From a recovering perfectionist

by Carolyn on July 8, 2009

Note to self..

Note to self..

I am perfect.

At least that’s what I’ve been trying to convince myself.  And I’ve been trying to convince you too.  For when I can’t win my own good favor, yours is the next best thing.  I am a perfectionist.  Which may seem irritating to you, but trust me, it’s downright painful for me.

I’m not sure when it started. My need for perfection.  I can clearly remember as a young girl, my stepfather getting quite annoyed by watching me butter a piece of toast.  Every millimeter had to be covered by a perfectly thin layer of spread.  It didn’t matter to me that it bothered him.  It couldn’t.  His annoyance never had the strength to derail my compulsion.  Nobody’s did.  Not even mine.  And no one could be more annoyed than me.  For I could always see a crumb left unbuttered.  And I was always falling short.  I still am.

I always blamed my mother for this trait.  I thought she was just like me.  Always needing the house clean.  Always wearing makeup and looking presentable for company or to leave the house.  But when I look at her now with clear eyes, I realize it wasn’t her.  She may have perfectionistic qualities, but it doesn’t drive her in the same way it does me.  It doesn’t control her like it controls me.  I don’t see the self loathing in her that I have for myself.  But maybe she’s become perfect at hiding it.  Just like me.

As part of our pre-marital counseling through the church, my husband were asked to take a test.  It was called the Taylor-Johnson Temperament Analysis and it measured nine personality traits and their opposites.  The nine traits were:

  • Nervous/Composed
  • Depressive/Light-Hearted
  • Active-Social/Quiet
  • Expressive-Responsive/Inhibited
  • Sympathetic/Indifferent
  • Subjective/Objective
  • Dominant/Submissive
  • Hostile/Tolerant
  • Self-Disciplined/Impulsive

The test is 180 multiple choice questions.  It’s pretty hard to fake.  To know what answers will provide the desired outcome.  Our instructions were simple.  Take the test once for yourself.  Answer all the questions as honestly as you can.   Then take the test again.  But this time answer the questions the way you think your prospective spouse would.  Our results shocked me.  That analysis taught me a lot about myself.  In the future I will write more about it.

Our pastor met with us to share our results.  One by one he went through each trait and how we scored ourselves.  Explaining where we fell with regards to each of the nine traits.  My flaws were glaringly obvious.  I had answered honestly and the results were reflective.  Steve had done the same for himself.  And there we were.  Laid out naked on a chart.  And then the pastor turned to my husband.

He explained that the analysis my husband had done on me, had me rated as nearly perfect.  According to him I was composed, light-hearted, social, expressive, sympathetic, objective, dominant, tolerant and self disciplined.  The pastor, knowing from my self analysis that his view was severely distorted, turned to him and said ‘I know you love her.  But you can’t put her up on that tall of a pedestal.  Because one day the rose colored glasses will come off.  And when they do, it will be too long of a drop down for her.’.  And there I had it.  I had fooled them both.

For not only had I convinced the man I lived with that I was ideal in almost every way.  But I had also fooled our Pastor into thinking that was somehow my husband’s flaw; his rose colored glasses instead of my manipulation.  Perfect again.  Every square millimeter of my toast covered.  But sitting there in that little office.  My pedestal started to feel more like the face of a cliff.  With me teetering on the edge.  What could I do?  Jump?  Wait to fall?  Or cling with all my strength to this one solid piece of rock that I knew wasn’t going anywhere.

But how could I jump?  I had hidden myself for so long I wasn’t even sure who I was anymore.  Jumping felt like suicide.  Going against everything I had worked so hard for over the span of my life.  Clinging felt easier.  More natural.  If I fell, I fell.  I’d deal with that when the time came.  But why?  Why was I like this?

They say that children of divorce often become perfectionists.  And having been married for eight years; having eight years of reflecting my own perfectionism, I think I know why.  Fear.  Feeling that if things aren’t perfect, they may completely fall apart.  Worrying that if you aren’t perfect, the people who love you suddenly won’t.  That’s what we’ve seen.  It’s what we’ve perceived.  Of course the issues surrounding any divorce are much more complex than that, but to a child it becomes simple.  Be perfect or else.

