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Perfectionism

My mother wrote this years ago. Recently I went searching for it, and had to do some work to find it. I’m posting it here so it’s easier to find next time. I hope you enjoy this guest post by my mom, Glenna Edmondson.


As a child, I admired my mother greatly, and accepted that everything she did was the best. She was the best cook, seamstress, home entertainer, flower arranger, decorator, and house cleaner. She told me so.

She proudly proclaimed that things may be messy at times, but her house was clean. We had a housekeeper five days a week and eight hours a day. Sheets went out to the laundry every week by pick up and delivery. It should have been clean.

I was about ten when I first noticed a chink in the armor. We were between housekeepers, and things were going downhill fast. Mama decided to remedy the situation. Amidst the dirty dishes, piles of newspapers and general disarray, she began to empty a cabinet where she kept miscellaneous stuff - like a giant junk drawer. In the middle of chaos, she felt the place to start was to begin cleaning out cabinets!

I was struck by the lack of logic in this move. What is wrong with this picture? If the place is a mess, should one act to make it messier? I had discovered her fatal flaw. She was a perfectionist.

I would be years into adulthood before I put this all together and understood how her mind worked. To her, there was no value in tidying the surface if it was based on a lie - if the order did not extend to the hidden areas. To get it right, it had to be PERFECT.

To be called a perfectionist is not a compliment, although I recognize that people mean it to be one. Perfectionism is a crippling disorder that results in procrastination, feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and exhaustion. Perfection is simply unattainable.

How much better to be happy with a good job, a great job, and finish on time? Procrastination is a stumbling block common to perfectionists. In fear of doing a less-than-perfect job - they put it off until under the gun.

When I was in my early teens, my mother undertook the task of making a bridesmaid's dress for my older sister. She let it go until the last minute. It was a beautiful silk taffeta with an overlay of organza in a pretty moss green, and it was a lot of work. Mama had the skill to make the dress, but she was tired, and pushed for time. With the dress inside out on the ironing board, she trimmed a seam on the inside with pinking shears. She cut too far, and the scissors went through, nicking a spot on the front of the skirt. Mama became hysterical. My poor sister caught the brunt of the wrath (it was her dress, after all) but we all paid. Mama threw the dress down, crying uncontrollably. She threw a full blown tantrum. If my mother could have chosen one of my most vivid childhood memories, I don't think she would have picked that scene, but it is indelibly there.

My mother wanted Christmas to be perfect. She worked herself into a frenzy as it approached, having put off preparations to the last minute. She would be up until three or four in the morning on Christmas day, wrapping beautiful and elaborate packages, then prepare the perfect breakfast to be eaten at a beautifully set table. She usually had a crying spell on Christmas day - directed at my poor father who had failed to come up with the perfect gift. She was an excellent cook and dinner would be delicious, but the emotional toll was great on everyone. She spent about three days in bed after every Christmas, depressed and exhausted. She had failed to create the perfect Christmas, and never understood that perfection is unattainable.

I have been accused of being a perfectionist, but I proudly declare that I am not. I like to do a nice job. I feel guilt over my failures and inadequacies, but I am able to let things go, to accept time limitations, and move on. I have also been given the left handed compliment of not being a perfectionist. "I admire how easily you do things. I could never entertain like this. For me, everything must be perfect." I fight the tendency toward perfectionism because I know - perfection is unattainable.

Housecleaning is a task with little tangible reward. Unless you're doing it for someone else, there is no paycheck, no pat on the back, and no finish line. The dishes are never completely done. There are clothes in the dryer to fold and put away. Even when the surface looks fine, you know that refrigerator could use a good cleaning.

Set the standards that are meaningful to you. Address the problems with the greatest rewards first - the dishes, the laundry, trash removal. Clean the dirtiest rooms and public areas. Attend to things that bother you. Feel pleased with a job well done and move on to more important matters. In housekeeping, perhaps more than anywhere else, perfection is unattainable.