dinner that I never host.'” – Gretchen Rubin quoted in Brene Brown
“‘As a kid, I equated being perfect with being loved…and I think I still confuse the two.'” – Andrea Scher quoted in Brene Brown
“‘ Quick and dirty wins the race. Perfection is the enemy of done. Good enough is really effin’ good.'” – Ibid.
“Shame enters for those of us who experience anxiety because not only are we feeling fearful, out of control, and incapable of managing our increasingly demanding lives, but eventually our anxiety is compounded and made unbearable by our belief that if we were just smarter, stronger, or better, we’d be able to handle everything.”
Basically, by embracing perfectionism all these years, I’ve been feeding my anxiety and depression. That’s what is sounds like, right? And it’s not all my fault (which I could have told you before reading this stuff): I’m the first-born girl, I’m the oldest sibling, I’m smart and people tend to like me. All of this was apparent when I was very young, I’m told. And I personally remember being introduced to responsibility and the praise for achievement (and the disappointment of not doing very well) really early in my life. For example, my brother is 4 years younger than me, and I clearly remember when he was maybe 6 or 8 months old (crawling, not walking, still in diapers) being told by my mother to “watch him” for a minute or two. So, doing the math, I may have been 4 1/2 at this time…and I did watch him! I remember saying, “Mom! Andrew is eating rolly-pollies!” To which she responded, “I told you to watch him!” Well, I was watching! I was watching him eat bugs and reporting the offense – not bad for a 4 yr. old, right? But clearly not good enough. Likewise, I was somehow responsible for my younger siblings’ (and any other younger kids around me) behavior. I was the oldest so I “set an example.” If my sister hit me and I hit her back, we both got in trouble, but I got in more trouble because I should know better and set an example. Now how on earth does that make sense, I ask you?! The example I set if I don’t retaliate is that it’s OK to hit me/people – there will be no immediate consequence. Also, it’s OK for me to be hit, but not my sister…I’m supposed to just take it. AND, let’s just throw this one in for fun: “Don’t be a tattle tale!” Talk about mixed messages!! She hit me, but I’m not supposed to retaliate AND I’m not supposed to tattle…Basically, my feelings are unimportant. So how do I, the responsible older sibling, get love and attention? Well, I achieve, I achieve my butt off! And it works – I am praised for my grades, my abilities, etc. But it’s not enough. Consistently my nearly straight-A filled report cards also included a comment from my teacher saying, “She’s not living up to her potential.” WTF?? There is no higher grade than an A!! And I went to a very small, Catholic school, so it’s not like there was a gifted program I could move up to. So that’s me: Good, but not good enough. Always.
My siblings were not held to this standard – not even close. Most of my friends weren’t either, but there were a few. Kids always compare themselves with one another whether consciously or unconsciously, and we judge those comparisons based on what we have learned of life, mainly from adults. I learned that my good behavior and achievement gave me a bit more freedom and some privileges. My teachers sat me in the back of the room because I didn’t need to be watched closely or helped often. My parents scrimped and saved so that I could have a horse and riding lessons (which, BTW, is also a responsibility). Want to know what my younger siblings learned from this? From what I hear, they learned that I was the favorite, that I got whatever I wanted, and that I was smart and they weren’t. They also learned that they didn’t have to work hard – EVER! Again, we’re talking early childhood here – pre-teen, elementary school age. They got Cs and that was good enough – it was, “the best they could do.” They got detention regularly, so naturally they were punished/grounded and didn’t have the same privileges that I had. My brother took it to the next level – the only boy and the youngest child. His thing was, “I don’t know how! (boo hoo, weep, weep, sniffle)” Which, either from exhaustion or just going with the path of least resistance, usually ended in, “You do it for him,” directed at me. Not, “Show him how and let him do it,” but, “you do it for him.” (This SO made me crazy!) So when I struggled to do something – ride a 2-wheeler, do a cart-wheel, do algebra – I worked at it hard, for hours. Usually I learned to do the difficult thing, I overcame the challenge, I achieved, and I was rewarded. My siblings? They just did “good enough,” they were in trouble a lot, and they got a lot of attention for it. It probably wasn’t the attention they really wanted, but it’s what they learned to do. They saw the attention that I got and turned it into, “She’s the favorite.” They still don’t really see all the hard work I did to achieve, achieve, achieve even now that we are adults. My sister has managed to turn her childhood experiences into an enormous persecution complex. She’s ugly and useless and everyone is out to get her all the time, so she’s very defensive. You can’t have a conversation with her (well, I can’t) without her feeling accused of something and coming out swinging. Needless to say, we have a very volatile and not very close relationship. My brother is a bit more like me. He wants to achieve, but he believes he’s not very smart. He tends toward depression, and he is very comfortable in situations and organizations where he is told what to do in a very black and white, no need to think for yourself way. He’s in the Army; He’s super-robo-Christian. He’s really pretty good at being vulnerable, probably because it has always worked for him as the baby of the family. He’s very sentimental, likes those very patriotic or deeply emotional country songs – that kind of thing. How is it possible that we all grew up in the same house??!!!
So, it’s clear to me where my perfectionism began. Now I’m an adult (which is weird still, but it’s true), and this is the hand I’ve been dealt. I have to learn how best to deal with it, repair it, and/or change it. What I did learn in “real” therapy is that I am not actually responsible for other people’s behavior – particularly my siblings. That seems like a no brainer, but I suffered watching them make mistakes and bad decisions when I was younger. Part of that was because our Mom died when I was 17, so I felt even more responsible for them than I did before. Anyway, I’ve learned that the only person I have control over is myself, and they are responsible for their own lives. That’s still really hard for me, but I remind myself whenever I see it pop up.
“Perfectionism is not self-improvement.” That’s what I’m learning right now. For some reason – maybe because I’ve been thinking about redecorating lately – I started thinking about the type of furniture I’m most attracted to when I read this. I really love old, handmade, lived-in stuff. Not the faux distressed stuff, but the real, used, quirky things. I love those old, scuffed-up, not at all shiny farm house tables, the kind with water rings and burn marks and nicks everywhere. I love quilts because as good as you are, as hard as you try, they’re never exactly “perfect,” but you can tell that someone took time and effort and love to make them. It’s the same with this old sideboard/dresser that I just can’t part with. It’s clearly handmade, the paint is chipping, the drawers only fit in the exact right place, so if you take them all out, it’s like putting a puzzle back together getting them back in. To me, these things are warm and comforting and sweet and beautiful and THAT is perfect. They are unique because of their flaws; their flaws are what make them beautiful. If I feel this way about furniture, why can’t I feel this way about myself? I am a product of my history. I have scars and burns and I’m a little wobbly sometimes. But I’m warm and squishy and I mean well. Shouldn’t that be good enough?
Clearly I still feel that I can improve, but it could be so much worse. I am pretty darn good, I think, but I don’t feel comfortable saying I’m good enough. That feels like an end to striving to learn and improve. I guess I better keep reading….