Hi, my name is Emilie and I am a perfectionist and control freak. I thrive on cleanliness, organization, order and to do lists. My closet is color coded, my children’s toys are carefully separated and even my junk drawer is in perfect order. It may be a little dramatic to compare perfectionism to a substance abuse, but it is an addiction and if taken to the extreme it can have some devastating effects on your mental and physical health.
As long as I can remember I have found peace in creating order and striving for perfection, as well as found anxiety in the opposite, in chaotic situations and loss of control. Perfectionism was actually beneficial through the early years of my life–I did well in school as I was constantly aiming for straight A’s, my room was always clean and I was a rule follower. School made sense to me, if you work hard, you are rewarded, almost no exceptions. But perfectionism resulted in some bad characteristics as well, it made me inflexible, stubborn, impatient and unable to truly understand or relate to people who were different from me. I couldn’t understand why people would approach things any other way than my way, I was doing it this way and I was doing it well, how could there be any other way?
Actually, I don’t feel like I understood any of the negative effects of perfectionism until I was pregnant with my first child. Yes, I had alienated friends over the years because of my lack of empathy and I had dealt with extra anxiety because of the high standards that I held myself to, but I wasn’t insightful enough to see this yet. Pregnancy was one of the first times I truly felt how unpredictable life could be. First, I had to get pregnant, which is not as predictable as I thought it would be. After three months I decided to take a more…ummmm…scientific approach and it worked within the first month. Ah ha! Perfectionism still at work, do things the “right” way and you get what you want.
And then it hit me. Just one week after taking the test, only five weeks into the pregnancy. Morning sickness. First of all, morning sickness is an inaccurate name, it is not morning sickness, it is all day sickness. I was constantly sick, really sick. It affected my entire life. I could barely eat, sleep or work and there was no remedy, nothing worked. I didn’t understand this. In the past, if I was sick then I would follow the doctor’s instructions and get better. How could there not be a cure for this? Little did I know this was just the beginning. There would be so many more things that I would not have control over in that pregnancy. How could they not know the exact day that she would come? Why couldn’t we tell exactly how much she would weigh or how much I would gain? How can a birth plan be so unpredictable? Why can’t I tell if I am in labor or not? Technology has come so far, all of this should be completely predictable. This is all laughable now. Because after pregnancy, comes a baby, which is even more unpredictable.
I remember staying up for almost the entire two days we were in the hospital with Evelyn. Hovering over her making sure that no one gave her formula or a pacifier. Wondering how my husband could sleep and not spend every moment staring at this tiny human being. I had read all of the books and taken all of the classes. I had secured an amazing daycare in my first trimester. Her nursery was perfectly decorated and her closet was filled with adorable, tiny clothes. I was going to be the best mom to this baby. Two days after we came home from the hospital I decided to vacuum because I hadn’t had a chance to clean before she arrived because she came two weeks early. My husband jumped out of bed to stop me, I didn’t understand why. Eventually, the adrenaline wore off and the exhaustion and reality kicked in. Oh shit, this is hard, really hard. Why didn’t anyone tell me it would this hard? But they did, it’s just that no one can quite explain that it will be that hard.
I spent the first year of Evelyn’s life devoting the majority of my time trying to figure out how to be the perfect mom, which not only included learning how to be the perfect parent, but how to appear like I was still my perfect self. How to be the best working mom. How to get my body back and in the meantime how to dress in a stylish way that didn’t look like I was carrying an extra twenty pounds. How to make my house look great—even though every room now contained 1-3 pieces of giant baby equipment. It was exhausting, but I thrived on the compliments I received for keeping up appearances and I was deliriously happy with the time I had with Evelyn, so it was worth it.
About a month after Ev’s first birthday, I felt lost. She didn’t need me as much as she used to, which meant I had a little more freedom and I didn’t know what to do with it. I had no idea who I was outside of an employee, a mom and a wife. I made some external changes instead of taking a good look at myself and things eventually evened out. I had gained a little insight–I had more empathy, I realized not everything was as it seemed and that everyone was dealing with something, but it wasn’t enough to change. I returned to my normal perfectionist ways, which got easier as she grew older.
Fast forward a few years. Ev was four and our second child, Wes was one. I was working a demanding job and quickly realizing that perfectionism was unrealistic and unobtainable. My house was a mess. My life was a mess. I was a mess. I was broken. Why couldn’t I handle this? What was wrong with me? I had everything that I wanted, but at the same time all that I felt was chaos. I was doing everything that I could to avoid pain and judgement, yet that was all that I was feeling. I eventually left my job to alleviate some of the chaos, which brings us to now.
Over the past few months, I have realized the world isn’t like school. You can work really hard and follow all of the rules and not win. Because that’s life. Life is unfair. Everyone has a different perspective on perfection, being one person’s perfect most likely means that you are imperfect to someone else. Why did it take 33 years and reaching this all-time low to figure this out? I found the answer in one of the books that has helped me begin to resist the urge for perfection, The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown.
“Perfectionism is addictive because when we do experience shame, judgement and blame, we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough. So rather than questioning the faulty logic of perfectionism, we become even more entrenched in our quest to live, look and do everything just right.”
So now I am slowly learning how to let go of perfectionism. To stop worrying about perceptions. I am learning how to be gentler with myself and others. I am learning to find happiness in chaos. To be flexible. To self-reflect. To figure out how I can be a better human being and what that definition looks like for me. Finally and most importantly, I am learning how to teach my daughter these things as well. To help her break the bad habits that I have helped to create. And that’s what makes perfectionism my worst enemy, knowing that in my quest to be the perfect mom I unwittingly and inevitably made my daughter’s life more challenging.