Republished from Pretty Young Professional, an online resource and community providing practical advice, guidance and support to young professional women. PYP can be followed @PYPro
I am a perfectionist. They say that the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. Unfortunately, many view this trait as a source of pride, not a serious affliction. For those who truly suffer from perfectionism, it can become an overwhelmingly unhealthy obsession.
My personal experience with perfectionism spawned from the need to be the best at everything I do. In college I was a Division I student-athlete, part-time nanny, active member in my sorority and college church group, all while maintaining a long-distance relationship with my boyfriend who would soon become my husband. Each day was a personal competition. In a strange way, I felt happiest and balanced when I could complete all my daily commitments with meticulous efficiency. If ever there was a gap in my schedule, I would immediately fill it with something productive.
About a year after starting my professional career in the “real world,” I married my best friend. Marriage had been on my mind for a long time and I had envisioned exactly what life would be like after tying the knot. To be specific, I had constructed a picture of myself as the perfect wife. To me, this meant maintaining a pristine home, working out diligently every day, consistently preparing beautiful dinners from scratch with ease and grace, and spending plenty of quality time with my husband. For inspiration, I eagerly subscribed to Martha Stewart Living and purchased several extravagant cook books. I’d always excelled in life by putting in 100% effort; why would the domestic realm be any different?
Channeling my “inner-Martha,” I set out to fulfill my wifely duties and add one more title to my list of abilities: Domestic Goddess. For the first three months of our marriage, I threw myself into a daily pre-dawn workout, full day in the professional sector, and spent the rest of my day in the domestic realm — cleaning, organizing, and cooking elaborate meals. By the time I checked off all of the daily to-do’s, there was rarely any time or energy left for myself or my husband. At first, I criticized myself for not accomplishing all of my wifely duties and resolved to work harder and become better organized and more magnificent. My scheme to be the perfect wife seemed to miss the point. The “perfect” life I had envisioned was completely unrealistic and unfulfilling. I found I was completely burnt out at the end of each day, resenting the things that had once provided so much enjoyment. The culprit: overachieving perfectionism.
In an attempt to rebalance my life, I made a New Year’s resolution to spend at least 1 hour per day for myself. Of course I loved having a clean and organized bathroom, but after checking off all the points on my list every day, it was clear that the benefits did not justify the cost of my sanity. I started out simply with small things that ended up having a huge reward: taking a walk, at-home spa treatments, or coffee with a girlfriend. Most importantly, taking time for myself gave me the energy to accomplish some of the more menial daily tasks.
The activity that provided me with the most recharging energy was yoga. I could really appreciate the focus and mental strength required for a successful practice. At first, I found myself constantly looking around the room for comparison — either silently congratulating myself for having the best form, or chastising myself on my personal limitations. I held fast to my competitive spirit until an instructor said something during a particularly challenging posture that changed my perspective completely. “You will find the greatest benefit out of your practice if you allow yourself to focus only on what you are capable of doing. Do not let others distract you from your personal journey.”
This notion hit me like a ton of bricks. I didn’t need to be “The World’s Greatest.” My preoccupation with achieving incredible feats at home had not only stretched me too thin, but it was creating resentment for things that should have brought enjoyment. The goal shouldn’t be to win the trophy for most achieved in a single work week, but to successfully get through it while still maintaining mental health and happiness. For me, it was most important to find time to recharge my own batteries and spending quality time with my husband to keep my feet on the ground during the week. By focusing only on what I was capable of and what felt good to me, I was able to find a balance.
Unfortunately, the 8-hour (or more) workday is typically non-negotiable, so the other 8 hours need to count. Being able to differentiate between the things that were necessary and those that were mere niceties was a huge game changer. Making “me time” a priority not only put me in a great mood, but also energized me for the necessary chores and relaxation time with my husband. Once I discovered my personal “me time” in yoga, it became a crucial balancing factor in my life.
An old teammate of mine once told me, “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” In the realm of work week survival, this could not be more accurate. I discovered little cheats that saved me time, energy and stress. Some may be content enjoying a comforting bowl of cereal for dinner; others like me appreciate a healthy, tasty and satisfying meal at the end of a long day. I committed myself to no more than a 30 minute preparation for any weeknight dinner. One of my favorite cheats is my glorious slow cooker. God bless the creator of this miracle appliance! What could be better than spending 5 minutes throwing a bunch of ingredients in one pot before work and arriving home to a warm meal that tastes like it took hours to prepare? Heaven.
One of my greatest struggles as a perfectionist was asking for help. Not only did I view this as a sign of defeat, but it also required me to relinquish control over the way things got done. A huge source of stress was simply not enlisting the help of my greatest asset — my husband. I had to change my perspective and view my marriage as an institution of teamwork, not individual achievement. Discrediting my husband’s ability to help out at home was due largely to the fact that he didn’t do things exactly the way I did. My inclination was to eliminate the possibility of something being done slightly different than my specifications, rather than embrace the lifted burden. Not only was my husband eager to help, but he cut my workload in half and teaming up at home brought us closer. Of course he did not share my perfectionist and compulsive drives and his assistance sometimes resulted in creative interpretations. Once I relaxed and utilized the resource of an extra pair of hands, I felt more balanced than ever before.
Luxuriate the Weekend
Saturday and Sunday are now my own personal refuge. On those days I allow myself to dive more deeply into the things I love about my inner domestic goddess. I find great satisfaction in a perfectly prepared meal enjoyed on a gorgeous table set with an incredible centerpiece of farmer’s market flowers. During the work week, this kind of meticulous undertaking is unrealistic. By viewing old weekday necessities as weekend luxuries, I was able to restore enjoyment to these projects.
Am I fully cured of perfectionism? Absolutely not. There are days when I cannot resist the impulse to reclaim my crown as “Domestic Goddess of the Year” in a single day and tackle every household task imaginable. The instrumental difference is forgiving myself for not being able to do everything all the time. Gaining a realistic perspective on my own needs and capabilities has lifted the burden of guilt that was once plaguing me. The result is a happier, healthier, and far more functional me.
Rachell Buell is a contributing writer to Pretty Young Professional, an online resource and community providing practical advice, guidance and support to young professional women. Buell, a former UCLA women’s volleyball player, lives in Colorado with her husband, where she is currently pursuing a career in public relations. She can be followed on Twitter @rachellbuell. PYP can be followed @PYPro.