Let’s Talk About Perfection

2021 was a hard year.

John’s working hours were insane. The kids were home on lockdown for the entire month of May (I often didn’t know how I was going to make it through the next 10 minutes, let alone another day). My health was spiraling, and unsuccessful iron infusions were a bitter disappointment.

Also, undeniably, the psychological weight and exhaustion of 2020 (and some very stressful years pre-pandemic) were catching up to me. I felt utterly depleted, both physically and emotionally.

I did the best I could; I adventured with my crew and met deadlines and did laundry and made s’mores on the beach and laughed with friends and family.

But I also cried. A lot.

And here’s the thing about having a mental health crisis in the middle of a global pandemic while struggling with chronic fatigue – it becomes a “chicken-or-egg” conundrum. Am I feeling sad and exhausted because of a mood disorder, or do I have a mood issue because life is currently steamrolling my emotions and energy levels leaving me sad and exhausted?

Either way, it was time to get help.

*I want to acknowledge, once again, that mental health is a multi-faceted topic with so many important, individual considerations. I’m going to share a portion of my story because mental health challenges can be isolating and, personally, it has helped me to have others raise a hand and share their stories. I would encourage everyone to regularly speak with their family doctor and/or a therapist about mental health, even if all seems well. When we exercise regularly, we build muscle and endurance to better cope with physical stressors and to prevent injury; our minds need the same level of nurturing care, ideally as preventative medicine.*

I’ve been what some have described as “melancholy” most of my life. I struggled with depression as a teen and battled postpartum depression (twice), even working with a postpartum specialist at one point. So I’m no stranger to mental health challenges or to seeking help.

This time, I started with my family doctor. She was patient and kind (and, of course, knows the specific issues I’m facing healthwise). The pervasive theme of her diagnosis? Recurring themes of my struggle with perfectionism.

And here’s the irony – the more life seemed to spiral out of my control, the more this idea of perfectionism put its stranglehold on me.

If there is one thing I wish I could tell myself a decade ago it’s that my notion of perfection is flawed.

Take mothering, for instance. My idea of perfection was the following: a natural birth, an immediate bond, a year – at least – of breastfeeding, and a beautifully decorated nursery. You know, the Instagram version of parenting (even though, blessedly, Instagram wasn’t a thing when I became a mother).

Instead, my body was pumped full of drugs that literally made me scratch my eyeballs (gross and horrific, but true), I ended up with an unexpected and unwanted C-section, I was unable to produce milk (despite trying the gamut of herbs and supplements coupled with round the clock pumping), and in lieu of a beautifully appointed nursery, we came home with both children to apartments where we either (Apartment A) put towels along the bottom of the door to prevent cigarette smoke from leaking in or (Apartment B) closed ceiling vents to prevent cigarette smoke from leaking in.

Not exactly what you’d expect anyone to post on their Instagram highlight reel.

Instead of being proud of what my body had accomplished, instead of recognizing that “perfection” is an elusive target and mental mirage, I entered a mental health spiral that, quite honestly, took years to fully recognize and address.

Here’s what I wish.

I wish 2011-Elisabeth wouldn’t feel like a failure when she warmed up a bottle. I wish 2011-Elisabeth wouldn’t hate her body so much and believe that everything would be perfect if she could just have birthed and fed those babies naturally. I wish 2011-Elisabeth would realize that a gorgeous nursery doesn’t make your baby sleep better at night or make life more idyllic. I wish 2011-Elisabeth would sit down, block out all the peripheral anxiety about the many imperfections in life, and just snuggle her perfect, tiny little human.

But I’m slowly learning and re-learning another life-changing truth: there was no way to know then what I know now. I’d love to save 2011-Elisabeth and 2021-Elisabeth and 2035-Elisabeth all sorts of grief, but that’s not the way it works. Life is one long string of lessons; with any luck, we’re open enough to learn and iterate as we go.

Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right. It has nothing to do with fixing things. It has nothing to do with standards. Perfection is a refusal to let yourself move ahead.

Julia Cameron

I’m not going to lie. Perfection – whatever that happens to look like on any given day – is something I may always battle. And by perfection, I don’t mean aiming to do things well, to the best of my ability. I mean getting stuck, unable to move forward.

I’m trying to avoid these negative cycles by making the simple, everyday joys of life accessible and creating the necessary margin to enjoy them more fully and by letting go of expectations that I have to do it all; I can leave good things undone.

This all sounds lovely and aspirational – but I do still want clean floors and kids that adore me and A+’s from my coworkers and to avoid all conflict in every relationship forever (especially that last one; conflict crushes me). In this case, it’s more about :

  • letting go of my expectation that “If I have immaculate floors*, it only stands to reason that I will be fully content, my life will be wonderful in every way and my children will behave like perfect angels.”
  • refusing to be disappointed when clean floors don’t magically do any of the aforementioned things (especially regarding angelic children).
  • and refusing to pursue clean floors (insert any other activity) to the detriment of my mental or physical health.

*This is a bit of a stretch because my floors, especially around a certain wee lad’s chair, are always in need of sweeping and I’ve largely stopped trying.

Flawed can be more perfect than perfection.

Gretchen Rubin

I remember reading about a furniture company known for its craftsmanship. What made their work most intriguing was that somewhere in the design they would purposefully introduce an imperfection. A screw slightly off-center, a virtually imperceptible warp in one of the boards. Their reasoning? Flaws made it obvious that human hands had crafted the item, setting it apart from the “perfect” – and characterless – mass-produced item prepared by robotic arms.

