On Perfectionism

I talk about selling everything, buying an Airstream, and homeschooling my children as we travel around the US.

I talk about selling everything, finding a large plot of land, and taking up subsistence farming.

I talk about selling everything, going on vacation, and just staying.

I’m beginning to realize it has less to do with my desire to sell everything and whatever…

It has everything to do with my need for perfection.

When I was a child, if I accidentally colored outside the lines, I found a different picture to color and as an adult, I toss and completely rewrite a grocery list when an item is not written in the order in which I shop the store. On the 15th iteration of a list, I realize this tendency not only makes trees cry, but sends me careening past pleasantly neurotic and quite close to bat-shit crazy on the madness scale. I do it anyway.

All this to say, I’ve created a behavior loop. When things get messy (or sometimes even just not perfect), I don’t acknowledge and accept, I destroy all evidence and start over. Craft projects, journals, half-filled scrapbooks, even friendships have been tossed aside because all I see is the place where a line got crossed. Lest you think this is all outward behavior, I have so many days where I wish there was some mechanism to throw out the mess of myself and start over.

But that’s impossible (and annoying) so I’m working on it. Working on accepting that I didn’t accomplish a goal I set, but that I can take steps that may (or may not) lead to me toward something similar. Working on accepting people (especially myself) as they are. Working on not needing everything just so in order to feel okay.

My life is full of scribbles and errant colors and eraser marks and places where the page is badly torn and in the irony of trying to shut up my internal bossy, judgy, impossible perfectionist, I fail daily. I did, however, survive a trip to the grocery store with a list that had lemon written down before milk and that my friends, is progress.

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  • I’m a perfectionist, too, Kate. It’s exhausting being this way, and like you, I’m actively working on overcoming it. Some days are better than others, and some things are more easy to be relaxed about. For example, although my grocery lists are also written in order of where I will happen upon the items as I work my way through the store (because, hello, that’s just good sense!), it’s not a 100% perfect ordering because it’s just me looking at it and I know that I’m constantly scanning the list and therefore won’t miss things. I also know it’s ephemeral — it’s not something I’m preserving for posterity; therefore, it doesn’t have to be perfect. On the other hand, if I’m writing something that someone else will read (even a text to a family member) I have to read it over several times before I send it. My assignments and exams for the courses I’m taking have been utterly painful. Pleasantly neurotic? Nope. Bat-shit-crazy paralyzing perfectionism at work here (mixed with debilitating anxiety and probable OCD). I think it’s been quite hard for my husband and my kids to see how much I struggle with all this.
    I’ve been finding some helpful tips through an INFJ coaching website I happened upon a couple of months ago. It’s lesliemcdaniel.com and she’s an INFJ herself, so everything she writes really resonates. (I’m not getting coaching from her, just reading her blog and receiving her newsletter.)
    On a positive note, I have been finding that some of my perfectionist tendencies have eased somewhat as I’ve gottten older. There are things that I used to need to be perfect that I no longer need to be perfect, and I’ve become a bit more discerning about what deserves time and effort and what doesn’t. I think part of this has perhaps come via my reading about minimalism. The question “what *does* actually matter in life?” is (to me) very grounding and has been a helpful thing to consider when I feel myself spinning. It’s also, I think, easier to stay calm and focused and (a bit more) level-headed (and therefore less likely to feel the need to destroy all evidence!) when my surroundings are calm and organized.
    Sending you a hug, Kate.

    • We certainly have our similarities, Marian! It helps to know I’m not alone, but at the same time, I know how hard (exhausting was such a perfect word choice) it can be, and I’m sorry you deal with it too. Thank you for sharing the lesliemcdaniel.com site. I haven’t looked at it yet, but I’m definitely going to!!

      Keeping my surroundings calm and organized is extremely helpful, but it’s also paradoxical for me. I’m a minimalist by nature (stuff makes me itchy) but I can get spun out when someone puts something in the wrong place (or worse – leaves it out) which is really just my perfectionism in motion. I guess I’m tryinf to find the balance between I like a clean and neat house with I’m feel like I’m going to claw my skin off because there is mail and containers of slime on the counter….

