I will preface this essay by sharing that I am a recovering perfectionist. It wasn’t until I was almost forty years old that I realized this was the case. Once I did, my life became both easier and more challenging, simultaneously. What came next changed my life and that’s what I intend to share with you here.
It was the late fall of 1993 and I was having my final walk through with the social worker before I could be certified as a potential foster parent. She was a pleasant woman named Sheila and a mother of two toddlers of her own. We walked down the hallway leading from my master bedroom back into the living room, and as we turned the corner I’ll never forget what she said.
“You’re a perfectionist, Connie. These children will be coming to you from a variety of traumatic situations and highly dysfunctional families and won’t be able to meet your standards.”
I waited a moment before addressing her comment. It was in a defensive tone I answered “I am not a perfectionist. Just look around, nothing here is perfect.”
She smiled politely and changed the subject.
As she backed out of my driveway and drove down the street, I watched until her care was out of sight. I was not happy about what she had said and it hurt me that she didn’t allow me to explain and defend myself so she could take it back. So I turned on the television and sat on the sofa to think about her comment.
Sheila was a licensed social worker (LCSW) who had worked with the Children’s Home Society for almost a decade. After graduating with honors from my alma mater, UCLA, she had dedicated her time and focus to volunteering in the community and becoming a foster parent herself. I had no doubt she knew what she was talking about when it came to recognizing personality traits. That is why I turned off the sound on the television and took a small notebook off my shelf to engage in some self-examination.
I made a list of everything I was doing right now that I considered to be perfect. Nothing came up for me so I dug a little deeper. Alright, my closet was perfect. It was a cedar lined, walk in closet that was large enough to serve as a child’s bedroom. I had arranged my clothes according to type of item, including shirts, pants, skirts, dresses, sweatshirts, shorts, and so on. Within each group they were lined up by color, size, and season. A year or so ago I had counted how many items I had (98) and purchased hangars in five colors to further arrange everything. When I did the laundry, everything was then hung up to the right, so as not to be worn before the other items within that category unless there was a very good reason.
Yes, this closet with my clothes was perfect. When Vera, another teacher at my school had come to visit it was almost the first thing I showed her. She had smiled her approval and silently moved a pair of jeans to the other side of the closet where they could be with my other jeans instead of next to my blue pants in different shades.
What else was perfect? I walked in and out of every room, including the bedroom where my new foster child would reside. He or she would have the perfect (isn’t it alright to use that word) bedroom, decorated in a pale shade of green so as to be perfect for either a boy or a girl. There were bunk beds with a tiny ladder, and a desk that pulled out from the side. This would be perfect if siblings arrived at my door.
I sat back down in front of the muted television. Suddenly I didn’t feel so good. I strode into the kitchen, holding my head and thinking about making a grilled cheese sandwich. No, I couldn’t. I didn’t have the right cheese. And my sourdough bread was going stale. Perhaps I could run to the market and get what I needed quickly so I could come home and make the, you guessed it, the perfect grilled cheese sandwich.
But these were just words. I wasn’t striving for perfection all the time. When perfection is your goal, you think about it all the time so it can be your reality. I wasn’t doing that. I just liked certain things to be done in a particular way. Did I expect this from others?
The images were beginning to irritate me, so I used the remote to turn off the television. As I placed the remote back into its holder, I went into slow motion to observe my own behavior. My life began to flash in front of my eyes as I finally came to terms with what had been going on in my life for decades. Here I was, almost forty and still believing that everything and everyone had to be perfect in order to succeed. One misstep and everything goes awry. When perfection is your goal, you have a long way to fall.
And fall I had. My life was a mess. Other people were to blame, in my way of thinking. It began with my parents, then my so-called friends, and finally, the people I worked with. Then I carried it over to inanimate objects and physical possessions. I thought back to the leather chair I had spent almost a month’s pay on, only to get it home and find that the leather on the backrest was filled with imperfections. The man at the store had practically laughed out loud when I called to complain. “You want it perfect, buy something man made. Nature doesn’t create with perfection as a goal.” I had hung up the phone, attempting to slam down the receiver so he would know my displeasure.
