A perfectionist's guide to letting go
Breathe. You are already perfect.
Each January, I write a list of objectives or goals for the coming year in an effort to motivate myself to be ambitious and/or do the most good in my life for the next 365 days. Over the last decade, these lists have helped me to apply to (and appear in) numerous art exhibitions, complete the illustrations for my tarot deck, read more, write more, donate more to charity, and learn the fundamentals of cooking. Since the birth of my first child a little over 3 years ago, however, that annual list-making tradition has fallen to the wayside.
In 2017 I found myself composing my list in early March, and really not looking at it again until… well, until I was thinking of writing this article to share my so-called wisdom with all of you. This unintentional loosening of the reins has given me a little perspective about perfectionism, ambition, and the counter-intuitive satisfaction of letting go.
Throughout my life, people (teachers, friends… my poor, exhausted mother) have referred to me as a perfectionist. I wanted straight A’s in my classes, I wanted to be the most skilled artist in my school, the most thoughtful friend and daughter, the best dancer in the studio… and I put in the work, for the most part, but I had a ton of interests, and there were only so many hours in the day. I began to equate success not only with proficiency, but with my own notion of best-ness.
Drawing something really well and being pleased with the image I made only felt good until I saw something that someone else had drawn that was better, more beautiful, or more inspiring. It could be someone in my art class, or a painting hanging in the freaking Met. It didn’t matter. If it was better than what I had made, I could enjoy its beauty for about 5 seconds before feeling a nauseating pang of jealously and a sinking disappointment in my own abilities. I drove myself crazy.
And I expected this level of accomplishment in many areas of my life, not just one. I expected to be “gifted” with an ability to create images, move my body, and compile words better than anyone else I knew. On top of that, I expected myself to be the most thoughtful friend with the most interesting stories, who tells them at the right time, never puts her foot in her mouth, and always manages to bring a handmade gift when someone is feeling down.
At this time in my life, whenever I felt exhausted and frustrated and overworked (which was often) I found myself defaulting to the phrase, "I can't work any harder." It was both an excuse and a cry of defeat. It was everything a bad mantra can be; coddling and disempowering. Saying it to myself simply made me more upset, and helped me to remain stuck in the feeling that I was experiencing.
In the years following high school, I found myself moving away from these feelings as they pertained to my professional interests (maturing, I guess), while still putting pressure on my social persona. I was becoming more ok with being mediocre, as I would have described it at the time, but still needed to be “everything to everyone” socially.
I was learning how to be a part of the world instead of my own deity, and the growing pains were real. It felt like letting go of everything because of how far “perfectionism” had pervaded my life. I had to let go of trying to be the best, but each area of my life was a new revelation, so it felt like a new disappointment every few months when I realized I had dropped another ball.
Walking around Barnes & Noble one day in Philly, I came across a weird little book that cracked me up. It was called The Underachiever’s Manifesto, and the text on the cover was hyphenated because “Underachiever’s” didn’t quite fit on the center line. It was cheeky and charming and I bought it for $3 or something. Then it sat on my shelf collecting dust for 5 years.
When I was 26 I started teaching college courses on the topic of Fashion Marketing (mostly retail math as well as how to manage a store or buy for customers) and I immediately loved the atmosphere. I felt like an expert (which I love), and often, students would ask questions that I didn’t know the answers to, and I would have to research and bring that information back the next week. I was surprised at the natural softening of my ego that happened at that time. Looking back at who I was in the past, it seemed like calling out my lack of knowledge would have been a hard hit for me to take, but I quickly took to saying, “you know, I’m not sure, but I will find out and get back to you,” and it was surprisingly empowering.
I befriended another instructor at the college who was known by the student population as a slacker. I didn’t immediately respect her approach, but I was drawn to her. I knew there were different ways that instructors gleaned results from their students, and my approach (motherly and high-energy), combined with this low-energy colleague's approach as well as some of the other Devil-Wears-Prada professors, created a well-rounded education where students gained experience that could be translated into working for a ball-buster or having to direct your own learning to train for a new field.
It wasn't that I couldn't see the value in the instruction that she provided, it's that I didn’t understand how her career could be satisfying to her. I felt like I could finally exhale when I received my “Teaching Excellence Award” in my 12th quarter. I was chosen out of all of the instructors at the school to receive it, and she laughed and told me she had never gotten one in her 25 years of teaching. I wasn’t appalled, but I was super confused.
After sitting in on her final project critiques a few times, we realized we lived in the same part of the city, and she took to offering me a ride because she knew I walked everywhere and didn’t have a car. We would chat during our 20 minute drives together, and I learned a few things about her; she was single and had a lot of free time, she smiled an awful lot, she adopted a lot of pets from a shelter where she did a lot of volunteer work, and she was just as confused by my level of anxiety toward achievement as I was confused by her comfort and complacency… and all of those things together started to look like freedom.
On one of our rides she described herself as an underachiever and laughed. I told her about the book I owned and never read, and she said, “that sounds like something I would have written if I cared to take the time to do it,” and laughed harder. Her calm was infectious.
