Goodbye, Unrealistic Expectations

Decades ago, when my oldest daughter was still a toddler, I decided that I didn’t have it in me to bake and decorate a birthday cake. I bought one at the supermarket. I did so with considerable personal pride at the time.

Buying a child’s birthday cake rather than giving in to the pressure of baking and decorating this special treat is a minor thing in the grand scheme of things, isn’t it?  Did my daughter’s four-year-old party guests look at the cake and wonder what kind of a mother was slicing this run-of-the-mill confection? Doubt it!

That I still recall that cake moment as “momentous” says something about my halting progress in escaping the prison of perfectionism that ruled much of my life.

As a young working mom, no grass grew under my feet. I was a veritable whirling dervish — taking care of home, garden, kids, and spouse. I had a full-time job and volunteered at church and in the community. Some thought me a marvel. I received an accolade or two. Usually, however, I was concerned that I could have done something differently. I heard that eternal little voice whispering “better” in my ear. The perfectionist’s mischievous muse.

Fear rules out authenticity and happiness

“At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.” ~~Michael Law

That resident fear of being wrong, making a mistake, is paralyzing. The unhealthy concern over what others think restricts authenticity of self. The pursuit of the perfect breeds unhappiness. Perfectionism is poison; it’s a prison. It ruined supposed high points in my life.

As a recovering perfectionist, I have a decades-long catalog of the ways I disappointed the universe. I rarely pull that book off the shelf anymore. I truly believe that I have grown beyond the devastating negative self-talk that perfectionism thrives on. For me, experience has demonstrated that worrying too much about what others think is a fools’ errand. They’re not thinking about me at all.

Nothing really matters (Queen song reference!)

Another life lesson: those projects we perfectionists relentlessly pursue – they rarely matter much in the grand scheme. Occasionally, it truly may be acceptable to “phone it in” and buy a little extra rest. Give yourself that permission! “Finished” is an accomplishment.

I have a confession to make.

I do not always submit work that meets my high expectations. I get crushed by competing priorities like many managers. Sometimes, I get bored and lose interest. I do not finish projects that I start, both at work and at home.  But what I accomplish is my best, at that time. It still has value.

I know I can’t be perfect. My head already recognizes that. But deep in my psyche, that place my parents stuffed with thou shalts and thou shalt nots, a voice admonishes me that only perfection is acceptable.

Beating the expectations game

My parents had extremely high expectations of me, but it’s not their fault that I struggled so long against the paralyzing confinements of perfectionism. Certainly, they helped lay the foundation, but getting out of this prison requires my diligent attention and some therapy.

I still expect a lot of myself, but balance is my watchword.

First, I began to work on my self-concept, my self-worth. This may sound like a heavy lift, but one of the dramatic changes I have made was turning down the volume of pesky negative self-talk. I must remind myself “perfection is not the goal.” At home, much of my self-flagellation centers around my spotty housekeeping. I still work full-time, have a spouse who’s unwell, and an elderly mother. Self-care has far more value than the disappearance of a little dust.

Now, I benefit from the passage of time. Over the past few years, perspective has proven a powerful salve. When considering all the projects, meetings, presentations, family issues, disappointments, and so much more, I know deeply that nothing –nothing – was worth the pressure and strain I put myself through. I’m still standing and am professionally successful even though my reflections once illuminated only the glaring imperfections of my efforts.

So what?

I’m just done with it. Trying to be perfect is not worth the pain, the shame, the disappointment.  

So, when I curl up on the sofa with a good book and see the dust shimmering like an early fall frost under the television, I smile; maybe I smirk. Opening the book, its binding makes a crinkling sound that invites me to disappear into a perfect world of words and story.  Hello, imperfect life, happy life.

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