Getting to the Nitty Gritty of my Perfectionism

My mom just visited for about a week and a half, which gave me the chance to observe perfectionism in action from the outside. Usually I’m just trapped inside, observing my own actions, which isn’t nearly so enlightening as watching from outside.

The way my mom’s perfectionism manifests itself during her visits is in non-stop projects. Those who have been reading the blog this past week or so have some idea of the frenetic levels our home-improvement (and “me”-improvement) binge reached. I get the impression that when my mom looks out at the world, she sees all of the things that are wrong with it. Then she focuses in on the things that she might be able to change and gets to work. I can recognize this because this is pretty much what I do (less with the home improvements and more with the self improvements, although I do move furniture an awful lot and used a caulk gun for the first time last night instead of going to bed at a reasonable hour).

This is where my perfectionism gets in the way of my happiness, I think. In addition to interfering with my sleep and causing me to ignore (or attempt to ignore) my children, the underlying belief driving all of this fault-finding is that things just aren’t right. There’s something wrong in my surroundings and there’s something wrong with me. There’s a related belief, which is that if I can eliminate everything wrong with my surroundings, that the wrong things in me will disappear, too, and vice versa. When I feel stressed and I get that “wrong” feeling, I immediately retreat to perfectionism. I make lists, schedules, routines. I track my food intake and develop rules for my eating. I either avoid social interaction or my conversations are peppered with long pauses as I attempt to say just the right thing (or at the very least to avoid saying the wrong thing). I can keep this up for a few days or as long as a week, and then I start to falter and quickly descend into chaos, from where I then lift myself out via perfectionism and the cycle begins again.

What’s interesting to me is that the chaos I feel inside doesn’t seem to show itself on the outside. We had dinner out with some friends from North Carolina last night whom we hadn’t seen in seven years. I don’t know how we got to it, but at one point the other three adults at the table all emphatically declared that I am very organized. I don’t often feel organized. I wonder if this suggests that the chaos and disorder I feel are mostly on my insides but because I don’t recognize that reality, I try to eliminate the chaos by changing my outsides.

My mom’s visit was like an orgy of perfectionism. Oh, look! This thing I’ve not done anything about because, you know, I’ve got two kids and I’m homeschooling…I can complete it and 15 other things I’ve not even thought of doing because my mom’s here to help. It was awesome and it was exhausting and now I’m trying to let myself down easy so I don’t drop into a pit of disappointment at my relative lack of productivity.

So here’s what I’m going to try to do. I’m going to follow my own advice and Not Jump to Solutions. When I feel that “wrong” feeling, I’m going to just sit with it. I’m going to observe it, take note of it, and just move along. I’ve got my decluttering, which I think will help to relieve some of the pressure that builds up when I just need to pull out the stove and clean behind it at 11:30 at night. But I’m going to do my best to avoid going to extremes and focusing so much on cleaning or on scheduling or on finding the perfect spot for the coffee table that I ignore the underlying feelings and beliefs that are driving my need to change things.

Last night I had a dream that I was in charge of planning nine weddings that would take place over the course of three hours. And I still had my kids to take care of. I had all of these favors and table decorations to assemble and the kids kept walking off with things I needed. I would stare at these tables covered in supplies and try to reason through how to get everything put together before the weddings began. Two of the weddings were for people I knew and one was for myself (the other six were for people I didn’t know). I updated my Facebook status (in the dream) saying that I was getting help from my friend in fixing my hair for my wedding. I remarked that it was something of a lost cause. My friend was getting exasperated with me because I was so clueless about how to pretty up my hair for an important occasion and because I kept trying to do more prep work for the other weddings. Then, even though I’d not finished all of the things I’d planned for the first wedding before it began, I saw that everyone was having a great time and the bride looked gorgeous. I cautiously considered devoting the rest of my energies to preparations for my own wedding, which was the last of the nine.

I don’t know. I think this dream just reinforces the importance, for me, of paying better attention to my own needs and improving my skills at observing and caring for myself. Most everything else can pretty much take care of itself, or at the very least won’t fall apart if I’m not in complete control 100% of the time. Another bit of my own advice comes to mind: If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.

