What is a Perfectionist?

In my life, being a perfectionist means:

  • I expect to get everything done.
  • I want to feel in control – ie everything must be going right and running smoothly.
  • If things go wrong life isn’t perfect anymore, and that’s a problem.
  • If I have a problem, I should be able to work at it and sort it out.
  • I’m not allowed to get angry, because it means things are not running smoothly.
  • I’m not allowed to feel physically tired, or have an afternoon slump, because that stops me getting things done.
  • I love getting things done, or rather I love having done lots of things.
  • There is always something else to be done.
  • I should be able to translate all (or at least most) of the ideas in my head into reality.
  • Because I can’t act on all my ideas and get them done, it means I am not the mum I wanted to be. Or the successful professional/business woman I wanted to be.
  • Not meeting these expectations makes me feel like a failure – however unattainable they are.
  • Being a perfectionist is the only way I can be.

Until now. As I’ve recently  realised, it’s time for change.  Being a perfectionist no longer serves me or my family.  Reading some of the above sentances makes it clear how skewed my thinking has become due to this expectation of perfection.  So I’m going on a crash course in being kinder to myself and lowering my expectations.   To get me out of the habit of setting high expectations, wanting every moment to be perfect, and needing to be in control at all times my mantra will be:

  • I don’t want to be perfect.
  • I’m aiming for imperfection.
  • It is ok for me (and my family) to have a rainbow of emotions in one day.

I just need to remind myself, one moment at a time, that there is another choice.  I won’t make that choice every time. I will automatically think my ingrained perfectionist thoughts, but I’m starting now to try and replace them, and it’s ok to do that imperfectly.


Striving for Perfection

My name is Thea Jolly and I am a perfectionist.  It’s been 8 minutes since I set my last impossible and unachievable goal.

I’m not one of those really hard working perfectionists that succeed at pretty much everything but still think they are a failure.  I am what I call an idealistic perfectionist, which is probably another way of saying a lazy perfectionist. I have high ideals and goals for myself, but I don’t quite get them achieved – or even started. But somehow I always think I will achieve them, so when I inevitably don’t achieve them I feel like I’ve failed for not reaching my own impossible standards.

An idealistic perfectionist like me spends their days noticing or remembering or creating a long list of jobs, standards, goals that they should do which will make their life perfect.  The chatter in their heads is constant, always judging, analysing, questionning.  We agonise over the best, most perfect, use of our time because we have to achieve the most within the time we have. We are eternally optimistic about what we will get done today and always suprised when we don’t do it. The expectations we have of ourselves are crazy.

But last week, I had a bit of a revelation (if revelations can come in bits?).  I realised that being an idealistic perfectionist wasn’t a very good idea at all.  You see, previously I’d been almost proud of this personality trait.  I knew that it meant I was my harshest critic, and that I set my standards too high, but I also thought that this was better than being otherwise. No one else is going to kick me up the backside to make me a better mum, or a successful businesswoman, so I had to rely on myself to push me along. And improving and learning is what we are here for isn’t it? (I still agree with this last sentance.)

One of the causes of my change of heart was seeing my eldest son displaying the same perfectionist attitudes and behaviours. Seeing this in another person, especially one so young – he’s 8 – and who I love so much, showed me how self-destructive, defeating and just plain wrong it all was. So I decided to give it up.  Like an alcoholic who chooses not to drink each day I am now choosing not to set impossible goals and expectations each day.  Unlike an alcoholic who can’t undrink a forbidden glass of wine, I can replace my bad thoughts with more liberating and constructive ones.  Every time I think, “Oh I could finish the ironing tonight” (all 3 baskets of it!) I tell myself, “Hang on a sec, you don’t want to be perfect anymore, so lets just do it for 30 minutes .”  And when the children are arguing and I start to feel like they are spoiling everything, I remind myself, “That’s fine, life isn’t meant to be perfect all the time. It doesn’t matter if my children fight – it’s their job.” And I smile to myself and glide serenely past. Or most probably I don’t, but I’m trying. Either way it doesn’t matter because I’m not striving for perfection any more. I’m allowing myself to be imperfect and it’s incredibly liberating.


Riding the Emotional Rollercoaster

I’ve noticed more and more recently that my life is very up and down. One hour/day/week I’m feeling motivated, efficient, hard working and light-hearted, and the next, feelings of despair, failure, guilt, anger or resentment are overwhelming me. On one side I am a super business mum and the other a self-critical procrastinating failing housewife.

What’s going on? Why do I let my emotions sabotage my life so frequently? Sometimes I can deal really well emotionally with what life (usually my kids) throws at me, but other times I succumb immediately to impatience, frustration, hopelessness or anger.