      BTW, I love that you make your list out by store location too. It IS good sense!! 🙂

  • Are we surprised that I also prefer grocery lists in the order in which the items are located in the store? No, I’m guessing we are not. 🙂

    What I see in all of your selling everything scenarios is getting away as much as perfectionism. And a desire for some kinds of simplicity. I have the same kinds of fantasies, and I wonder more if that’s not about something else entirely. Like you and Marian, I’m an introvert. And I’ve realized more and more as I get older, I have issues with overload. Specifically, sensory overload. I think I like simplicity because I like less. TV noise if I’m trying to interact with someone else drives me batty. Too much stuff, too many sounds, clothes that don’t feel good, too many people–it makes my brain gritchy, and I long for a simple life where I can control the amount of input and interact with fewer people.

    Which isn’t to say that I don’t have my own issues with perfectionism. I surely do. (You don’t want to know how many drafts of each blog post I have, and I fuss and tinker with words and phrases until they are just so. And never just so enough.) And now I’m wondering how these things might be connected. Maybe we all just have heightened sensitivities–so errors or irritations bother us more than others. Maybe some reframing is in order. Life is easier in some ways if we can let go of needing the grocery list to be quite so in order–but it’s easier in others if the list is in order. Maybe the trick is to understand our wiring so we can accommodate it rather than fight it?

    Just thinking out loud and talking to myself as much as to you and Marian. 🙂

    • I’m positive that heightened sensitivities play a role in my desire for clutter-free spaces and it would make sense that it would carry over to my perfectionism.

      And background noise when trying to talk with someone is the WORST. As I’ve tried to explain to my husband – my filter doesn’t work well so two people talking at the same time, or background noise when I’m trying to have a conversation makes it really hard for me. Clangy/clattery spaces are like that for me as well.

      As for the accommodations – I definitely think that’s a part of it but I also think that I’ve reinforced this all or nothing loop in my head. What got me thinking about it was a parenting issue that we stumbled into recently. It wasn’t that my child was having a hard time. Or that we were just having a bad day. It was that I was a terrible mother and I should just pack a bag and leave and stop mothering. I’ve had issues like that with friendships too. My hope is that if I can learn to interrupt that loop on small things (like the grocery list), I’ll eventually be able to interrupt that loop on the big things.

      • Ah, I understand more now. I’m sorry you find yourself on those kinds of loops. I’ve got my own. They are hard, I know. I really wish I could be an easier person. I would like to be much more accepting of the world and everything thing (including people) in it. I tend to love people who are (and wonder how they tolerate me). I know its part of what makes me good at some things, but it also makes the doing of them very hard sometimes.

        • I also have issues with overload, and with being highly sensitive to things like noise and crowds.
          And the loops . . . oh my gosh, the loops . . . There’s a great post on that INFJ website about loops, btw: https://www.lesliemcdaniel.com/blog/spin-cycle?rq=loop
          And also this — “It was that I was a terrible mother and I should just pack a bag and leave and stop mothering.” — yup, I catastrophize too 🙁 . I did this, yet again (when will I learn?!), in a major way, just a few days ago, while on holiday. Ruined an evening in Quebec City for my husband and my 13-year-old son . . .
          None of this is easy or fun, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but I do have to say it’s such a relief to not feel alone. Thank you both for being here 🙂 .

          • And Marian, I’m so sorry you went through that!! It can be so so so hard and you’re right – you’re not alone.

            I visited that link that you recommended and that’s so interesting!! I definitely have a couple people that I have to talk to when I’m processing things. I always wished that I could be someone who just makes decisions in my own head but i’ve always been someone to talk/write it out (It also explains why I do a “postmortem” discussion with my husband after any longer group interaction – do you think he meant this, or that? Did you notice the tension between so and so and so and so and so and so? Do you think I accidentally offended blank?)


        • YES!! to loving easier people who are much more accepting. I have a few people in my life I just stand in awe of lately…they are just so good at loving people (including me) for the people they are.

          And I’m sorry you have loops too. They *are* really hard and I think the process of interrupting them before they become harmful may be lifelong, but it’s something I really want to work towards.

          • I like you both so much, warts and all. Because of the warts and all, not in spite of them. I’m so glad that we somehow found each other in all the millions of people on the internet. 🙂

    • And no, I’m not surprised you like order in your grocery list. As Marian points out, it’s good sense. 🙂