Like Alice, however, I always give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.

If it’s Worth Doing, it’s Worth Doing Poorly

This is another commandment intended to help me sidestep perfection. I paraphrased it from Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. I would love to include the original quote here, but I can’t seem to find my copy of the book. It’s possible I loaned it to someone. I should probably own duplicate copies of my favorite books if I’m going to loan them out. The gist was basically that, when we’re trying to improve how we’re doing something, trying to learn something new or practice a newly acquired skill, we should try not to hold ourselves back because of a fear of not performing as well as we’d like. In the context of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), it’s acknowledging that what Rosenberg is introducing is a very different manner of communicating than what most of us are accustomed to. As a result, it feels uncomfortable or fake, and it’s easy to worry that we’ll mess it up and say the wrong thing, especially when we’re guessing at other people’s emotions, which is the cornerstone of NVC. Rosenberg reassures us that, since the point of using NVC is to form a connection with another person through empathy, even if we guess wrong or say the “wrong” thing, the intent is still there, and we’re still closer to connection than we were before we tried.

This commandment is similar to the commandment to Risk Looking Foolish, but to me, the “Worth” portion is a subtle but important difference between the two. Risk Looking Foolish is mostly just to encourage me to take a chance and not worry about what others think of me. My actions may or may not actually be foolish, but my concern is with others’ perceptions of me, which I can’t control anyway. “If it’s Worth Doing…” is about not just being perceived as foolish but maybe actually not succeeding at all or even messing things up. The implication is that if the thing one is trying is important enough, it’s better to try and fail than to not try at all.

I definitely try to apply this to interpersonal interactions, which is where I’m least comfortable. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time with my foot in my mouth. I tend to be judgmental and opinionated, and I have many memories of interactions that make me cringe because of my unskillful and untactful communication skills. I’ve worked hard to improve on these skills, which is part of why my foot isn’t in my mouth as often these days. The other reason, though, is that I’m less likely to talk to people now than I used to be. Being a stay-at-home mom makes it easier to avoid conversations than it was when I was working full-time at a large corporation. But, like with my avoidance of speaking foreign languages with native speakers, I miss out on relationships and experiences by avoiding conversations.

Now, when I go to talk with someone I don’t know, or with someone I do know about a sensitive topic, I spend a few moments (or a few days) psyching myself up and reminding myself of the guidelines for effective, empathetic communication before I make the phone call or talk with the person face-to-face. This takes a lot of effort, though, so I’m glad to have the freedom to take a break and be a hermit again if I don’t have the energy to deal with talking with people.

One area I’ve applied this commandment more confidently is with parenting. I can’t avoid my children for long, so I get to practice the intensive parenting methods I’ve chosen whether I’m up for it or not. I worry that I’m messing it up and messing the kids up, but I also know that it would be worse for them if I didn’t try at all than if I tried and did a poor job of it. It’s the effort that makes the difference, not necessarily the successful achievement of the intended outcome.

What are some of the things that you find are worth doing poorly?

Coming tomorrow: Happiness Project Kickoff! I will reveal August’s resolutions as well as the focus areas for each month.

Risk Looking Silly

I blame middle school. Before middle school, I remember being fairly confident. Then between 5th and 6th grade we moved from San Diego, California, to Fairborn, Ohio, and with that move, I lost any confidence I might once have had in my understanding of how social interactions work. I worried about looking silly, but the things that were deemed cool — “Smurf trap” bangs, pinch-rolled trousers, spiral perms, those weird pants that were shaped like big triangles of fabric, the points of which fastened at the front of the pants — all looked completely silly (and I couldn’t do my bangs or roll my pants properly, anyway). I just couldn’t figure out how to not look silly because none of the rules were logical. I was also skinny and short, which didn’t help matters, either. The punishment for looking silly was severe and swift. As a result, I acquired a deep sense of self-conscious worry of which I still retain a shadow after all of these years.

