Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist
Imagine you’re in third grade--your habitat diorama not only extends into several shoe boxes, but at the center of your Stonehenge of micro dioramas lies a lake with real water in it. Now imagine you are a Freshman in High School and you stay up all night perfecting your Monopoly themed “Freshman portfolio” and have your first coffee the next morning. Fast forward to your senior project where a solid essay would have sufficed, instead you insisted on putting on a production of The Fantasticks--not only staring as the main ingenue but also directing and producing the play.
Sounds impressive, right? Well, sure it was! And did I get extraordinary praise and accolades for these elaborate and (dare I say) over-the-top projects, of course I did. Was I a total brown nosing teacher’s pet?!?! You bet your booty I was!
All my life I have received great praise and derived a tremendous sense of satisfaction and self worth from going above and beyond in all that I do. I relished the moments when people would call me a “Leslie Knope.” My perfectionist tendencies have served me well both in the classroom as a student and as a teacher. It lent itself well to role as a librarian. I’ve always considered my “prior proper planning” to be my winning feature! I was ready for anything. You should have seen the dossier I gave to my mother when she came to help us out when I gave birth to my daughter. There were five pages about the dogs alone!
Until about a year ago, I felt like this quality was not only a main part of who I was as a person, but also the biggest thing that I had to offer this world. About six months into my new role as mom, I started to struggle with postpartum depression. It became pretty clear that it is impossible to be the perfect mom, doing all the right things. The depression made it increasingly difficult to do simple tasks, let alone excel at them. I felt like if I didn’t do everything perfectly then I was a bad mom, a bad wife, and ultimately a bad person.
Right around this time, a little thing called COVID-19 (maybe you’ve heard of it) arrived on the scene and made it infinitely clearer that nothing was predictable. Oh, did I mention that right around this time I decided to start my watercolor stationery goods business?!?! (A true perfectionist move--to jump into a large project even when you’re in way over your head.)
Now, I don’t regret starting my business at that time. It actually was incredibly helpful in getting me through my PPD (along with therapy and medication) but my mindset at the time was “I’ve gotta do it all” and “nothing but the absolute best”. Needless to say, this led to a pretty quick burnout and many a panic attack. I had gotten my shop up and running, sales were going well, everything looked professional, but I was a HOT MESS. I wasn’t sleeping well, I could hardly eat, my stomach was in knots, I didn’t have anything to give back to my family emotionally. I was no longer able to do my best work. Something had to give.
In working with a parenting coach, Christy Keating at The Heartful Parent, I realized that this perfectionist lifestyle, while serving me well in the past, no longer worked for me. In having a child, a family, and a business, as well as my own self to care for, I could no longer pour myself into projects in the same way. That was a game for my 20 year old self. (But honestly, I probably could have used a lot more balance back then too).
With juggling multiple areas of my life, the planning and predictability, the “perfect-ness” if you will, was no longer serving me. It was actually holding me back. Instead what I needed was a plan with flexibility--a plan that allowed me to step back and say, “actually my daughter needs my attention right now,” or “I could really use a nap.”
I know this message may seem counterintuitive to most small business owners--we’re constantly told to hustle hustle hustle, no rest for the weary, no pain no gain, blah blah blah. But since deciding to take a step back and break up with my perfectionist ways I’ve actually been able to be more productive during the times that I am working. Additionally, I have an exponentially better relationship with myself and my family.
This year, my word of the year is GENTLE, so I am constantly remembering to be gentle with myself. This means gentle with the goals I hold myself to, gentle to myself when I don’t meet expectations, gentle with myself when I need a break.
If this sounds like something that might be a good step for you, I wanted to share a few things that helped me leave behind my perfectionist ways.
- Breaking up with my to-do list. Now I don’t totally go rogue or anything. I still have tasks and goals, but rather than having 100000 things to do each day for the whole week and feeling like a total failure when I only accomplish one of them and everything else gets derailed--I now have a list of what I need to accomplish for the week and a few bonus items if I have the time. Each day I take a look at the list and think about what I’m in the mood for that day. Some days I’m really in the mood to write delightful blog posts and other days I just want to paint. Some days I need to just do some yoga and play with my daughter. I try to plan my days intuitively, based on how I feel that day. Obviously there are going to be times when we can’t do this, but by living intuitively most of the time, it helps us not burn out when we have to put our nose to the grindstone. This is one of the benefits of being my own boss.
- Knowing it’s okay to not follow through sometimes. Whenever I would say I was going to do something, you can bet that I made that bitty boo happen. Did I kill myself doing it?!? You betcha. But did I do it?!?! Of course. Many times these things didn’t even really matter to anyone but me. For example, I made a goal with myself this year to send one letter a day. Old me would have freaked out if I didn’t stay on top of it. Old me would have made it happen even at the expense of other more important things. New me is not doing a great job with my goal of one letter every day, but when I am able to write a letter here and there it has been much more enjoyable when it’s being written out of pleasure rather than sheer stubbornness. There is strength in releasing tasks that are not serving you at that time.
- Saying NO! This is one that I know a lot of folks, especially people pleasers like myself have trouble with. When making my goals for this year, I made sure to be pretty clear about what I did and didn’t want to accomplish, and I’ve gotta say, it’s helped make it a whole lot easier to say no. If it doesn’t serve my goals, it’s not happening. I’ve had a couple requests to create materials for styled shoots for wedding vendors and since I am stepping back from weddings this year to focus on my products, this was an easy no. And you know what?!?! It felt good!
- Watercolor as a Medium. While the above list works well for anyone in any line of work, I have to say that watercolor itself is great for helping me let go. I don’t know if you know this, but water doesn’t exactly do everything you want it to. Watercolor is an art form where you can plan and manipulate the paint as much as you want but sometimes water will still have her way with your painting. I’ve actually found a lot of peace in this. I’m learning to love the unexpected beauty of water’s wily ways with every painting.
- Therapy and Medication. I would be remiss if I forgot to mention these two crucial ingredients. Therapy has helped me to unpack a lot of why I feel like my perfectionism determines my feeling of self worth. Medication has helped take the anxiety out of letting some things go. Rather than focusing on the things I’m missing, it has helped my brain to quiet down and focus on what I am doing in the present.
I know I am not the only one who struggles with these feelings. I hope these little tips are helpful for you too.
If you want to know more about how I broke up with my to do list, I’ve provided a little handout cheat sheet so you can try it too. Sign up for my email newsletter to get the PDF. My newsletter is where I share all my discount codes too! EXTRA bonus! Woohoo!