That same night I dug up the book and read it from cover to cover (it took less than an hour), and felt oddly comforted. Most of the advice would sound obvious to a well-adjusted person:
“if you don’t want to do something, don’t do it”
“if you can’t get to something, don’t worry about it”
While others were a little more tongue-in-cheek:
“why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?”
When I was done, I felt the odd sense of comfort that comes from getting to know a part of myself really well. There is a lot that I like about creating checklists to keep myself on task and accomplishing the small parts of larger goals. I have a multifaceted personality that really benefits from that kind of mental organization. If it isn’t in a list, or on my calendar, there is a good chance it will be forgotten in the shuffle of the 43 other things that need to get done by the end of the week. But there has to be a healthy balance.
Because the lists and the goals and the finish lines were such a part of my life for so long, I started to wear blinders for the journey. I wasn’t enjoying the small things, the everyday beauty. I could never have described myself if I had ever tried online dating. I thought of myself as a list of accomplishments instead of a pile of complex and contradictory personality characteristics, even though I would describe my friends otherwise. These expectations were not the same for other people, only myself. I did associate MY achievements with MY worthiness, and every year that passed with a New Years Checklist that was only 50% complete, was a year of opportunities half-lost.
But time is never lost, it is spent in other ways.
I found, in the back of my mind, that horrible little mantra creeping back into my consciousness; "I can't work any harder," but this time I did something new. I laughed at it.
The truth is that I CAN work harder than I currently am, but is that the goal? This terrible mantra did not serve me well in the past and was not going to be helpful now. I needed to come up with a more conscious dialogue. Something that complements the way that my brain works. Its default expressions. I spent time getting to know my own mental habits through journaling. I found that, like most people, I am pretty rude to myself.
I was putting these mental vagaries into concrete terms as I was experiencing my first pregnancy (with my son, who is now 3), which brings its own emotional challenges. I found this to be an empowering time to try to tackle many of my negative self-talk habits, as I didn't want any chemical changes to affect my baby, nor did I want him emulating my self-deprecating humor when he became old enough to repeat everything I say (which is now, as it were).
One of my biggest issues is my expectation of social perfection. The need to be loved and admired by everyone and not make any embarrassing mistakes. My need to be the one that everyone comes to with their problems, and, when that works, my exhaustion from empathizing and absorbing the major and minor decisions and disappointments of all of the people I love.
The first part of addressing this involved identifying the existing narrative, or what I was feeling about this expectation I imposed on myself. It felt like a responsibility. Having been this person to many people in my life for much of my life started to feel like an expectation not only of mine, but of theirs.
Feeling that expectation from other people started to morph into guilt, and then exhausted resentment. So I needed to come up with something to counteract that cycle of expectation-responsibility-guilt, and the mantra that felt the best was, "I am not responsible for anyone else's happiness." Saying it was freeing, and in time, became calming. It is something I am still working to fully believe, but saying it at certain moments 'defuses the bomb,' so to speak.
This past spring, when I started living with my parents (and older brother), I realized that I needed to adjust my mantra... "I am not responsible for anyone else's happiness" was a helpful beginning, but there were times that I felt deflated and defeated by the negative emotions of people around me. The energy that it took to keep 2 very young kids entertained and stimulated left me with a very low tolerance for much of anything else.
I tried very hard to be accommodating in the meals I would cook, the chores I would take on, and the schedule I would keep. I would be the sounding board for everyone individually (which had been my role when I was young, and therefore was difficult to distance myself from when I moved back in to my family home). When I would do things in an effort to please people, MY actions were not exhausting me, but when my actions did not result in someone else's happiness, I felt like a failure. As if time was wasted, or I was just not getting it 'right enough.' Saying "I am not responsible for anyone else's happiness," should have worked, but I had to realize that there was another layer to it. I had to add, "and no one owes me their happiness." I can do all the nice things in the world, but at the end of the day, their happiness is not owed to me, and is no judgment on me. After realizing how self-absorbed that perspective was, it was relatively easy to let go.
I am not responsible for anyone else's happiness.
No one owes me their happiness.
and I am enough for myself...
Perfectionism is only helpful as a motivator until it isn't. Perfectionism sets expectations, creates a list of goals, demands quantity AND quality, and does not accept the fact that I am just plain tired. Perfectionism has helped me to accomplish a lot in the early part of my life, and I appreciate that. It was synonymous with my identity. As my family grows and my role in this world changes, I become more and more aware of the stress that perfectionism caused me, and how upsetting it would be to see my children accomplishing big things, only to feel less-than a few moments later when the high of achieving wears off.
Going forward, it is my aim to treat myself the way that I would want my children to be treated. It's a high bar to set, but worth reaching for. To look at myself with as much objectivity as possible, but also with a crap-ton of love and excitement for what is to come in the future.
Now it's your turn. What do you think? Comment below.
About the Author Gretchen Diehl
Gretchen Diehl is a visual artist training to be a tattoo artist in the Poconos. She lives with her husband and their 2 quirky little kids. Her previous works include an illustrated tarot deck and a variety of wearable and textile goods created under the pseudonym 'BirdQueen.' Gretchen is passionate about health, fitness, and food, making beautiful images, and living in love, and writes "often" about all of these topics.
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