And so a perfectionist is born.  And it doesn’t take long for your whole view to become distorted. Like an eighty pound anorexic looking in a mirror and seeing cellulite; all you can see now are your flaws.  And all you want to do is hide them.  From yourself and everyone else.

If it were up to me, I would have you believe that my house is always clean, I wake up looking beautiful, I rarely make mistakes and I always treat others better than myself.  And when you buy that line of bull, it makes me happy and angry and scared.  Happy because I’ve succeeded and that feeds my perfectionism.  Angry that you weren’t perceptive enough to see through it.  And scared because now your image of me is almost impossible to live up to.

So as a recovering perfectionist I need to say that I’m nowhere near perfect, even when I’m not brave enough to show you my flaws.  That when it seems like I think I’m better than you, I don’t. Chances are, you have earned my accolades more than I could ever hope to earn them.   And I would love to stop, but it’s hard.  I’m scared. Even though all I show you is strength.   But I’m working on changing.  Working hard every single day.

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What is it you do, anyway? — The Grown Up Child
October 5, 2009 at 6:19 pm
Two Steps Forward… — The Grown Up Child
March 16, 2010 at 7:09 pm

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Urchin July 8, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Maybe it’s not that you are perfect for your own standards, but you are to other peoples. We are often hardest on ourselves, or so I’ve been told. Never quite satisfied with something we do, the art/stories/whatever we create. But for someone else, we are perfect. We’re their perfect.

It’s not a bad thing, to recognize that you’re too hard on yourself, or that you aren’t “perfect”, but being someone else’s version of perfect, well… that’s not terrible either. It’s taken me a long time (if you can have a long-time in 25 years) to realize that it’s not a pedestal they’re putting you on just to put you there. There might not even be a pedestal. People know that people aren’t perfect, but sometimes, we can be a variation on a theme.

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2 Carolyn July 8, 2009 at 4:54 pm

That’s an excellent point of view. And for most quite true. For me it’s a bit different. And the distinction comes from the fact that I’m not simply other people’s version of perfect because they deem ‘me’ so. I’m their perfect because I’m killing myself to be so and in the end I’m not me at all. It’s not just that I’m always wanting to put my best foot forward. It’s that I have to. There is no choice here. For me.

I think you are right about your ‘variation on a theme’. I have no doubt that you are on a pedestal for being the person that you are. And that you have every right to be there. Bask in that and be happy for it. I have a feeling you already are. :)

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3 Urchin July 8, 2009 at 7:03 pm

-blinks- I think I came across as far more confident and comfortable about the whole thing than I actually am. Oh stars, I’m one of those people who WILL stay home because I feel like I don’t fit in in the world. Who gets nervous in situations with other people because I’m terrified I won’t live up to their standards. Or mine.

While I don’t hold other people to my own standards, I hold myself to them, without fail. I’m trying not to, I am. But it’s hard. I have 25 years of holding in, not crying, not complaining about hurts until it’s too late to do much about it. That’s 25 years to unlearn.

Conan pointed out to me, after a night where I wound up in the shower, fully clothed sobbing with the cold water pelting me, that it would be easier if I talked about things when they happened rather than hold onto them. He was afraid I wasn’t moving forward as a person because I still DON’T talk about a lot of things. I’m getting better, and I did point that out to him (later). If I wasn’t moving forward as a person or an individual then I wouldn’t be here. With him.

But that’s my “perfect”. The never complaining. The never wanting people to see me hurt. The not showing the scars of mine, worthy of them or not. The never, NEVER wanting to be seen as weak. I have my reasons. Maybe one day I’ll share. For now, just my toes in the grass. The rest of me is still in my fortress. Believe it or not.

Pedestal? Maybe. But when I fall I hope friends catch me and tell me it’s okay.

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4 Carolyn July 8, 2009 at 7:43 pm

How beautifully honest Urchin. And your friends will be there to catch you. Real friends always are.

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5 Tammy July 8, 2009 at 2:46 pm

I agree with Urchin, we are always hardest on ourselves. But Carolyn you forgot another area we strive to be perfect at, motherhood. That just must add chaos to your life. We know it is not possible and the guilt we have is incredible. Adding that to everything you have gone through, the weight of the world is on your shoulders.

