On the first day of this year, I woke up long before the sunrise, seized with anxiety. The same thoughts were spinning circles through me again, doubting my abilities as a mother and educator, doubting my work here, doubting whether I’m good enough at any of it. Overwhelmed, I laid there staring at the lines of street lamp light crossing our bedroom walls, my husband sleeping deeply beside me. Why do I have such a hard time doing the same? Why do I run myself through an analysis, looking for fault and unfinished work instead of simply celebrating all that has been accomplished? Why is it so hard for me to do my best and let go?
I quietly slipped out from my sheets and began to write. I wrote to release the tightness in my chest. I wrote to find the woman buried in my thoughts and soul, the one who I am always comparing myself to and yet never measuring up with somehow. I needed to meet her. I began with these two lines.
I am deeply perfectionistic. I say this not with pride but with a tinged face of embarrassment, a confession that I’m hoping to release a bit more even if simply by writing it out.
Perfectionism. Damn. This was about perfectionism. I’ve always known I’m a perfectionist. Always. I have handfuls of childhood stories in how I learned to walk or ride a bike, form my letters or even save/spend money. Honestly, I’ve always thought of this part of myself without much weight, much like handedness or style preference. If the topic ever came up in a conversation, I might have even felt a sense of pride. Yet when I wrote those first two lines, I noticed something deeper for the first time: embarrassment and an inferred shame about this part of myself. Somewhere deep within me I know perfection is illusory and unrealistic. Embarrassment arises by my striving for it anyway. Shame reminds me I’m never measuring up.
I wrote for an hour that morning, describing the woman in my head among other things. I wrote her out as honestly as possible, every standard that I hold myself to in parenting, marriage, writing, self-image, wellness, and so on. At times, I laughed at myself, recognizing the absurdity of my expectations. At times, I cried, recognizing the burden of my ideals. With every line, every word something in me began to release. Sometimes writing out my thoughts can be the most tangible way to recognize the lies, the expectations, the disappointments, the standards.
Motherhood touches every part of us, even the parts we didn’t know yet existed. I’ve often heard people say having children is like having your soul/heart forever walking outside of your body. While often used as a sentimental line used to demonstrate the amount of love we carry for our children, I will also note it is true about our insecurities, too. Motherhood releases a deep capacity for love. It also reveals our deepest fears and failures. Motherhood and marriage have been the most vulnerable journeys for me. They require me to bare my heart again and again in the best possible way, even when its ugly. And sometimes, it is ugly.
Since the first day of this year, my heart has continued to unfold. I have never felt so undone, so seen. I won’t discuss all of it here, because I’m not sure this is the place for that, although I imagine bits will trickle through my writing in various ways anyhow. But I can say this: I’m am seeing–I mean really seeing–parts of my heart for the first time, and it’s so good. It’s hard. But it’s good. The kids and I are talking about our own interactions in a new way. We’re having more conversations about shame, about hurt feelings, about conflict. I want them to have tools as they grow into adult years. I know I’ve mentioned it umpteen times here and on Instagram, to friends and family alike. Go and get yourself a copy of Rising Strong. I began reading it not far into the new year, and it is wrecking me in the best possible way. It should have been on my parenting list, although I would retitle it as a parenting book, “how to deal with you sh$t, so your kids know how to deal with theirs.”
At the end of last year I read Big Magic, a nicely dove-tailed book to Rising Strong, concerning fear and the creative process. But Elizabeth Gilbert notes this, words I have returned to again and again the last few months:
I think perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, “I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.”
Perfectionism is a particularly evil lure for women, who, I believe, hold themselves to an even higher standard of performance than do men. Holding back their ideas, holding back their contributions, holding back their leadership and their talents. Too many women still seem to believe that they are not allowed to put themselves forward at all, until both they and their work are perfect and beyond criticism.
The truth is perfectionism–whether in my mothering or home or marriage or work–distances me from others. It secretly whispers that I am never measuring up. It keeps me tucked away from other people’s stories and experience, from realizing I’m not alone. Through sharing experience with one another, through writing out or discussing (or in the hardest times, crying) about these fears or burdensome areas where we don’t measure up, we leave a place for truth. We leave room for light and connection and encouragement with one another. Ultimately, vulnerability with people we trust, even the most uncomfortable bits, leaves space for healing.