Having kids has helped me to shed much of this worry. It is impossible to have an interaction with a toddler without looking silly (or even to bear a child without looking silly, at least if you’re me). For the most part, I find it helpful to just assume that I look like a fool and not worry too much about what people think about it. I’d be lying if I said I’m successful in this endeavor all of the time. I sometimes catch myself talking in a silly voice to the kids or wondering out loud with them what would happen if cats wore pants and I suddenly realize that other adults are around and that I may, in fact, look like an imbecile, and then I feel compelled to pull myself together and act more dignified.

I worry sometimes that being afraid of looking silly holds me back from interacting freely with my children and with other adults, and I’m certain it keeps me from trying new things. I mentioned a few days ago that I don’t ski. It’s not just avalanches that scare me about skiing. I’m fairly certain I’ll look like a total dweeb doing it, and I just can’t risk that level of ineptitude without a lot of forward-planning and deep breathing. I like to be good at things. I like to appear knowledgeable and capable at all times. Trying new things doesn’t fit well with these desires. I think a fear of looking silly is also what keeps me from speaking foreign languages. I pick them up quickly, but I lose them quickly, too, because I’m so worried about looking silly trying to speak them, especially with native speakers, even though I know this is the best way to learn short of traveling overseas. Which is something else a fear of looking silly keeps me from doing (that and a fear of physical discomfort, illness, and foreign bugs and other wildlife).

So, I’ve made Risk Looking Silly one of my personal commandments to help give myself permission to look foolish and to let myself try new things. I’d considered just making it “Look Silly,” but I don’t think I need to go out of my way to look silly, just accept that it’s going to happen and try not to worry about it. I think having a public blog is evidence that I’ve already made some progress in this area. I wonder how many more years of practice it will take for me to finally get a passport…

Give Until It Feels Good

This commandment could actually be, “Give until it feels good, and not beyond that.”

One year during pledge time in our congregation in North Carolina, the minister spoke about the joy of “giving until it feels good,” as compared to “giving until it hurts,” which is a more common saying. The idea was that we shouldn’t think of giving as depriving ourselves or as an obligation foisted upon us, but rather as a means to help us feel good about helping. In our denomination, we are encouraged (but not required) to follow a modern tithe (5% to the church, 5% to other worthy causes, either in money or in service). I’ve found that I really do feel very good when I give both money and time to causes in which I believe. I feel satisfied, connected, and like a contributing member of my community.

The trouble I have is that I tend to be an all-or-nothing type person (I think I may have mentioned this before). When I decide to volunteer time, I like how it feels to volunteer a little bit of time, so I start giving more and more and more until I burn out and don’t have anything left to give. I’m a bit more frugal with my money than I am with my time, so I’ve never experienced the analogous situation with financial giving. However, I do notice that when I feel a need to step back from giving of my time, I also step back from giving money. The purpose of this commandment is to remind myself to give in moderation, so that I continue to meet my own needs while giving of myself to other causes and individuals.

I don’t think I had as much trouble with this balance before I had children. I think the main reason was that it was easier to meet my own needs before I had kids. Pretty much all of my free time was spent in meeting my own needs, with a little bit spent meeting the needs of my husband and friends. I never had to go out of my way to have “alone time”. I also never had much trouble going to the bathroom by myself or eating a meal without getting up 173 times. It was easy to take on volunteer roles and put in a fairly large number of hours and still adequately meet my own needs. Back when I was working full time, I volunteered as a reading tutor, a co-coordinator of a teen program at our church, and did 12-hour shifts as a volunteer doula at the hospital on weekends. I also demonstrated for various causes and donated money generously to a number of organizations. As a mom, a lot of the energy I would otherwise put into service is given to my children. I have tried to continue to give of myself at the same level as I did before kids, but that’s not worked out as well as I would have liked.

In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin lists her Four Splendid Truths. The second is: “One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.” This summarizes the balance I would like to strike. I want to meet my needs so that I have enough in reserve to give of myself until it feels good. And I want to keep this balance in mind so that I don’t overextend myself and end up throwing in the towel. I can love without reserve, but I think I need to be a little more careful when giving of myself.

