My name is Jessica, and I’m a recovering perfectionist.
I had a perfect day once. I woke up early to work out. I made a healthy breakfast. I read books to my daughter for an hour. I played the piano while a bird came and tweeted on the fence outside the window (really). I ate lunch with a friend. I came home to put my daughter down for a nap and made a delicious dinner, which we ate leisurely. We all went to bed at a reasonable hour. There were no fits, not crises, no angry-Mommy-tirades. It was a dreamy day.
It happened in June 2007. My oldest daughter was six months old. Now she’s five.
I want to do things right. I want to be more patient. I want to be more whimsical and spontaneous. I want to play educational games with my kids instead of watching TV. I want to serve gourmet meals instead of heating up chicken nuggets.
I also want to spend time laughing with my friends over drinks while wearing sparkly earrings. I want to write a brilliant dissertation. I want to be the best part-time grad school instructor ever. I want to run a non-profit that quietly changes the world.
I want my life to look like this:
Source: The Container Store
Instead, I feel like it looks more like this:
Source: Houston Press Review of “Hoarding: Buried Alive”
My wise friend Caren told me when our daughters were tiny, when we first started visiting refugees, that she was a recovering perfectionist. (She has a gift for mantras.) The power of that statement grew on me slowly, like wasabi that you barely taste at first and then explodes in your mouth.
I decided then and there to join the club, to take the pledge, to start the twelve steps–I was tired of being a victim of my addiction to perfection.
Being a recovering perfectionist has changed me as a mom. It means I have to watch myself around certain places, like an alcoholic who walks regretfully away from a bar. I can’t spend too much time on Pinterest, that glittery land where perfectionists rule. I barely go there at all. When I do, I can feel the tension rising in my neck, the twitchy fingers aching to execute that cake or that sock puppet or that cereal box organizer. It means I limit my friends–I can’t be around people who might lead me back into my old life of guilt over my own unmet standards. I like best the people who are real, who don’t have time to judge, who couldn’t care less about comparing our lives.
It means I have to accept myself for what I am–a loving, devoted, active, engaged, flawed, impatient, learning mom.
Being a recovering perfectionist has changed me as a grad student. I admit this is hardest for me, because I work in a field where perfect is the accepted measure of work. To be anything less than a highstrung, obsessively devoted scholar and writer feels like a failure to me. I feel pressure to be the job, to live, sleep, eat and breathe the job. Except I don’t and I can’t. Though sometimes I still stare at a blank page, paralyzed by my inability to write dazzling prose at the drop of a hat, I’m learning that getting it done is more important than getting it right.
It means I have to accept that perfection doesn’t come instantly, but is the result of revision and great editing, whether in my dissertation or other types of writing. No one ever writes anything perfectly the first time.
Being a recovering perfectionist has changed me as a non-profit director. In this, I’m so blessed to work with Caren. We walk away from things ALL THE TIME. We don’t walk away from people–that’s why we’ve started this tiny non-profit despite kids and part-time jobs. But we do walk away from all of the “shoulds” that people keep throwing at us: how we should grow, how we should change, how we should sell products in this shop or that boutique, how we should streamline our process, how we should be doing what we do but better and more. We admit that we’re doing this poorly much of the time–neither of us can do basic math, for heaven’s sake. Our artisans are impeccable and driven and would make endless amounts of products if we’d let them, but we stop ourselves constantly so that our growth is sustainable and empowering.
It means we have to set limits and stick to them and accept that we are less perfect than many of the bigger, flashier or more influential examples we see. Slowly, inch by inch, we’re growing a non-profit that is rooted in relationships with our artisans, with our kids and families, and with each other.
Being a recovering perfectionist has changed the way I view myself as a woman. My hair is grayer and my eyes more wrinkled every year. My body is flabbier than I’d like it to be. No matter how many sit-ups I do (OK, not many), I still have to suck my belly into my jeans some days. My skin is pale and vericose veins form elaborate roadmaps behind my knees.
It means I accept that I am poweful and gorgeous and spectacular. Even when (or especially when) I don’t look in the mirror and see the ridiculously perfect and totally imaginary woman our society values. My body has birthed babies, my eyes are marked by thousands of grins and giggles, my gray hairs go along with the experience I have earned. I value these hands that pat sleepy backs when I tuck in babies, these arms that are only muscular because I pick up squirming toddlers and stacks of books, these feet that have walked grooves in the nursery floor. I find beauty in this voice that sings lullabies, this hair that is usually back in a hasty bun, these unplucked eyebrows, these fading blue eyes, these dark circles that show that I work on things I adore while my kids are sleeping, these chipped fingernails that tap-tap-tap on my computer with an intoxicating rhythm. I see perfection in this body, lovely in its quirky imperfections.
Being a recovering perfectionist means that when I look at the future, I stop trying to predict what will happen, when my next baby will fly home with us from China, what job I’ll get when I graduate that will let me earn money while living out my crazy callings, what schools my kids will go to, what trips we’ll take to get away, what friends we’ll make, what house we’ll live in, what our lives will look like tomorrow and in ten years and forever.
I’m tempted to do those things; sometimes I do. I worry and I fuss and I guilt and I judge. And I also regret and get back on the wagon. Because living a life free of addiction and comparison and impossible standards is more important to me than being perfect.