Confessions of a Former Perfectionist

By , By Heather Lende, of Woman's Day

I’m watching the tide come in here at the beach near my house on a lovely sunny afternoon, wishing I could be outside. Instead I’m at my desk typing, in my two-fingered way. (Yes, that’s how I do it, using only my index fingers—“hunting and pecking,” my mother called it.)

In front of me on the computer screen is an essay for my master’s degree in fiction writing. I decided three years ago at age 49 that this was important. But somehow I forgot that going back to college meant I’d have homework, even in the summer.

At the moment, I am cursing at my laptop as I try to italicize book titles (no more underlining them, like I did when I was in college). The university expects the paper to be perfect. That’s my advisor’s word. Perfect. I thought no one used that term anymore—in preschool and in yoga class it is not allowed.

I don’t believe in perfect anymore.

I used to. I spent my whole life, it seems, trying to be perfect. The perfect daughter, perfect student, perfect bride, perfect mother, perfect friend, perfect wife—not to mention keeping a perfect house, serving perfect meals and tending perfect chickens who lay perfect eggs.

I was raised to always do my best, with the understanding that my best was perfect, therefore anything less meant I hadn’t done a proper job. Maybe this is why, when I had four kids under age 5, I served on the school board, directed a community theater production of Carousel, and still made pancakes every morning and gardened at 10 o’clock at night. (In Alaska, where we live, you can do that.)

Did I mention that in my free time I ran marathons? Saying this now makes me laugh out loud. At the same time, I read about mothers who did all this and were brain surgeons, too. I was only a staff writer who wrote obituaries for our town’s weekly newspaper, and in a town of 2,400 there aren’t that many.

But that job did, and does, challenge the way I saw the world. The best obituaries (and thus lives), I’ve found, are the ones about people who are quirky and loved, rather than perfect overachievers. Like Mildred, who, after her husband died in Texas, abandoned her home there completely. She came up to visit her friend Lola here in Alaska and never left. “She was a guest who came for the summer and stayed for 20 years,” Lola said. Most of us knew very little of Mildred’s pre-Alaska life or the reason for her abrupt departure from Texas, and we didn’t much care. I loved her for the fiery-red leather pants she wore well into her 80s.

I never thought I’d be writing the obituary of my friend Guy. When he died of a heart attack while skiing at only 57, everyone was so shaken up that the local arts center was packed for his funeral. Guy fished just enough to pay his bills, never had indoor plumbing, and invited the whole town to his annual birthday party. He used to say, “If you want nice weather, make your own high-pressure system,” and he did.

Compare that with the obituary I wrote where the highest praise anyone could offer about the woman was, “She kept her stove clean.” That one worried me—I didn’t want to be remembered that way.

Not long after that, I was invited to dinner at a new friend’s rental house, where the gritty gas stove had seen better days. My hosts did not, as I would have, iron the napkins—we tore paper towels off a loose roll.

And instead of serving a meat and two vegetables, we ate tamales from napkins on our laps, which we assembled, laughing and talking, in a drafty old kitchen. I still recall it as one of the nicest evenings in one of the warmest (yet least “perfect”) homes I’ve ever been in.

Of course I was aware that no one demanded perfection in my household but me. But still, I couldn’t let it go. I couldn’t help it. I thought it was my job, somehow, to make the world orderly and clean.

Click here to read more about how Heather learned to ease up on her perfectionist ways

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If you are a perfectionist, do you try to ease up on your perfectionist ways? If so, how? If you are not a perfectionist, do you have any tips on how to ease up?

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I really enjoyed this article.
This so used to be me, but now I have gone to the dark side. Or at least the not so perfect or tidy, side. : )
I finally realized I didn't want my epitaph to read "she kept an immaculate house and yard".
I am a perfectionist, and I really struggle with it. I want everything to be "right" at all times - especially how others are feeling. I hate confrontation and often don't say what I really feel in fear of hurting others. I also hold myself at very high and unrealistic standards. Slowly trying to allow myself to just be me, imperfections and all. Report
I really enjoyed these thoughts. What a true and realistic view on what life can be. Report
What a great blog. It's given me lots to think about. I'm what they call a "frustrated" perfectionist who used to be married to a "completed" perfectionist. He could go in his sock drawer in pitch black darkness and know exactly which pair he was getting out. And he always made sure I knew what my imperfections were. My problem is getting started. If I can't do it perfectly and completely, I just don't start so nothing gets done. I'm working on overcoming the bad habits and get my self and my home more organized. And if it's not perfect, so be it. Report
Yes, I have learned this too. My house used to be so perfect that people were uncomfortable in it. After being diagnosed with cancer and battling it these past 5 years I've come to learn what's truly important in my life. So tonight I will leave my not-as-clean house and head off to my photography class instead. Report
I read and enjoy your column in Woman's Day every month. Thanks for this blog.

My husband likes to bust me about my perfectionism by saying that shooting for 101% usually lands me at 99%. I frequently remind myself of the Amish saying that only God is perfect, and so, try to forgive myself my expected human foibles.