Don’t Jump to Solutions

This is another lesson I’ve learned in my parenting adventures. I think most of the good stuff I know I’ve learned through being a mom. This one I applied several times a day when my daughter was in a tantrum phase. It involved stopping myself from trying to fix every negative emotion she had and instead to acknowledge her emotions, reflect them back to her, and make myself available to comfort her. I got out of practice with this in the past two years since she’s not had tantrums as frequently, and I’ve had to re-learn the skill to help her with her very fierce five-year-old emotions. When I remember to do it, I find that this practice helps diffuse the situation faster than trying to intervene, and it also helps her learn to identify her emotions and to learn gradually how to deal with them herself.

This is also a skill I’ve tried to use with myself and with other adults. I remember one time speaking on the phone with a friend in crisis. At one point, there was a protracted silence. I thought I ought to say something but I didn’t know what.

“I don’t know what to say,” I said.

“You don’t have to say anything!” my friend said through tears.

This phone conversation comes back to me frequently. I felt so ineffectual and powerless to help this person whom I so wanted to help. It wasn’t until several years later when I read Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication that I realized that sometimes all we need is empathy, both for celebratory situations and for crisis situations. I attended weekly empathy practice workshops facilitated by a Nonviolent Communication mediator when we lived in California, during which we practiced the active listening techniques Rosenberg introduces in his book. Every week it struck me just how powerful it is to reflect back someone’s emotions without judgment and without offering solutions.

Even in those situations when it’s appropriate to offer solutions, it’s often important to sit and reflect back the person’s emotions and let them talk through things before trying to give suggestions for action. There are often multiple layers to a problem that even the person with the problem can’t get to without talking it through. Sometimes, too, the person comes up with her or his own solutions just in the course of talking things through, which is much more empowering for them than having someone else give them solutions.

I’ve heard many times, in the context of Buddhism and meditation, “Don’t just do something; sit there.” That, basically, is what I’m trying to remind myself to do with this commandment. There is a time for brainstorming, but there is also a time to explore a situation without trying to alter it.


I’ve been thinking about this commandment all day and about what I’d like to post about it tonight. As a result, I’ve had two things running through my head all day. First is Peter Cook as the “Impressive Clergyman” from The Princess Bride (“And wuv, tru wuv, will fowow you foweva…”). Second is Van Morrison singing “Crazy Love,” which always morphs into “There’ll Be Days Like This” when I sing it. Neither of these has helped me at all in writing this post.

I get warm fuzzies when I feel love. And I feel happy and strong whether I express the love or not. Back soon after 9/11 when there was the passage of the Patriot Act and the first talk of going to war in Iraq, I started sending out loving vibes to George W. Bush. I don’t remember where I first got this idea. It may have been the Unitarian Universalist congregation of which I was a member at that time. At any rate, when I was feeling apprehensive about the happenings on the world stage and worried that our president was going to make a poor decision, I dedicated a couple of moments of each evening before bed to send peace and love and clarity to President Bush. When I mentioned this to a friend of mine, she said, “Why are you wasting your time and energy on that? I don’t want to give that guy any help at all.” But really, I wasn’t doing it for him. I was doing it for myself. I could sit and stew and worry and pick apart every little action by the administration, or I could accept that I had severely limited control over anything that was happening and just feel peace and love towards the man who held the fate of so many people in his hands. And if he happened to get some of the peace and love and clarity I was sending, then all the better; those things would likely be very helpful to him while he was trying to make such difficult decisions. I don’t think one can often go wrong feeling peace and love.

Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly misanthropic, I try to imagine every adult I encounter as the tiny little newborn they must have started out as. I’ve found it’s much easier to feel love and empathy towards someone who used to be a wee baby than it is to feel peaceful and positive things about someone who just ran to get in front of me in the checkout line. Although I don’t rule out the possibility that the “vibes” might actually be felt in some subtle way by the receiving party, I realize that this practice is unlikely to have any direct effect on the person at which the loving thoughts are directed. But if I focus on feeling loving, I feel calmer, happier, and more inclined to do good works for others I encounter as I go about my day.

