I had never considered myself a perfectionist until one evening in Kazakhstan when I was cooking dinner for a group of fellow Peace Corps volunteers at my apartment. When it came time for dessert, I took the cake out from the Soviet-style oven (a tiny oven that heats low and uneven, which you light by sticking a rolled-up piece of paper lit on one end through a hole in the bottom while simultaneously turning on the gas) and saw that it was a lumpy, hideous disaster. It looked like no cake should, and I was too ashamed to serve it. When I told the others that we won’t be having dessert after all because the cake looked terrible, Jen, one of the volunteers, said, “You’re a perfectionist, aren’t you?”
I was completely taken aback. Me, a perfectionist?! No one had ever called me that before. After all, I associated perfectionists with being Type-A personalities, anal retentive, super-clean-and-organized, and never happy with anything. That’s definitely not me, and my husband would wholeheartedly agree, judging from the state of the house, the top of my desk, or the way I cook (I could never follow the advice “clean as you cook.” I mean, I’m too busy cooking!).
However, I realized the perfectionist side of me definitely creeps in it when it comes to writing or doing something else creative. Back in the day when I used to write letters to my friends by hand (yes, those of us over 30 actually did this), I would start over if I didn’t like my handwriting or the way a sentence sounded – I’d just crumple up the piece of paper and start with a fresh one. With this blog, I write a first draft which I need to edit over and over again before posting a copy that I’m happy with. That’s exactly why I haven’t written as much as I’ve wanted to lately (hmm, 3 entries in the past 4 months?). It’s not for lack of ideas on what to write, writer’s block, or the lack of opportunity to sit and write. It’s finding the time to go back and read, edit, rewrite, reread and edit again. At least 10 times.
The same is true for my creative pursuits. A few years ago I enjoyed making my own jewelry with silver and glass beads. The problem is that I never actually made anything because I didn’t like my creations enough to finish them (plus it got very tedious with all those little beads). Same goes with the countless scrapbooks I’ve started – Turkey trip, India trip, Kazakhstan, Baby #1, Baby #2. They are all sitting on my shelf unfinished because it takes too much time for me to make the pages look just right (also very tedious), which is stupid considering I’m really the only one who will ever look at them.
Now that I’ve taken up sewing , I find that my perfectionist tendencies are again impeding my ability to finish any projects. A couple of weeks ago, the sewing teacher showed me how to construct a tote bag. I brought the almost-completed tote bag home with only the straps left to sew on. But after a few days of looking at the bag, I decided that I didn’t like how it looked. So I ripped out the seams and tore it apart.
The thing is, I need to let it go. I can’t be perfect at anything these days because with two young kids, there’s just no time to strive for perfection with anything. I need to approach my projects the way I approach parenting (the one area in which I never strove for perfection). I realized early on that there’s no such thing as the perfect mom or the perfect way of raising a child, so I gave up trying. There’s nothing more humbling than raising a child and constantly being reminded that you’re never going to get everything right all the time. Sometimes “good enough” is, well, good enough. Once I realized that, it took the pressure off immensely. After all, it’s not like I’m at a paid job where I’m being evaluated and critiqued (except maybe by my husband, but he doesn’t count). I’m being my own worst critic and I just need to stop. It’s more important for me now to get these things done than to do them perfectly. Post a blog entry every week whether I think it’s perfectly written or not (it never will be). Finish those scrapbooks even if I don’t like the layout of the pictures. Cook without following the recipes exactly. Invite friends over even if the house isn’t totally spotless and orderly. Clean out the closet even if I don’t have the perfect organizing materials. Just do it and don’t worry about the outcome because it’ll end up fine (like my kids, I hope). At the very least I’ll learn by trial and error. Maybe if the pressure is off, I can actually enjoy these things as well.
Am I being an underachiever? Do I get a failing mark for my half-assed effort in these things? Perhaps. But at least this way I can finish that darn tote bag.