By Michelle Kennedy for MariaShriver.com
In a bold move this summer, I asked my gardeners to take a 3-month hiatus. With very few leaves on the ground, I thought it would be good for me to do my own yard work for once.
Three hours into my inaugural raking, blowing and mowing excursion, it occurred to me that gardening, in 90-degree heat, is no joke. Clouds of inhaled dirt and leaf residue gave me a bloody nose and I mildly stabbed my own foot when I dropped metal sheers in an attempt to swat a bee.
Aside from surviving my first legitimate yard-working injury, the experience provided me a newfound respect for gardeners. It also taught me something unexpected about myself: I might have some issues with perfectionism.
After meticulously cleaning up the yard, I watched a couple of rogue leaves dare to fall onto my pristine lawn. That bugged me deeply. So, with Kleenex jammed up my right nostril and a bloody foot, I hobbled over to pick them up. When another leaf fell, I picked that one up too, until it dawned on me how crazy I must have looked.
The leaves weren’t going to stop falling. I just couldn’t accept that my clean lawn wasn’t going to stay perfect for any given amount of time. I couldn’t let go and walk away. (Imagine that.)
I used to think perfectionists were high maintenance and prissy. They needed clothes and hair to be perfect at all times. As I become much more aware of my own perfectionist tendencies, I admit I was wrong about that definition.
Perfectionism is me—insanely trying to keep those leaves off the lawn. It is me, trying to be the perfect teacher and pouting over one negative student assessment of my teaching amidst dozens of good ones.
I’ll stand in the spice aisle at the grocery store, wanting to buy the eighteen ingredients to make green curry, overheat and walk away because I’m convinced the dish won’t turn out right. I am also often too afraid to ask for help because I don’t want to admit I’m struggling.
Perfectionism tells me to take a break from dating because my last courtship ended about as smoothly as that time I tried to roller skate on a balance beam. One insignificant breakup has me in perfection paralysis because I’m scared the same thing will happen again.
My perfectionist tendencies keep my feet stuck in idealistic cement. In my quest to make situations just right, perfectionism bleeds into procrastination and control. I want to make it all perfect, and since I can’t control the outcome, it never will be and therefore I balk and do nothing.
In her bestseller, Daring Greatly, Dr. Brene Brown examines perfectionism as something that keeps us from achieving. If we are stuck in trying to reach perfection, we are also trapped in the fear of failure.
If you think about it, we could fail at anything we try. I find however, that when I get off my ass and give it a go, despite the voice that says I won’t be good enough/perfect, I always feel better in the long run whether I succeed or not. Inaction—or doing nothing—gives me more anxiety than simply taking the leap.
I am trying in several ways to get myself out of perfectionist sludge. I find these actions are helping, even though they are sometimes hard to do.
- Focus on the Good – Looking back at the student evaluations, most of my students said wonderful things about their experience and my teaching skills. I’m so grateful. Unfortunately, I can’t please everyone all the time. If I could, I would be that word that starts with a “p” and ends with “erfect.” By focusing on the good, I ease up on myself.
- Be Nice to Yourself – Perfectionism has a lot to do with beating myself up. I am really good at that unfortunately. By practicing loving-kindness and remembering it isn’t going to be over-the-top wonderful all the time, I can be more compassionate when things don’t go the way I want. Most importantly, I can still be nice to myself when a situation goes colossally wrong.
- Just Do Something – If you don’t know what your new job should be, can’t decide where to live, or can’t pull the trigger on that art class you’ve been pining over, just move in some direction. Make a decision and know that if it’s the wrong one, you can move again. Yes, making big choices isn’t easy. But no decision is perfect. We can only try our best. The alternative again, is to sit still and do nothing, which usually leads back to beating ourselves up.
- Let it be Imperfect – I’m looking at my lawn and let me tell you, leaves are stuck in that thing deeper than my fingers in a bowl of Cheetos on Super bowl Sunday. I worked on it four days ago, and it’s already a mess. My lawn isn’t perfect though and neither is ANYTHING else in my life. It’s high time to just let the lawn be and maybe even leave the dishes in the sink for once (baby steps).
I still have a long way to go. I know this because I’m having a really hard time convincing myself to quit nitpicking this essay and send it already.
Here goes me practicing Numbers 3 and 4.
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