There was a poem popular at the start of the woman's movement in the 60s about a woman who spent all her time cleaning the dirt out of her house - and in the end, when she died, she was buried in dirt! That's something else I try to remember. Report
Loved this blog! I'm by no means a perfectionist, but am learning to not worry if people see my not-so-picked up house. "If you come to see me, come anytime. If you come to see my house, give me a month's notice!" Report
I'm a Libra, so unlike the Virgo or Capricorn who tries to be perfect, I can deal with criticism. I followed Pam Young and Peggy Jones' "The Slob Sisters" method for being organized which helped with my five children. Also, reading Denise Schofield's "Confessions of an Organized Housewife" helped. She had five children & was a perfectionist, but since she was so organized she never let things "pile up." I taught my DD to be organized from the beginning, so she finds it natural to "put things in their place."
My mother taught me "it is easy to clean a clean house" and I always remember that statement. She said it was the reason a maid could clean a hotel, since she didn't have to deal with "clutter" and she didn't let a mess pile up.
The "Slob Sisters" say we have to learn to NOT "over goal." That is the real problem. Being the "Little Red Hen" isn't fun. Learn to let some other people do some of the work. Report
It wasn't until I started working in the bustling mental health clinic I currently work in that I discovered my inner perfectionist. I had always thought of myself as laid back, easy going- one of those naturally smart people who didn't have to work to hard in school because she grasped concepts easily. I wrote most of my successes off as a result of being able to write well or figure out what the teacher wanted rather than the hours I spent working on things, even when I did take the time I was supposed to to complete difficult assignments. I didn't have straight A's, but I was on the honor roll. "Of course I have to be on the honor roll," I would tell myself in grad school. I'm too smart not to be."

Then I started working. And the number of tasks began piling up...and I found out orderliness and control were actually quite important to me, and I felt lost and frantic when everything required couldn't be done. I let the work steal my joy more than once because I would think, "but I'm not finished! I still have this huge stack of other things to do!" I would stress out at home trying to find a way to make the perfect list and organization system, which would be discarded as soon as they made some other overarching change I couldn't quite keep up with.

For the first time in my life, "excellent" and "perfect" just weren't attainable every day. I had to start settling for "good enough" and "that'll do for now." Even as I write these words they make me feel uncomfortable, as though I am settling for a C when I "should" have an A. But if I don't settle for "good enough," I can't enjoy the rest of my life, the only reason I work- my family, my dogs, leisure activities, God- if my whole brain is wrapped up in how to complete every new and difficulty caveat coming my way, then I lose sight and become quite a crabby, tired girl. I have to let go a little in order to enjoy things around me. So today, I have to accept that my best is simply "good enough." Then I'm going to go home and have a nice evening in my slightly messy house with my husband. Report
This might seem a little silly but this article almost brought tears to my eyes. I love quirkey people who live real live, and I want to be remembered for something like wearing red pants when I am in my eighties! I don't invite people to my house because it is NOT perfect. That needs to change. Thanks for writing this. Report
A comment, not about perfection but Alaska, although it came very close to being a perfect bus tour for me recently. A fabulous state you have with gorgeous scenery and a tremendous and diversified wildlife population. It created what I am sure will, without doubt, be a lifetime memory. Report
AWESOME blog I really enjoyed it very much. Report
I am not a perfectionist ... thanks for helping me feel better about that. Report
Yeah, I'm also a recovering perfectionist. However, my perfectionism took the opposite bent. I never did anything I unless I knew I could do it perfectly. I am now learning to let it go and that even things done imperfectly bless those around me. It's making me happier and I'm getting more done. Report
This was a truly lovely and touching piece, with points that are entirely true. Thanks for putting a smile on my face and some good thoughts in my head. Report
Very eye-opening! Report
I talk to myself like this:
If by perfect you mean flawless, all powerful, omnipresent, omniscient, you are setting yourself up for failure.
"Mature and complete" is another definition of perfect. That is an attainable goal. Report
Self proclaimed "perfectionist" and I LOVE it! BUT, it's limited to specific areas of my life which actually makes it advantageous for me. I don't mind a slightly messy house or if my yard isn't meticulously clean (in fact, I detest yard work). However, when I was in school (and now with work events) all my notes were typed in outline form. Classes were tape recorded, notes transcribed word for word. I used different colored highlighters for important main points, dates and things the professor seriously dwelled on. I did relax a bit and realize that college didn't require I always get a 100 or 4.0, that B here and there really wasn't the end of the world. I learned to take part in the social side of college, not merely the academic. A group of us would always go out for drinks and late appetizers after one of our evening classes, that was always loads of fun!

I do a lot of charity work with the ALS Association, I chair the annual Walk to Defeat ALS in my city and plan a yearly bachelor auction to raise money in memory of my grandmother who passed away from ALS. I am absolutely a perfectionist when it comes to my ALS Walks and auctions--it's helpful to be able to answer any question thrown at me. My "perfectionist" notes and detail orientation serve me well there and my committee knows that can always get a quick answer from me.

I think it's a matter of finding a balance in my life. For me, I have to maintain that level of control over parts of my life (I have a blood disorder that, in some ways, dictates what I can do on a daily basis), school/work/volunteer life are things I can control and do. If something in my personal life isn't perfect, that's ok...but I will be certain any ALS related events are perfect...that works for me! Report
If my daughter were to read this she'd think they were talking about me - the true perfectionist. The mom who makes sure beds are made every morning and won't leave the house for work with dirty dishes in the sink - not one. She would say that her mom is so bad that when we go places if I see other things out of order I tend to straighten them i.e. to the doctor's office and magazines are scattered. So perhaps I'm worse. I don't want to be remembered for that - nor do I want my daughter or my sons to remember me as always trying to be a perfectionist however I don't want them to be slobs. My sons are grown and it's just my daughter and I and she has only 3 yrs left with me before she's off to college. As much as I want to be remembered as a warm hearted individual who always was helpful to others, kind and giving - I don't want that followed by "she was always a perfectionist" as I am not. Report
Love this!!!! I agree that I do not want to be remembered for a clean stove! I want to be remembered for helping others! Report
I can relate. Trying to be perfect will eventually drive you crazy! Really enjoyed reading your blog. Report
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