Confessions of a former perfectionist

Sakshi Nanda recounts how she shed the excess baggage of perfectionism from her life

Seven years ago, on the day of my wedding, my husband had no clue that he was tying the knot with someone who was already married—to perfectionism. But what love at first sight did not reveal, living together as man and wife did. The signs that his wife was a high degree perfectionist soon made themselves all too visible to my husband’s love-struck eyes. And sweet surprise turned to sudden shock, sometimes even to silent surrender.

Maybe because I was allowed a free run in the ‘playground of perfectionism’, or because I did not realise how irrational I could be at times, the perfectionist in me was fast becoming difficult to adjust to—not just for others but also for myself.

My husband decided to sit me down [and by this I mean multiple times!] and remind me of that one vow we took without the priest’s knowledge—that whenever we see a quirk growing in each other, we would honestly tell the other about it. But fortunately for me, before I started dictating others’ lives in ways they least expected or needed, I was gradually helped to divorce my perfectionism.

It’s tough being a perfectionist

I have always believed that each one of us is a perfectionist to varying degrees. Maybe I assume this as I look for comfort in numbers. But if you think hard enough, you will realise you too know people who range from compulsive perfectionists to those who merely like to fuss over their hair and homes. So, if there is a tiny perfectionist hidden inside all of us, where is the problem?

A perfectionist is a person who has a sharply critical eye to spot lapses no matter how small they may be. Often, a perfectionist’s goal is as unreasonable as their means to achieve them. As a result, meeting those goals remains an uphill, often unsuccessful, endeavour. And what happens when you cannot meet your goals? Feelings of inadequacy, guilt, anxiety, emptiness bordering on depression and even jealousy arise.

A perfectionist, then, is a person perpetually running an obstacle race of their own creation. Often staring at the goal post with unflinching determination, constantly chiding their shoes, shins, size for slowing them down, knowing they are fast enough but lusting to be faster and wishing they had clocked a better time even when they touch the goal post first.

What’s wrong with re-thinking every written word?

This article would never have made its deadline if my perfectionist self could have her way, which is to write-edit-proofread and re-write, re-edit, re-proofread times n. It took a lot to satisfy me with what I had created, and my husband’s ‘It’s perfect!’ was usually heard as ‘It’s nearly-perfect!’ by me. I pushed myself to be the perfect hostess at dinner parties with not a spoon out of place, or hair, mine or his for that matter. My house would shine spic-and-span, with everything where it belongs. Holidays were planned to the tee. I devoured books on parenting advice during my pregnancy. And then, I dominated my son’s life too—from how his books are covered to making his fancy dresses as unique as possible, to tying the best bows, I tried to do everything to perfection.

Consequently, I found myself upset with what I imagined as my own mediocrity and other people’s quality of work. I was avoiding doing what I thought I didn’t have the capability to handle, and ignoring other people’s faith in me. More often than not, I had bad hair days—figuratively! And I was getting tired of my own behaviour.

My husband had tried most methods known to kind men to make wives like me relax—like watching football, preferably with a beer can in hand, munching peanuts with shells flying and feet on the table. While I would have once shuddered at the prospect of such waste of time, today I think differently.

Being a lamp in the house

The beginning of shedding perfectionism was made on a quiet summer day, when a storm of underperformance at work was playing havoc with my aura. My husband saw his Medusa muttering profanities in a corner of the house and came to tell me a story.

He told me of the ACR [Annual Confidential Reports] writing time in certain government offices. These forms included lots of questions about efficiency, credibility and work done successfully, with remarks by many in the pyramid of hierarchy. He told me of this kind man, right at the centre of the governmental pyramid, writing ‘outstanding’ for each and every person whose ACR crossed his path. When the staff heard it, they were jubilant. After all, it was a homogeneously outstanding lot! My husband knit his brows in incomprehension at this blind generosity. Over tea the same day, he discussed this phenomenon with a senior. The words of that senior bureaucrat quoted to me were:

“If everybody is outstanding, nobody is.”

We both smiled. Here are some things my husband and I have been keeping in mind to make me become a perfect non-perfectionist [sorry!]:

  • Silencing the self-critic: To err is human. Every perfection-seeker needs to understand this. Being overly self-critical is unhealthy and makes you miss seeing the good bits about yourself.
  • Learning to impress myself: Perfectionists obsess over what others think of them. I did. I tried to make sure everyone liked me, without realising how my lower back was getting stiff with all the bending backwards. And with friends and family spread across the world and social media like a Bodhi Tree, imagine the consequences of all this hard work. By excusing myself from trying to impress all of humanity, I now lead a life independent from one seeking sanctions from outside.
  • Enjoying the journey as much as the goal: All those hours I spent making confetti for my child’s birthday, wishing it would be enough and pretty, could have almost been as enjoyable as the party. Or the anxiety over delivering a perfect book review and letting it take away from experiencing the book itself. There is more to life than accomplishing. The process of getting there in the company of family and fun is essential too.
  • Challenging your beliefs: It is important to heed people you trust to challenge your set beliefs, especially about yourself. An evolution of mind requires people to question us, even by criticising us, to keep us from sinking into rigidity of thoughts and obsoleteness. Not all of life’s little instructions are written in My Book of Perfectionism. If I had not let my husband into my mind, I would not have been writing this, nor would have signed off on my aim of ‘being perfect’ so nonchalantly.

I conclude with something my teacher from class I wrote in my autograph book:

“If you cannot be a star in the sky, be a lamp in the house.”

To reach that state of contentment where excellence can do for perfection, and ‘very good’ can stand for excellence.

The perfectionist is converted

I was forever anxious about not driving perfectly. Three instructors and six years of driving practice included: putting the wrong gear at a traffic signal, people honking impatiently behind me, judging my driving skills and wishing me off the street. And today, after three weeks of driving with a calm husband beside me, I have left all that perfect-performance anxiety behind. So, while he made this perfectionist’s mind go from fifth gear to first, my car confidently paints the town red in gear number five.

This was first published in the September 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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