I thought next to the relationships I had irreparably damaged, beginning with the one I had with my mother. All this time I had believed that she wanted me to be perfect in every way, but that didn’t seem to be the case upon closer examination. She wanted me to be happy, and that’s quite a different thing altogether. The piano and voice lessons were the prime example. She had accepted nothing less than perfection when I practiced, but only so I could move past the “unconscious incompetence” stage and forward towards “unconscious competence” at some point in the future. But the future never came because I had quit trying and blamed her for ruining my life in the 3rd grade by taking me away from my friends. She hadn’t understood when I cried and told her my friends were the most important people in my life and they didn’t care if I could sing or play the piano or anything else because they liked me the way I was. And I didn’t understand when those friends went away, one by one and over time, to the point that I can’t even remember but a few of their names, all these years later.
In Kindergarten a boy and I had climbed over the fence at recess, while the teachers were on a smoke break and not watching, and made it the two long blocks to see a sunflower in someone’s yard. That flower was so beautiful and so imperfect. That made it unique, a word I had not heard at that time but most certainly knew the meaning of in a special way. The sunflower was only interesting and worth escaping from the schoolyard to see because it was a one of kind creation of Nature. If this is true, then imperfection is the only perfection, it seems.
And this leads me to the point of this essay, which is to share with you how I was able to finally overcome my perfectionist tendencies and get back on track with my life…
As I was leaving my previous life as a classroom teacher and real estate broker and residential appraiser behind at the end of 2005, in favor of coming online as an entrepreneur, something occurred that shook me to my core. My childhood friend, Tory, was going through a difficult time in his life and reached out to me for support. Tory had struggled to overcome a strict father who refused to settle for anything less than perfection from his four children. He dished out verbal and physical abuse on a regular basis. My family lived next door to them for three years while I was in junior high and I observed much of this firsthand.
Tory was a special person. He was funny and creative and well-liked by everyone. By high school he shared with me that he was gay, and I was not surprised by this announcement. Of course, his goal became to make sure his father would never find out and he worked diligently to keep this part of his life a secret. But he remained focused on perfection and insisted that everything he attempted be done “right” as he referred to it. Seldom were his efforts close to perfect, and this kept him from reaching anything close to his full potential over the thirty-eight years we were close friends.
The day before Christmas in 2005 I received a call from his mother that Tory had passed away unexpectedly. He had moved back in with her after his father died the year before. On that afternoon he had gone to the store to pick up some last minute items for the Christmas Day dinner he would prepare for the family members that would be arriving the following day. We had spoken on the phone and he told me he wanted everything to be perfect for this first Christmas without his father.
He bought a sandwich from the deli and sat down on a bench in the park where we had played as children to eat it before heading home. The paramedics arrived just before midnight and pronounced him dead at the scene. He had choked on the sandwich and no one had been around to help. It was a lady walking her dog who saw him lying on the ground and called the police.
I loved Tory like a brother. He and I visited so many places and had many adventures over the years. His passing hit me hard and on Christmas Day I took on the task of calling people all over the world to let them know what had happened to our sweet friend. Whenever I think about how perfectionism can keep someone from achieving their life dreams, it is Tory’s shortened life that comes to mind. On that fateful day I made a promise to myself to never again set the goal of perfection with anything I would take on, personally or in my business. When perfection is your goal, you have a long way to fall.
This is from “All of Me” by John Legend…
‘Cause all of me
Loves all of you
Love your curves and all your edges
All your perfect imperfections
Give your all to me
I’ll give my all to you
You’re my end and my beginnin’
Even when I lose, I’m winnin’.
I’m Connie Ragen Green, a human forever in training and filled with perfect imperfections. Come along with me and let’s brainstorm ways for you to live the life you were intended to live by becoming the person you want to be.