I’ve just now read this blog post for the first time, and at the perfect time. I’ve struggled a lot as a homemaker and mother. After FINALLY feeling like a got my footing our beautiful baby girl was born (our second) and I feel like I’ve been thrown into chaos once again. (I mean… I have! ;)) I’ve been struggling a lot lately with dissatisfaction and frustration… and a big part of that is perfectionism. This post has given me a lot of food for thought. Thank you so much for sharing!
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What a great post…and so relevant to so many. I can see the debilitating effects of perfectionism and how hurting it can be to those around to witness it! Thanks for sharing your heart and your story. Blessings to you!
Thank you Bethany, such beautiful words! I love the honesty in your writing and I can so relate to every word. Just to encourage you – your blog and Instagram posts are my favourites. You seem to have a very humble heart. I love the raw beauty you share through your photographs and words. I go through phases of not going on social media because i start to get into that spiral of feeling like I’m not good enough. Your posts are different though – they seem to uplift rather than put down, inspire rather than condemn, they don’t shout “look at me”or strive to get the most ‘likes’ . So, if your blog or Instagram feed are some of those worries that keep you awake at night – I hope you can find rest in knowing that for someone on the other side of the world they are very much appreciated. With love
These are the kindest, most encouraging words, Lydia Rose. Thank you for taking the time to write them out in such specific ways. Your words are gentle and knowing. x
Thank you for being honest! I feel like in this age of instgram pics etc reality is a bit distorted- and it’s making moms especially feel crappy! Maybe just maybe “good enough” is just that. Sometimes I tell myself to just be good enough…and I think that’s A-ok :)
Yes, yes. Social media can be both a gift and a vice. I’ve found it so helpful to step away for a few days when the latter happens, even at times to delete apps. It’s nice to refocus on being right where you are instead of trying to be where everyone else is. ;) Thanks for sharing.
Thank you for this~for your beautiful words, your vulnerability, and the reminder that we are not alone in our struggle.
I’m so comforted to here this, Kimberly. We are not alone, and if anything, that’s the primary reason I wanted to write this out a bit in this space. Grace to you.
Good good word. Thank you. Oh, the push-pull of perfectionism. To quote Cher from Clueless (I know, I know): “she’s a full on Monet. It’s like a painting, see? From far away, it’s ok. But up close, it’s a big ol’ mess.”
Boy, do I spend a lot of time keeping folks far away.
Haha––I love that you quoted Clueless! So. Much. I love the surprising backwardness that, most times, people will be comforted to see the mess over the perfection. And we’re all a mess at some level.
beautifully written … i have said for years i am a recovering perfectionist … the tendencies are always there … i want to encourage you to continue to be real … i think kids are so much happier with real then perfection … just before i read this post i was on the phone with my girl … she is 20 and at college … she called to share a story and at the end she said that a person needs the bad times, the bumps, the sad times to learn how to cope, to be a more resilient person & not ‘a baby’ about things … your children will learn coping as they see you cope and be real about it … i am amazed every time my daughter says something like she did because i doubted myself when she was younge many times … take care x
How beautiful, Dawn. I agree with every bit of your daughter’s words, and I’m learning now that vulnerability as a parent living daily with my children can be the HARDEST of all! But the greatest lessons for them is showing them how I walk through hard days, disappointments, and unexpected mishaps. Although I prefer the prettier lessons, I’m equipping them also with tools for their own life dips and lulls. Thank you for sharing your perspective here!
I have to tell you, Bethany, my husband and I experience the very same thing. Each night, he falls asleep quickly and sleeps soundly and every night, I lay awake feeling like I didn’t do enough. (I have a difficult time falling asleep, and my thoughts are more of an evaluation of the ways I could improve than ones stemming from depression or angst.) Man, perfectionism, it is a double edged sword. On one hand, I am thankful for it, because it has been so helpful for me in two passions outside of my family : sewing and photography. It pushes me to do my very best and to be my best self. I am a perfectionist with myself, but not with my husband or my children. I give them a whole lot of grace. I was raised in the opposite environment – in a fundamentalist Christian home where I was never enough, not only to my parents but also to God. Guilt and shame were the motivators of choice and ever present. Thankfully, I have been able to move away from such a toxic worldview but I have a long way to go before I will be completely free of the guilt and shame mindset I was raised with. I don’t say this in a melodramatic way at all. It just is what it is and I am mostly thankful I am not passing it along to my own children – that my husband and I can break the cycle.
