I made a mistake Wednesday afternoon. I have a friend who’s gotten married and moved to the other side of Birmingham, so I’m keeping an eye on her nearby house while it’s on the market. When she gets word that a real estate agent is coming to show the place, I go over and make sure everything is clean and ready for showing. If it’s hot inside and there’s enough time, I turn on the air conditioning.
Wednesday afternoon, she called to tell me someone was coming in about an hour. I dropped by the house to check things out. The place didn’t seem especially hot and there were also a couple of ceiling fans running. Since the people would be there within about an hour, I left the air set on 79. It didn’t seem warm enough inside to warrant turning on the air for a 10-minute walkthrough, especially with ceiling fans running. I thought about it, but it didn’t seem like a big deal.
When my friend got feedback from the showing agent Thursday morning, the only specific complaint was that the house was hot and stuffy since the air was set on 79. Most normal people would have simply seen the complaint as unreasonable for the context. At worst, a normal person would have thought, “Oh, I guess I should have turned the air on. I’ll do that next time.”
For me, it was enough to set off horrible feelings of failure and shame. Seriously. It was enough to make me feel as though I’d messed up and would cause my friend to lose the sale. This wasn’t a cognitive process. It was all about deep feelings of being a bad person — of feeling shame.
I’m a perfectionist. I’ve only admitted that in the past four or five years. People had accused me all of my adult life of being a perfectionist, but I’d denied it. And I was certain I wasn’t. If I were a perfectionist, everything I did would be perfect. Right? Instead, I could look at various parts of my life and see how I let some things be anything but perfect.
There are some things in my life that I don’t bother doing right. The maddening thing is that they’re often simple things. For instance, my house has more frequently resembled a federal disaster area after a tornado than a place where human beings are allowed to live. (I sometimes tell people that a flamethrower is the ideal tool with which to clean my place.)
It’s not that I don’t want a clean place. In fact, I love living in order and cleanliness. When there’s someone else to set the tone, I can do it. But when it’s completely up to me, my place becomes a pig sty — and it triggers terrible feelings of shame at not having been good enough to keep it clean.
What I’ve slowly figured out is that I’m so terrified of failure when it comes to certain things that I run in the opposite direction. I pretend that I don’t care or that I’m making a conscious decision to produce the result. Why? It frees me from feeling like a failure if I can say that I’m failing on purpose — because I can say that I don’t care.
I only do this with things that are very important to me. My father was obsessive about keeping the house clean when I was growing up. My sisters and I could get into trouble for failing to do things that he hadn’t even told us to do — just things that he thought we should know he would want. We were punished for not being mind-readers. So I grew up attaching tremendous importance to keep things clean. It had to be perfect — or I was a complete failure and he shamed and punished me.
I’ve mentioned to you before that I almost married a woman five years ago who I was very much in love with. (Saturday marks the fifth anniversary of the day we should have married.) I backed out because I was scared. There were certainly some things about her that scared me, but those aren’t relevant here.
I was terrified about being “good enough” to be the right husband for someone who I considered wonderful. She was everything I’d ever wanted in a woman, and I became afraid that I couldn’t live up to her expectations. Could I make enough money to make her feel secure? Would she hate me as she realized how imperfect I was? Would I ever be able to live up to the place on a pedestal where she had put me? I was terrified.
Instead of dealing with my fears, I ran away. I justified my running with reasonable-sounding explanations, but I couldn’t be completely honest at the time with myself or her. I didn’t feel good enough for her. I didn’t feel as though I could be the perfect husband she needed. I felt like a failure. I felt shame. So I ran. I’ve spent most of five years regretting that.
As I look back at lots of things in my life when I’ve quit instead of staying with something, I can see the fear of not being perfect as the cause. I didn’t want to admit that fear to myself or to others, but I can see how how much fear I’ve felt about not being perfect — and how much it’s triggered feelings of shame that mirror the way my father made me feel as a child.
I’m not perfect and I’m not going to be perfect. I’m slowly coming to grips with the notion that I don’t have to be perfect to be good enough. I’m dealing with the legacy of unconscious perfectionism and I’m slowly trying to climb out of some holes I’ve dug for myself. (For instance, my house is too terrible to fix all at once, but I have one room that I’ve recently made almost livable by other people’s standards. I’ll work on another room later instead of beating myself up and doing nothing.)
When I think of the mistake I made with the air conditioning at my friend’s house, it’s been long enough now that I can see it realistically. But for several hours, I beat myself up about it and felt like a failure. I felt serious shame about it.
But seeing shame for what it is and calling it by name has the power to help overcome it. I might never completely get over my perfectionism. I might always feel tremendous embarrassment and shame when I make mistakes that other people can see. But recognizing it for what it is can allow me to take actions that are different from what I’ve done in the past. I can fight the feelings by reminding myself of what’s going on. (It’s kind of like John Nash in the movie, “A Beautiful Mind.” By the end of the movie, he was still seeing people who weren’t there, but he had learned to ignore them.)
I can’t go back to the past and fix all of the things that perfectionism and shame have done in my life. I can’t wave a magic wand and have a neat, clean house that I’m proud of. I can’t get into a time machine and get married on Aug. 3, 2008 to the woman of my dreams. There are a dozen (or more) things that I can’t change.
But I can change what happens from here. I can learn to change my behavior when I feel the shame. I can learn to let those I’m close to understand what’s going on and how the shame affects me. I can learn behavior that lessens the damage and lets me live a normal life.
The “cure” won’t be perfect, but I’m learning to accept that less-than-perfect is good enough if it’s the best I can do.