Perfectionism

My last two entries left me thinking about my attitude toward making mistakes and how it has changed over the years. And is still changing.

My mother grew up feeling second best because she had an older sister who was very beautiful and her parents’ favorite. Her first child was a girl (me) and she tried to make her everything she felt she wasn’t. Unfortunately that didn’t mean accepting her child unconditionally and loving her as she was. It meant trying to make her daughter the most beautiful, the politest, the best dressed, the most well-spoken child she could imagine.

I reacted by trying my hardest to please her. But no matter how hard I tried to be perfect, I remained second best in her eyes. So sadly, instead of making me into her sister, she made me into herself, a child who grew up feeling unacceptable.

In the cult, all the children were less than second best. No matter what they did, it was wrong, inadequate, disobedient, stupid, and deserved punishment. Treating them this way was designed to break their spirits and make them compliant. And, of course, the children believed it was their fault and that they either hadn’t understood what was expected of them or they hadn’t tried hard enough. They kept trying in order to avoid punishment, not to gain love and approval, which wasn’t even on the horizon..

So the dynamics were different, but the message relentlessly drilled into me was the same: you must be perfect. No mistakes. And you must be better than all the others, or you are nothing. Okay, got it. I understand.

By the time I was a teenager, I began to see that perhaps it didn’t all hang together. The first challenge to this way of thinking was the idea that boys wouldn’t like me any better if were five pounds thinner. (This was shortly after my mother told me that I would look so nice if I just lost five pounds.) It didn’t challenge the core belief that I must be perfect, but the thought did encourage a blasphemous little voice to say, “Why bother being perfect?”

Over the years, I found more and more situations where it was clear that I couldn’t be perfect or, even I was, being perfect would be totally beside the point. What good would being beautiful and soft-spoken be when what I was doing was knitting?

I also figured out where the compulsion to be perfect came from. Just having insight, though, didn’t automatically give me permission to relax and be myself. Deep down, I didn’t really believe that I was a person who was good enough just as I was, that I had value simply because I was alive. I had to work at it, and believe me, it was hard work to buck that deeply implanted core belief.

So when I confused the solstice with Lamas, it was a small triumph to say to myself, “Oops. Well, it isn’t the end of the world. People will understand.” I didn’t feel ashamed when I posted a correction. I didn’t feel defensive. As a matter of fact, I thought, “Maybe my ‘fessing up will suggest to somebody else that it is okay to make a mistake.”

And it is okay to make mistakes. What isn’t okay is to teach children that they are dog shit if they don’t do everything they are told to perfectly, the first very time.

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5 thoughts on “Perfectionism

  1. I did appreciate your correction–not that I knew anything was wrong the first time. It allowed me to read the post twice, and I learned more the second time. Today’s post is especially relevant. I often feel that I must do something perfectly or something bad will happen. I really resonated with being perfect to avoid punishment. It gives me another way to let the cult punishment come to the light for healing. Thank you!

  2. Hi, Jeannie – very helpful post. I’m still working on it being okay for me to not be perfect, too. Have been for decades. One of the ways I started breaking the family/perp conditioning was by deliberately not doing A-quality work when I reached grad school. But then the darndest thing happened: even though I was okay with making B’s, I got A’s anyway! It was just so nice to finally able to absorb what I studied and learned more fully and in a lasting way without panicking that I might not get an A on this test or in this class. How freeing just to be ourselves! Another thing that’s really helped me with perfectionism is mindfulness meditation techniques. When I panic now about being perfect, I note to myself that my body is tensing, my heart is starting to race, or that my adrenaline is starting to shoot through my bloodstream to my fingertips and toes. And then I take a few moments to calm myself, pay attention to my breathing instead (which continues whether I mess up or not), and allow myself the luxury of knowing that it’s okay just to be alive. I also remind myself that I’m really not that important to the rest of the world, and that it will continue to function just fine irregardless of whether or not I pass or fail my own ridiculously rigid and impossible self-expectations. : >

  3. Jeannie, Thank you so very much for this !! BTW I was impressed and proud for you being able to admit to making a mistake. I try and struggle and try and struggle…….

    Am I allowed to share this with some friends, keeping every thing intact?

    Thanks Tess

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