So well said, Rachel. We can break the cycle, and also remind our children that while working hard and always offering our best work is good and beneficial, our imperfections, shortcomings, and failures do not define us. They teach us, inform us, but they are not us. We always have a choice in how we respond to these shortcomings and failed expectations. I want to learn to rest in that, to sleep well, knowing my best that day is my best. Tomorrow I may work differently and even better, but for today it is enough. I hope my children learn that, too. Thank you for sharing.
this is beautiful, Bethany. you are loved! cannot wait to see you soon. ?
It was so good to visit this weekend. xx
I think perfectionism and idealism are closely related, and I’m finding that neither quality plays well with others in family relationships (to include marriage, of course). If one has trouble living up to one’s own expectations and hopes, it is nigh impossible for one’s loved ones to reach those standards. It all so easily gets tangled into disappointment, disillusionment, and depression. I have had a troubled marriage for most of its 17-year history. I know that my own perfectionism, idealism, and just my own lens on life contribute to this hardship. The lessons are hard on the heart, the spirit.Thank you for trying to put into words what many of us experience in our own ways at home or at work. Your photos and words, Bethany, are a generous gift to many.
Thank you so much for sharing, Sheila. Fellow idealist friends and I recently joked with one another that we wish sometimes we didn’t have such lofty ideals. They truly can tangle us sometimes, and as you noted, lead to disappointment. I think writing out this ideal woman in my head was helpful for this. It helped me to see her impossibility, how outside of human reach she is. All that I wrote were noble goals, but it helped me to curb the ideal a bit, to be gentle with myself and my personal growth and expectations. We’re all learning, I suppose. I hope you have found a healing place in your marriage. xx
You have put forward this while new perspective about perfectionism .. And I believe it bothers me equally much from within me.. But you know .. Tell me what should I do if my partner wants me to be perfect all the time in everything.. My own thoughts keep tucking me down and his expressions too.. I am unable to find a way to deal with it.. I donot think its right to share too much detail here.. But really I wish you could help me with this.. How do I make him realise that to be perfect is not all you need in a relation .. Relations are looking beyond the flaws.. I actually haven’t been able to understand what he expects his wife to be like.. I am sorry I might have drifted away .. But I believe it is this desire for perfection that is the cause of all this pain
Oh dear, I’m so sorry to hear this, Pragati. Certainly, this is beyond me, especially not knowing the context. Generally speaking, love is a balance, a choice to choose see your partner wholly and receive them. In my opinion, marriage is not a project to change or perfect one another, but I hope a partnership implies that we want what’s best for the other always. This is a journey, for sure. Have you considered counseling? It can be a great tool for communication, for learning more about the other.
I certainly have struggled with perfectionism at times, although not to the same extent. Mine is more about comparisons and expecting to be able to be like others, rather than focusing on what God has equipped me to do. I wrote a bit on my blog recently about motherhood and competition. I think sometimes when we have certain expectations of ourselves, it’s easy to compare ourselves and feel inadequate. Blessings to you for sharing your heart so openly.
Well said, Allison. I’ll have to check out what you wrote, too. We talk about competition often around here (siblings, mostly), but you’re so true that the same thing can be found within friendship and even online relationships. The popularity contest of likes and thumbs up and follows can really play into this, if we allow it. Vulnerability can be the best connector, the way to level the fields, to remember we’re all human and trying our best. Thank you for sharing. x
This is exactly what and where I am. I am filled with the fear of failing at it all. And, sometimes, it makes me want to quit. Other times, I tell myself, “I can do this, and even better!” Imagining how awesome it (homeschooling, dream ventures, life) all could be. But, then there’s the fear. Here’s to letting go, just doing it, and having gratitude through it all.
Yes! Fear of failing is such a farce. After reading Rising Strong, I’m learning to coach myself differently: “you’re going to fail at some point because that’s what happens when you step out and try something new. But you know what? Then you’ll learn something, and you’ll try again and you’ll be better all because you failed at some point.” I’m not a high risk-taker, but I’m learning anything worth really having is worth a risk. Gratitude keeps us focused on how far we’ve come. Sending big hugs of courage to you, Andrea. x
I am cheering with you, about letting go of perfectionism and walking into new levels of self acceptance. It took the humiliation of having my child go through an eating disorder for me to really embrace the fact that I could never be good enough, but there is one who was perfect in my place. Life is so much more fun now that I am not trying to prove my worth by my work.
Amen. Well said, as always, friend. xo