Is there a wrong way to fold a bath towel? For people like me, that’s a trick question. There’s only one right way. Every other way but mine is wrong.
I was 10 years old when I decided how towels ought to be folded. My sisters and I did the laundry in our household — they were 8 and 6 — and I decided that our inconsistent ways of folding towels had to change. Our current towels were neatly stacked, but there was no system about how they were folded or turned in the stack.
I spent a lot of time thinking about how I thought they looked best. I talked with my sisters about it. Then I settled on one particular method. From that moment on, that became the way to fold towels in our household. It wasn’t just “our way.” It was “the right way.”
A lot of us have preferences about such things, but not everybody internalizes that his way — of thinking, of doing things, of believing — is the one and only way. This was a pattern of my perfectionistic thinking for most of my life — and it’s still a struggle for me to realize there can be other ways that are just as right as my own.
Most of us have egos which need to believe we’re right, but this is something more. At least for me. This is the deep fear that if I deviate from whatever is correct — however that’s defined — something terrible will happen to me.
My father was the source of “the right way” about almost everything when I was a child. There was almost nothing about which he wouldn’t dictate how things had to be done.
The clothes in my closets and my drawers had to be arranged as he dictated. My bed had to be made exactly in accordance with his method. Even when I swept the driveway, I had to use a push broom instead of a regular house broom. Even though I could go more quickly with my method, he would rage at me and yell about why his method was the right way to sweep.
I learned very early that there was a right way to do everything. I learned that there was a right way for me to think and act and look. I got into trouble for laughing at things which he didn’t believe I should find funny. I would get lectures if I heard and liked music which he didn’t like.
The message I received — loud and clear — is that the only way for me to be acceptable as a person (and to avoid punishment, in many cases) was to learn the correct way about everything and then to act in these perfect ways.
This was so internalized that I didn’t realize there was any other way to think. I never questioned any of this. I just knew that if I did everything “the right way,” my life was better. And as my father barked his criticism of me about such things, I learned to bark criticism to others and about others.
I learned to push my sisters to conform to the right ways when we were young. I viciously criticized others — mostly to myself but often to other people — who didn’t know the right ways which I had been taught.
And like a machine which had been programmed with this belief and this way of acting, I took this attitude with me on autopilot into adulthood.
I have a complicated relationship with “the right way” today. There are ways in which my right way is absolutely, objectively superior. And there are circumstances — such as when someone is working for me — when I’m reasonable to insist that things be done my way.
But for much of my adult life, I lived the tortured existence of one who desperately wanted to control everything and everybody. I wanted to find some way that I could reshape the world in precisely my image of perfect order and perfect action. I never said that. I never consciously knew that. I never said my way was the only way.
But I lived my life with a screaming voice inside which tortured me for not forcing everybody to do everything my way. It was terrifying — and it was all the worse because I didn’t realize what I was doing.
I used to understand personality as being “what a person is,” but I’ve come to a far deeper understanding in the last few years. We are certainly born with some preferences, but much of what we become — and which we consider our personality — is simply our reaction to the world in which we are trained. Much of the personality is the way we learn to deal with the chaos and dysfunction which we encounter in the world. Much of it is the way in which we learn to get our needs met.
My need to be right and my need to reform others into doing things my way aren’t just part of who I am that came along with my DNA. I was born to a father who punished me for being anything except what he wanted me to be, so I learned this way of living from my environment. It was a survival skill. The problem is that I didn’t realize that — and I continued acting in this way even after I was away from the person who required it.
The Enneagram personality typing system says there are nine basic types of personalities. Although you can read the nine types (and the 27 subtypes) and find your own behavior, that doesn’t mean “this is who you are.” It means, “This is how I learned to cope with the world.”
I’ve come to understand that much of our growth is unlearning our defense mechanisms. Even though every defense mechanism comes with practical advantages in life, the truth is that those familiar behaviors which served us so well as children end up being our biggest weaknesses.
And we have trouble seeing that — because we think this behavior is “just who we are.”
My path toward learning that it was OK for other people to think and behave differently than I do was very difficult. It started in the area of political thinking — when I saw the logic that other people had the right to behave in ways I didn’t like — and it has slowly grown from there.
Today, I’m perfectly happy letting other people live life on their terms, even when I disagree with them. I might strongly disagree with them. I might hate some of their behaviors. But as long as they don’t try to interfere with my own freedom to live my life, I’m willing to let them make their own mistakes — as long as they’ll let me make mine.
There are limits to how far I can go with this in my personal life, but I’ve decided that’s reasonable. I have standards about what I want from the people around me — and those standards are more specific as the position is closer to me.
For instance, I can get along with random strangers in public even if they’re Nazis or racists (or worse). I’m less likely to accept any of those sorts of attitudes and beliefs among those I count as friends, though. And the closer someone is to me, the more I want that person’s beliefs and values to align with mine.
That doesn’t mean I want to go change people, but it does mean that I want to choose those closest to me from among those rare people who see the world in much the way that I do.
I will probably never get it out of my system completely that there is one right way to do everything. I will probably spend the rest of my life having to remind myself not to criticize myself for not being perfect. I will probably always have to remind myself to be kind and loving toward those who see certain things differently than I do.
I’m not sure there’s any way around that. The old programming is too deep to completely change.
But I’m consciously aware of my old tendency and I’m determined to be kinder to myself and to others. I’ll never be perfect — even about not insisting on us all being perfect — but at least I won’t insist that we fold and stack towels my way. Not anymore.
I’m still learning how to be an empathetic and loving person. That’s one thing I still want to get right.