What can I do about it? Well here are some ideas:

1. Stop. Say stop. Shout stop. Write stop. Stop the negative thoughts in my head. Refuse to listen. Create white space instead.
2. Listen to my favourite music, calming, or inspiring, or fun.
3. Pick up my personal survival guide and read what I should say to myself in this particular situation.
4. Tell myself the emotion will pass and when it does I won’t feel so bad.
5. Go and lie down on my bed. Think about things I feel grateful for. (This last bit is very difficult, when I’m in the emotional depths.)
6. Get a hug from someone who loves me.


Natural Meditation

I’ve never really been into meditation.  My head is always spinning with so much stuff that there didn’t seem any point sitting there and worrying about what I should be doing when I could be doing it.  And since having children, any spare sitting down time seems to be either filled with something useful (i.e reading), something social (with husband, family or friends) or something which turns your mind off (i.e. TV). Sitting there with an ’empty’  mind didn’t seem that appealing. 

About a year or two ago, my mum gave me a book  Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, and I thought I’d give it a go and try to get into this meditation lark because, after all, it seems to work for a lot of people, and what’s more, you can do it in as little as 5 minutes a day.  Reading it was heavy work at times because it seemed contrary to how I am as a human being, and I had trouble with chapters like ‘In praise of non-doing’.  My mind couldn’t let go of the mantra: I need to be doing more stuff, not less, if I’ve going to be happy.  But some ideas did attract me more, the idea of ‘letting go’ for example. Acknowledging your feelings but just letting them go, releasing the constant tension and struggling and resisting. But soon, busy life and new ideas took over, and the book sank further down my bedside table pile, unfinished.

This February, I was extremely lucky to go on holiday (without my husband and children) to Australia to see my best friend in Sydney.  After 8 years of being a full-time mum, I was near to breaking point and getting away was a lifeline. So I decided to take some self-development literature to see if I could use the time to build better habits.  I revisited Jon Kabat-Zinn, and tried one of his meditation tapes.  Predictably, though, the holiday spirit took over and Jon’s chuncky tome and audios were soon replaced by novels and gin and tonics. I spent time with my friends and their children and, as importantly, I spent time on my own. And here’s the thing. While I was trying to force myself to meditate on my bed or sofa with not much success (I don’t think falling asleep counts) I found that I was naturally meditating when I wasn’t expecting to.  Sydney Harbour is an amazingly beautiful place, and my favourite pastime was spending  a ferry ride just sitting and looking at the view. Having lived there for as a nanny for a year when I was 23, the sense of beauty was combined with a heart-warming familiarity, and I could spend hours just looking at the views (from both dry land and on the water).

So I’ve stopped worrying about why I can’t do ‘proper’ meditation and have decided to do my own natural meditation as often as I can. Ok, I can’t look at Sydney Harbour every day, but I can sit on a bench in my garden with a cup of tea (and no book or magazine), watch and listen to nature and let my mind wander for 10 minutes. And strangly it works. (Sitting in a park, or in a cafe’ people-watching also works.) It gives me a sense of peace and tranquility, a forced ‘non-doing’ I suppose, which allows me to recharge.  I call it nourishing my soul.


What Happened?

My youngest son started a local nursery today so I have had this morning to Get Stuff Done. And I did; a very nice Geek on Wheels came to sort out my PC problems, I stocked up a fortnight’s meat from the butcher, made spag bol and cottage pie,  did the normal washing, hanging out, folding, putting away of clothes, actually did my weekly planning rather than just thinking about it, and even picked up some extra kids from school as a favour.  So all was well, I was feeling rather pleased with myself, and in control of my life. I wasn’t getting annoyed with lots of whinging from my five year old, or five pairs of shoes being thrown across the hall when we got back.  Then something unexpected happened.

Son 1 and daughter had a minor (and it was quite minor) argument about who was going to sit where at tea time.  Son 1 had a teensy strop and wouldn’t sit down at the table.  In the sliding scale of arguments that my children have on a day to day basis, this was a small blip. A trifle. After my wonderful ‘I’m In Control’ day, I was expecting some light hearted banter from myself and the issue would be sorted. But suddenly before I knew what was happening, I threatened Son 1 that if he didn’t sit down I’d throw his tea in the bin. Son1 said “I’d rather go hungry”. So quick as flash, I took his plate and smashed it into the bin. What was I thinking? What happened? Why did I do that?

Ok, I’d expect this at the end of an annoying, frettful day of childcare and child management, but really that was not the case today.  Actually, I’ve never thrown anyone’s food in the bin before, despite it being a favourite threat of mine. Why did it happen today?

I suppose I’ve just got to see the funny side and laugh at myself.  But it’s just a bit disappointing after a day of feeling my life was running smoothly that I can’t control my impulses a bit more. Especially when my children would get punishments for the same kind of behaviour. Maybe I should have my own star chart, where they grade me on how I’ve managed my temper each day. They’d really enjoy that.