Love is not always my reaction in these situations. Love isn’t even always my reaction with those I love most in my life. Too often, I notice an attitude of scarcity in myself. It causes me to hoard love for fear of running out. I remember speaking with a mom who had just given birth to her third child. My daughter was about two years old at the time, and I told this other mom that I was thinking of not having any more children because I was already overwhelmed trying to meet the needs of one child; I couldn’t imagine trying to meet the needs of two or more. “I worried about the same thing,” she told me. “My first was very needy, and I feared I wouldn’t have enough to be the kind of mom I wanted to be to more than one child at a time. But what I found was that the love just grows. It’s not just me doing the loving. The baby’s brother and sister love the baby and the baby loves his siblings, and the love just gets bigger and bigger.”

The thing I forget is that love isn’t a finite resource. It grows through feeling it and sharing it. The purpose of the Love commandment is to help remind me to step back, take a breath, and just love, secure in the knowledge that by spending love freely, I’m increasing my stores of it.

Assume Positive Intent

Of my Seven Personal Commandments, Assume Positive Intent might be the most challenging for me. I’m not proud to admit it, but I tend to go to a “they’re all out to get me” place when things aren’t going the way I want them to. I look around for someone to blame. And frequently the person I spot is my husband. As the only adults in our household, he and I are the only ones responsible for getting everything done sunup to sundown (and several hours beyond on either end). If I have too much to do, that automatically means he’s not doing as much as he ought to. I know this isn’t (necessarily) true, but that’s the first place I go when I’m feeling overwhelmed, which is way more of the time than I’d like. (But then, how much of the time would I like to feel overwhelmed?)

“Assume Positive Intent” is a phrase that I got from my compulsive reading of parenting books. I think the first place I read it might have been Becoming the Parent You Want to Be by Laura Davis and Janis Keyser (I might be wrong about this, though. I can’t check it because I loaned the book to another mom). This was the text for the Parent Education portion of the Parent-Participation Preschool that my daughter and I attended when we lived in California. The idea is basically that our children aren’t trying to drive us crazy; that’s just a side effect of them trying in whatever way they can think of to connect with us or to understand or whatever it is they’re trying to do. Assuming positive intent helps us to avoid the power struggles and negative feelings associated with thinking our kids are acting maliciously. I’ve since read similar sentiments in other books. In Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline series, she explains that everything children do, including the “inappropriate” behaviors, are for the purpose of meeting an unmet need. It’s our job as parents to identify the needs our children are trying to meet and help them learn to meet these needs in a more acceptable fashion.

I think assuming positive intent can be extended to all people regardless of age. Each of us is trying to make things work for us in the only ways we know how. These ways may be woefully misguided at times, but that doesn’t make the need we’re trying to meet any less valid. Of course, the extent to which we become involved in helping other adults to meet their needs is a lot more a matter of choice for us than the extent to which we’re involved in helping our children meet their needs.

I really want to assume positive intent. But I find that it takes a lot of effort. A lot of effort. In the course of writing these 3.2 paragraphs, my daughter has come out of her bedroom three times giving me reasons why she can’t fall asleep, and my husband has walked through twice making off-hand comments to me that don’t require a response but that break my concentration. I feel very annoyed when I’m interrupted while trying to think something through, and it takes a great deal of effort just to get my train of thought back on track, much less avoid thinking that my family are deliberately trying to sabotage my sanity (which thought generally leads to me acting insane).

Upon further reflection, I fear it may have been a fit of delusional optimism that led me to include Assume Positive Intent in my list of Personal Commandments. Although it’s possible that it was a fit of delusional optimism that led me to embark on a Happiness Project in the first place. The thought that I can bring more joy to my life by adding more things to my already packed schedule is a little bit out there. I’m still going to do it, though. I’m a believer in the idea that any improvement one seeks to realize requires more work in the beginning. I’m hopeful that if I put in this extra work now, I’ll feel more joy and ease as the months progress. With any luck, I’ll succeed at being ambitious but realistic in practicing my resolutions.

And there’s my daughter for the fourth time, trying to meet an unmet need an hour and a half after bedtime.

