“Nikki….you are all or nothing.”
This wasn’t the first time I had heard this. It had echoed in my mind during the early stages of recovery, in almost every failed relationship, and even at work. Every strength can be a weakness but this mindset of “all or nothing” kept me from living a life of freedom. Instead, it built walls, kept me busy with my own agenda and kept me distant from relishing in authentic relationships.
Perfectionism thrives on control. It is addicting and is a mindset that convinces you that your performance gains you love. It tells you critically that your flawlessness and unrealistic expectations will make you the happiest you have ever been. You become obsessed with the approval of others, your outer appearance, and your checklist of performance. It ruins relationships and you become an excellent liar to cover up your imperfections. The image is the most important.
I was a workaholic. I was relentless in my expectations of myself. I had tunnel vision that only focused on the outcome whether it was a grade, an evaluation, an award, or a number on a scale. I spent hours running myself into the ground with the expectation of being thinner than my body was meant to be. This obsessiveness choked out reason and reality. Instead, it was replaced with self-absorption and self-criticism. I gave every ounce of energy to make it look good because if I did….then I would be loved. I would be accepted. I would be valued.
The problem with this is that my value wasn’t based on my performance, my looks, my weight, my title, or my accomplishments. Discovering my value without these things took much learning and unlearning to become free. I tried all the drugs….Prozac, Paxil, etc. They treated the symptoms but not the thought processes. Some made it worse because the suicidal tendencies were real and self-harm was my friend of escape. I did not realize the prison I lived in until I tasted freedom from my extreme thoughts.
My goal to let go of perfectionism and become a realist began with identifying the lies.
Perfectionism whispers, “Do it all or you are nothing.”
Reality declares, “Do the small things now to grow the bigger things later.”
Change The List
If you are like me, you live by lists. Deadlines, appointments, errands, groceries…the list never ends. If you are a perfectionist, your value comes from the check offs. I completed. I crossed off. It feels good when the day goes as planned and the all the things get checked off.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t always follow the list. If we are honest, our list can get in the way of enjoying life. I know. I know. If I do not do it, it will not get done. What ends up happening when people get in the way of our lists? You know….kids, husbands, friends, strangers…that can really mess things up. Inevitably, my true colors CAN come out when my day does not go as I have written on my list. When perfectionism wins, usually people in my life lose. It is just the way it is. There are 24 hours in the day and if I expect it to go as listed or prescribed, I tend to miss out on the people I care about the most.
In the last two years, I went underground to search my soul and to heal. While underground I discovered some severe character flaws that needed to be addressed. I joke about them often. Friends that spend face to face time with me know that I say, “Well, I am going to put that on my list.” My list consists of character traits that I am working on building: humility, gentleness, setting boundaries, finding peace in chaos are just a few on the list. I choose 2 to work on to grow. I do not do anything fancy but as stress and daily life take place, I work on my small list. Focusing on this list helps me to minimize the other list. I have found that the to-do list is always there but character growth trumps everything.
Embrace the MESSY Process
Nobody likes a mess especially a perfectionist.
- Laundry is only finished for a moment.
- A clean house stays clean for 5 minutes if you have kids.
- Dishes are put away only until the next meal.
I often think about the process of raising our kids. The mundane creeps in….laundry, breakfast, dinner, cleaning, homework…it all has to get done but which parts really need to be perfect? The laundry will never end. They are always hungry. The dust keeps coming back. My kids are almost grown and if I am waiting for that “perfect” family moment in the midst of my goals, I am going to miss out on the most important moments. Life isn’t all of nothing. If we only live for the accomplished tasks, we end up missing most of life. Life is lived in the process and in the mundane. Life is lived in the moments in between the perfection.
Get Used To Feeling Uncomfortable
I was a dancer. I danced or taught dance for over 20 years. Imagine my surprise when my husband told us that he signed us up for swing dancing this past summer! It was really great until the second class when the footwork became complicated, I wouldn’t let my husband lead, and you had to rely on somebody to do it with you! Every person in the class was so frustrated. Why? Because we were uncomfortable, we were not perfect at it right away, and WE DID NOT LIKE THAT AT ALL.
Perfectionists do not grow because they do not take risks. Risks are messy, uncomfortable, and out of our control. True learning takes place after there is an uncomfortable struggle. When we struggle, we learn. As we age, adults do not want to risk being vulnerable or exposing weakness. We tend to stay in our comfort zone where things are the same, predictable, and routine.
In order to recover from my eating disorder, I had to begin recovering from my perfectionism. As always, I started with the small things. When I did this, I realized how often I told myself, “I can’t.”
“I can’t eat that. I can’t go there. I can’t reach out. I can’t have friends. I can’t get close to anyone. I can’t let anyone see what I am. I can’t be spontaneous. I can’t… “
The words, “I can’t.” held me back from growing, trying, failing, and trying again. When I took the time to tally how many times I said it in a day it was well over 200 times. Those words limited me and limited my life.
Because I do not do things cold turkey, I changed my thought processes by saying, “I can’t do that now but I can do _______________.” Baby steps are my best friend. I can listen to my inner voice and I can identify if it is my perfectionism or eating disorder talking. After 27 years, some days I can change the channel and other days I can still let it ruin my day. If that happens, a new day brings new possibilites.
Am I where I want to be? No. No. No. Am I where I was? No. No. No. I have learned that in the messiness of life, I can be a masterpiece and a work in progress all at the same time. Perfection does not rest on my shoulders anymore. Yes, it still does whisper in my ear but I have learned selective listening. “All or nothing” does not own me. Over a period of time, I have grown to be a little bit better and learned to rest in being a beautiful mess.