Perfectionism & Chipped Nail Polish

How do you know if you're a perfectionist? Here are some statements and behaviors that might be a red flag:
  • Go big or go home. 
  • If you want it done right you have to do it yourself.
  • I like to do things what I call the "right way". 
  • I procrastinate because I want to have the time to do it perfectly.
  • My value is directly tied to what I accomplish.
  • Others are valuable only to the level that they achieve important things.
  • It is unacceptable to make mistakes.
  • Unless I am the best I am worthless.
  • My way is the best and/or only way.
  • You are highly critical of others.
Perfectionists are very familiar with anxiety. The two go hand-in-hand. As a recovering perfectionist, perfectionism was a way for me to hide behind outward accomplishments in order to avoid the biggest accomplishment- that of learning to love myself. I perceived that my value was wrapped up in pleasing the most important in my life, and the only way I knew how to have value was with good grades and music. This made me a people pleaser. Like attracts like, and over the first thirty years of life I attracted friendships with other perfectionists who needed a lot of time invested in emotional babysitting and validation, but gave very little at all. Usually I heard unsolicited critiques of how I could make myself or something better. I found this is not a long-term plan for lifelong friendship.  I wanted my parents to be pleased with me. I wanted my grandparents to be pleased with me. I wanted acceptance from others to compensate for a poor self-esteem and lack of self-love. I was in conflict with God, the One I should have been most focused on pleasing. I learned that perfectionism discourages creativity and momentum, and love of self. It sucks joy out of the journey, and blocks us from experiencing the joy of human love. 
Matthew 22:37-39: Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all they heart,
and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it,
Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

Wouldn't it be cruel to be angry at a child who falls while learning to walk? Yet many of us do this to ourselves and those around us every day. My hope and prayer is that we refrain from slinging our perfectionism and poor self-esteem at others. As a youth, no matter how hard I tried to improve my musicianship and honor the gift God gave me, I had a reminder of my imperfections and weaknesses. This came through the voice of an unhappy girl, also a perfectionist and a musician. Even though she lived on my street, she ignored me at church and school for ten years except when she had a golden opportunity to smack me down for imperfections in my performance, my musicianship, personality and wardrobe. I dreaded performing in church or school because she would begin a gossip line about what she found wrong with me that usually came around to my ears and rang inside my mind for far too long. Her family had money, mine was a large, struggling family with a new business. Every note I played or sang was hard-earned and I spent most of my youth working a job on top of teaching piano and babysitting neighbor kids, training in piano, helping my mother with children, changing cloth diapers, cleaning up barf, reading stories, bathing babies, lawn mowing, weeding, cooking, feeding kids, cleaning, and helping with someone else's homework instead of mine. My life was not my own. My parents taught me the value of things, and I felt grateful to have clothing, even if it was not expensive, discounted or second-hand.

She was from a very small family with a perfect lawn, perfect cars, perfect furniture, perfect clothes, perfect grades, perfect social circles for perfect people, perfect everything - or so it seemed. Her family excelled at public charisma. Though I am certain she has had her share of struggles, she went on to marry and perpetuate the picture of perfection while I struggled with things like cancer, death, premature babies, divorce, fraud, betrayal, financial devastation - twice, and so on. She recently found me on Facebook. Out of social obligation (translation: I didn't have the spine to decline the request) I accepted her request. Within a few short weeks she performed a public smack down on Facebook. It was like the old days all over again. I was heartbroken for her because I saw that she was still not free to love enough not to do that. She was still in the bondage of the insecurity of perfectionism. As an older woman my reaction was of sorrow and surprise - a good sign of some kind of progress, though I hope some day in this life or the next she and I can be friends. Perhaps someday I can show her how to love herself. Looking back on two inexperienced, perfectionist teens, I realize that her teenage behavior bothered me so much because her words validated the self-critical words I had already spoken to myself. It is no more acceptable for me to say those things to myself than for her to say those things. She likely spoke the very same words to herself, and my heart goes out to her. I know what that's like. Once in a while she comes to my mind and I wonder if she has come to love herself even a little more. I hope so.

This unwitting peer validation of my poor self-esteem was a major catalyst in my journey toward deeper love of self and others regardless of how they behaved. The only way I know to break the cycle of expecting perfectionism in ourselves and others is to focus on one tiny aspect at a time. The funny thing about perfectionists is that we know that we are this way, and we try to overcome it all at once as perfectly as possible (go big), and if we can't, then we give up (go home). I cannot speak for other perfectionists, but my perfectionism was an anxiety-based addiction. Perfectionism was my only addiction, but it had me stranded on the side of the road of life, too afraid to really start the journey because I was too afraid I'd fail. I certainly didn't love myself enough to make allowances for "imperfection". There was no Samaritan good enough that could rescue me from myself. I had to choose a different way. So I did. One baby step at at time. 

Take nail polish, for example. Perfectionists don't leave the house with open-toed shoes without first checking their toe nails. We just don't do chipped nail polish because we think the world is as obsessed with our feet as we are. We are afraid that others will see our chipped nail polish and assume we don't have every aspect of our lives in order. We're supposed to be perfect, after all. So I determined my first, tentative step out in to the real world of compassion would be to go without checking my toe nail polish for chips. In the rare moment someone did look at my toes I reminded myself that I am not a mind reader and don't actually know what they are thinking. Sometimes we look somewhere while processing a thought without seeing what we are looking at. I reminded myself that even if I was too frazzled to paint my toes pink, who cares? Life happens!  I reminded myself that others were equally worried about their own perceived imperfections and likely had little time or interest in mine. The more I did that, the less I cared about my toe nail polish. Now I have to remind myself to check it because I can go weeks without thinking about it. I broke the addictive cycle in this one small area of my life.

Over the years I have applied this practice in specific, more personal areas of my life. In the process of unraveling my perfectionism I have found that our upbringing is a major part of the programming of perfectionism. So is our culture both secular and religious. Schools penalize us for mistakes, and often times do not offer a way to correct those mistakes. We become our final grades, the compilation of which determine some of our biggest decisions in life and career planning. We are taught that our accomplishments and mistakes are final. 

I wholly reject this punitive system of control. I disagree with this with every atom of my being. I disagree with it because the God that I know is a God of multiple chances, and through Christ's Atonement we can become stronger, better, softer, more patient, wiser, more capable, more loving, and more than we can even imagine at this time. Speaking of time, I also believe that we learn and grow beyond the veil of mortality into the spiritual future. So, no matter how I try to be "perfect" in this life, I will always fall short because I haven't died and moved on to a post-mortal world of possibilities. So, if we are perpetually in the state of becoming more, then this means my perception of "perfect" is not accurate, and that God's version of "perfect" is more like unto the meaning of "finished", or "complete", not "flawless". 

Freeing myself from the chains of my addiction to a false sense of perfection has opened my heart to a deeper appreciation and patience for myself. And while it seems narcissistic to say that I see myself in others, I choose to see it as a deeper empathy that opens my heart to a deeper love. I see that we share the same struggles and false beliefs. The behavioral manifestation of this may look different from person to person, but if we truly listen to each other we will understand enough to know the other person's heart. This heart-to-heart understanding opens up pathways to deeper love. Am I perfect at loving everyone deeper? No. I don't do perfect. I do better. There are people with very damaging behaviors that I am still working to understand and appreciate. But with every small baby step of development that understanding comes closer, even within reach, and my love grows deeper.

You know I'm all about loving deeper.  


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