It’s nearly been a whole year since my memoir Breaking Badly was published and while the book’s headline themes are anxiety and burn out, there is another subject that I am asked about more frequently than anything else. The plight of perfectionism.
In these calamitous times where, perhaps more than ever, attaining anything remotely akin to perfect is entirely fanciful, it’s worth examining.
Personally, in recent days in seeking to navigate work, parenting, home and family I have, on several occasions, sought refuge in the mantra that helps me most in tackling perfectionism. I look for the grey.
There was a time I thought perfectionism was a humblebrag: shorthand for having very high standards and working very hard to maintain them. I was mistaken.
The author and researcher Brené Brown says this: ‘Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimise or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty- ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.’
Tal Ben-Shahar is a renowned Harvard University professor who describes himself as a ‘recovering perfectionist’. In his twenties he was an accomplished athlete and a brilliant student, but he was wracked with an intense fear of failure that made him anxious and desperately unhappy.
One winter day in 1999, he experienced what he had feared the most: He got a B. It triggered a personal crisis that he has been effectively researching ever since. Much of that work confirmed what his personal experience taught him: perfectionism makes people miserable.
The perfectionistic mindset can infect all aspects of life – from grades, careers, relationships and physical appearance. ‘This schema enters into our cognition, and we start to accept it,’ Ben-Shahar writes. ‘You’re either on a perfect diet or you’re fat. You’re either a supermodel or you’re overweight.’
Two facts of life make this paradigm calamitous: perfection is impossible to achieve, and failure is inevitable.
It is here that looking for the grey is a useful practical exercise. While it is tempting, habitual even for a committed perfectionist, to cling on to either black or white – being either perfect or a total failure – the reality is almost always more nuanced. There is, almost always, grey matter between the black and the white but it needs finding.
This week, for example, I have been conducting several spot-tests examining my parenting credentials at inopportune times. For example, when I snapped and spoke in a decidedly non-inside voice that ONLY ONE PERSON CAN SPEAK AT A TIME IF ANYONE WANTS ANY CHANCE OF GETTING A USEFUL RESPONSE!
Or when I angrily growled that, NO, a second hot cross bun is not allowed. Yes, I know your four year old sister had one but only because she asked in a moment of absolute weakness when as I was about to join a Zoom meeting and could not face the prospect of trying to publicly ‘positive parent’ my way through an explosive tantrum.
Or when at 8pm someone small asked for something seemingly innocuous like another book or a bottle of water and I couldn’t resist the urge to scream. NO! I CANNOT DO ANOTHER SINGLE THING TODAY. I CANNOT SPLIT MYSELF INTO THREE EQUAL PARTS 24/7. I CANNOT DO PARENTING, TEACHING, WORKING, COOKING, CLEANING, ANSWERING, DISPUTE RESOLUTION, EMOTIONAL COACHING and have anything left in the tank after 8pm.
I just can’t.
After each of these outbursts I apologised for breaking the family rules. I explained that I was trying to do my best. I reminded the kids, err once again, that even grown ups make mistakes and encouraged them to consider how they might contribute to an environment where I don’t lose my mind every five seconds. (For example!)
Of course amidst it all I have been pondering my shortcomings, contemplating whether I am actually the world’s worst mother. I have, on more than one occasion, sent off messages to my co-parent whose job keeps him at an actual place of work, to query and confess this. Now I know I am not the world’s worst parent, by a long shot, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been feeling a little bit terrible about my parenting. And the trouble is, even as a reforming perfectionist, feeling a little bit terrible can very quickly become ‘feeling like a total failure’.
At which point looking for the grey matter in between the two extremes is critical. Just as I told the kids, I am not a robot. I am a human being doing my best. I do not have endless patience. I am stressed and I am feeling overwhelmed by these circumstances.
But I am also keeping everyone fed, watered, loved and, kind of, educated. Ish. There is fun, even in spite of my grouchiness. There is plenty that is good. Ish. Certainly good enough.
I am neither a perfect parent, nor am I a total failure. I live in the grey. At this point in time the demands from working and schooling from home are more relentless than usual. It’s not surprising, then, is it that my patience is fraying more than usual? No one is getting the break in play and space offered by our more ordinary routine where there are offices and schools to attend, activities to take part in, friends to see. In ordinary times the family unit expands and contracts depending on the day and the time. In these circumstances those ebbs and flows aren’t there. That is the grey. And it’s far more comforting to consider than the very black conclusion that I’m a terrible parent.
If you are at all inclined towards perfectionism I can’t recommend finding the grey more highly. Particularly right now. And it works in every realm: work, relationships, money, fitness. If you are in a mindset where you seem to be reaching for a desperately negative label, look for the grey. It’s there.