My Seven Personal Commandments

In The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin lists her Twelve Personal Commandments. Following her lead, I’ve come up with some Personal Commandments of my own. Rubin has mentioned on her blog that she thinks twelve might be too many, so I distilled mine down to seven.

I’m not really looking at these as rules so much as reminders. These are subject to change, and I’m actually kind of assuming I’ll add or subtract from this list as the years go by, should I continue to use it. This list is also specific to me (hence, “Personal” Commandments); it’s not intended as a prescription for anyone else about how to act or what things to consider important.

My Seven Personal Commandments

  1. Be My Best Self.
  2. Assume positive intent.
  3. Love.
  4. Don’t jump to solutions.
  5. Give until it feels good.
  6. Risk looking silly.
  7. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.

I’ve got roughly a week until I begin to implement my resolutions, so I’m planning to elaborate upon one commandment a day until Sunday, when I plan to reveal my resolutions for August.

Today: Be My Best Self.

Gretchen Rubin’s first commandment is, “Be Gretchen,” to remind her to be true to her values, priorities, and preferences. I considered making, “Be Gretchen,” my first commandment, but I thought it might be better to start out trying to be myself, then perhaps I’d work on being someone else once I get the “me” part down. The phrase, “Be My Best Self,” I got from a blog post Tucker Bradford wrote about a year ago. I generally let things percolate for quite a while before I act on them, and this is no exception. Of course, I have an inkling my actions may have changed as a result of my thinking about this concept, but I’ve not made any conscious effort, as far as I can tell (which I guess would be the definition of a conscious effort).

Being My Best Self isn’t about applying some external ideal to myself. It is, in my understanding, recognizing my personal priorities, preferences, limitations, and values and applying those in each moment. Or at least in each moment that I remember and have the reserves to actually do so.

I tend to get bogged down in doing things I think I ought to do and forget to think about whether these things are supporting my personal ideals. Focusing on “oughts” rather than on Being My Best Self inevitably ends with me feeling resentful and put-upon and like everyone else is making me do all of this stuff I don’t want to do, and why don’t they just leave me alone? And since feeling resentful doesn’t make me happy, it seems like doing the thing that will help me avoid resentment would be in line with my Happiness Project.

Real life example: if I can straighten, dust, vacuum, and mop once a week in a spirit of providing a tranquil, comfortable home for my family, then I’m Being My Best Self. If I yell at the kids and nag my husband and throw things around while I’m cleaning, I’m probably Being My Best Self by just leaving the mess and taking the kids to the library instead.

Another example: living in Salt Lake City, every winter I look up at the snow-covered mountains and hear my friends discussing lift tickets and other ski-related business, and I feel a little guilty that I am not taking advantage of the Greatest Snow on Earth (as my license plates profess). But the truth is that I have absolutely no desire to strap little boards to my feet and surrender myself to gravity. Being My Best Self would involve accepting that downhill skiing (and avalanches, snow tires, chains, and insulating underwear) just isn’t my thing and not feeling bad about avoiding the mountains for the majority of the year. It would also involve not making statements to skiers implying that they’re crazy for engaging in this variety of winter sport.

Being My Best Self is different from the “Good Mom” mantra I’ve tried in the past. I’d always feel like I was falling short when I didn’t live up to the Good Mom ideal. Being My Best Self feels like something to strive towards rather than something I either am or I’m not. Good Mom is a static definition; I’m either “Good” or I’m “Awful,” and there’s not much hope in that for redemption. Being My Best Self is more versatile and leaves more room for forgiveness. If I’ve only gotten three hours of sleep and the cat just vomited on the diaper bag and my daughter is yelling from the bathroom for me to wipe her bottom while the baby is eating out of the cat dish (and then the phone rings), I might Be My Best Self in that moment by yelling back at my daughter to wipe her own butt and just letting the baby eat the kibble until I can dump the diaper bag and submerge it in hot, soapy water. Is that the same as what a Good Mom would do? I don’t know. I’m fairly certain Good Mom has no cats, or at least no cats that vomit. But it’s likely My Best Self in that moment.