As Urchin said I think we are someone else’s perfect. I know and I hope you know that to our kids were are still perfect b/c of the age they are at. Especially the youngers ones, all they need is you and your love. So when you are having a bad day(or as I call them my split personality(depending on which child I speaking to)/crazy yelling lady days), just give them a hug and look into there eyes and you can see who you really are. They, I think are the only ones who truely get the true you and love you for it unconditionally. Now after that we have to strive to not let them down. But we can do that, can’t we?? Not to much pressure from one perfectionist to another!!??

When we are up in the middle of the night and you see that little smile come across their face, remember you are the world to them and faults and all, they will love us. Just like we still love our parents. My husband says that when you do something wrong once and learn from it and never repeat, it is not a mistake. It is a learning experience. But repeating it over it again is when it becomes a mistake. So I guess we will have to learn from our parents mistakes and our own and give ourselves and our families the best life we can.

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6 Carolyn July 8, 2009 at 5:07 pm

Oh Tammy, I didn’t even go near motherhood because the post would have ended up ridiculously long. I might tackle that topic one day. Children do view us perfect (for a while, anyway) and it’s hard not to try to be. For them. But for me I’m trying really hard to let my kids see some of my flaws. I want them to see that I’m not perfect and know they still love me anyway. I want them to know that I see they aren’t perfect. But that I love them anyway.

I like your husband’s philosophy. I have recognized the error of this facade I’m grasping at. I see now that by hiding behind a mask of perfection, I steal from you the opportunity to really know me as I smother both myself and my self esteem. We all have our ugly. Most of us don’t wear it on our foreheads, but most of us don’t decide to never go out because someone might notice it on the bottom of their shoe either. I’m trying to find a happy medium. Maybe a belt. A really ugly belt that I can be okay with wearing in public. That’s what I’m hoping for, but I’m not sure at this point if the metaphor will make sense to anyone but me! lol

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7 Carolyn July 8, 2009 at 5:12 pm

I am absolutely fascinated how people can interpret my writing very differently than I do myself. I love it. I feel like I just got a bright shiny star in ‘writing 101′. It shows me that my writing has risen above the level of ‘see spot run’. That it has layers. And that people can get into those layers and see things however they choose to see them. See themselves in the work even if their experience is different than mine. In this moment I am proud! Really proud of me.

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8 Tammy July 8, 2009 at 5:23 pm

You should be proud!

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9 Urchin July 8, 2009 at 6:52 pm

Dang skippy you should be proud! Go, have a Molson, watch hockey (The Canucks!… wait, season’s over? Noooo come back hockey, come back!) kick back and just enjoy the afternoon/evening. You totally got a shiny gold star, and a smiley face to boot!

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10 Carolyn July 8, 2009 at 7:44 pm

Maybe not as good as a nice cold Canadian beer, but I am going out for a yummy latte with a good friend that I haven’t seen in a while. My reward.

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11 Peter Pan July 8, 2009 at 5:25 pm

First off I would to say to thanks once again for sharing this part of you. Reading through your posts has set off so many bells and whistles for me. It reminds me of my life and feelings, the dwellings are different then yours, but the end results are the same. For me I sometimes go one step further by expecting the same from my spouse, family, friends and co-workers. I feel like I set myself up for failure by having those feelings inside. My glass house has recently been broken and I have no idea how to carry out the repairs or worst yet what repairs to make because it feels like my life up until now was not really what I thought it was!

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12 Carolyn July 8, 2009 at 5:41 pm

And here we are Peter. You and I are in the same layer. My husband and I have struggled too. Even now, when I look at him and say ‘you know, I am completely happy with you and am lucky you are my husband’. He will look at me with doubt in his eyes and say ‘you don’t always feel that way’. He feels that way because I tend to project too. He never pretended to be perfect, that was me. So how is it fair to hold him to my own twisted standards?

It’s not. But what I’m realizing is that it’s not fair to me either. Just like it’s not fair for you. There’s no easy answer here for you and I. Only hard work. Trying to catch ourselves doing it and finding another way. Even that sounds so much easier than it actually is, doesn’t it?

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