All this to say: I’m human, I’m flawed…and I sometimes still crave the somewhat elusive definition of “perfection” in certain areas of my life. But I crave it a little less than I did yesterday and a lot less than I did back in 2011. And that feels like a step in the right direction.

Case in point: for a post about perfection, I feel like I haven’t gotten the messaging right. On re-reading the draft, my ideas seem scattered and I’m likely trying to fit in too many tangential/incomplete thoughts. But I won’t let “the perfect be the enemy of the done” so I’m posting it as-is and will now head off to enjoy my day. Baby steps, right?

Header photo by Natasha Polyakova on Unsplash

18 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Perfection”

  1. Great post, Elisabeth, and I think it’s very clear- although I do know that nagging feeling when publishing a blog post that it’s not quite right. But if we waited till every post was perfect we would never get anything published.
    I don’t think anyone does motherhood “perfectly.” I did have natural births and breastfed my kids, but I could point to any number of things I messed up. I let my own sleep schedule (not theirs- mine!) get out of control which led to health issues. I also was so overwhelmed with it all that I didn’t work (outside of the home) for years, which put us in a financial hole. I always said if I just could have had one more kid, I would do it all “perfectly” that last time. Ha ha… as if that’s possible.
    I think I would have lost my mind entirely if my kids were little during the pandemic. I seriously don’t know how people managed it. It was bad enough as it was, but at least my kids are fairly independent and didn’t need help with schoolwork.
    Glad you’re feeling better in 2022… sounds like you’ve identified your problem and are working on it. We’re all a little older and wiser!

    1. Older and wiser indeed.
      I think the “little” years are just so tough for certain people – definitely for me. And it’s so obvious in one sense that natural births and breastfed babies don’t lead to mothering perfection, but when you CAN’T do those things, somehow you latch on to the idea that’s the missing link?!
      It’s so much easier to realize these things with perspective, of course…

  2. Mental health is always a hard subject to talk about and to feel like you “got it right.” I struggled with depression in my 20s and then anxiety in my 30s. I take Lexapro now and that has helped greatly but I also have seen therapists during extra challenging times, like fall of 2020 when I was dealing with covid skeptics and struggling with others thoughts about what I was doing to protect me/my unborn baby from getting sick. I had a great therapist but she was out of network so it was very expensive to see her. If she was in network, I would see her on a regular basis! Stupid insurance!

    I am a recovering perfectionist, too. I have always had a perfectionistic nature. I mean reports from as early as 1st grade note my need for perfection/how hard I am on myself. It has gotten better as I’ve aged and gained perspective. And Phil has been a good influence on me as he will remind myself to be kinder to myself. But it’s something I will always battle.

    I went back to find a post where I talked about depression – I wrote about it while reviewing a non-fiction book where depression/mental health and it’s impact on a mother/daughter relationship are a prominent theme. : https://lisasyarns.blogspot.com/2009/12/book-review-traveling-with-pomegranates.html

    1. I’m so glad you’ve noticed some improvements over the years, Lisa. I’m so sorry you had to weather pregnancy in the middle of a pandemic. So tough and so many conflicting inputs – I’m glad you found a great therapist. Bummer about the network/insurance. Mental health resources are hard to come by, I think, and it’s such a shame. At least here in Canada where we have universal health care, I think it’s so disappointing therapy (unless you can get in with an Md) isn’t covered. Mental health is such a huge aspect of physical well-being, too. And I’d argue that support in mental health initiatives would likely cause a reduction in a lot of other medical resource demand.
      Thanks for the post link; our power has been out for about 6 hours, but when I get back online with a computer (and not data on my phone!), I’ll check it out.

  3. Elisabeth, this resonates so much with me. Thank you for sharing this aspect of your life. Perfectionism is something I have struggled with my whole life — and am still struggling with right this second. It’s such a nasty beast, that desire for an ideal that simply cannot exist. Case in point: I had a natural birth and year of breastfeeding… and they were far from perfect. My daughter ended up in the NICU for days, which meant I didn’t get the days in the maternity ward that so many moms speak of with fondness — instead, I was roomed on the floor with high-risk mothers, which was hushed and sad, and was only there to shower and eat, and spent the rest of the time in the NICU. That plus my own tendency toward anxiety made me incredibly tense and anxious for a good two years. Not that I am NOT anxious, now, but I remember being afraid to walk with my daughter in her stroller around the block. And I did breastfeed for a year, but breastfeeding was HARD. I had oversupply, which meant that my kid was getting too much and spitting a lot of it back up after every feeding. Because I kept getting mastitis, and because she would only nurse on one side at each feeding, I was constantly pumping (which only exacerbated the oversupply issue). I felt like I was either nursing or pumping constantly, like my body no longer belonged to me (both because it was now used in service of feeding my kid, and because it no longer LOOKED like the body I’d had for decades), and my wriggly, spit-uppy baby made it impossible to enjoy any bonding time during nursing sessions. If I could do it again, I would release myself from the belief that I had to breastfeed for a year. Because it really doesn’t matter, and it made me so miserable. I wonder if that first year would have been better and more enjoyable if I had simply stopped. This is not to say that I don’t completely, 100% understand your desire to have had that experience. Or to say that your disappointment/grief at not having had those experienced is unjustified — it IS. Or to minimize in any way your feelings about your own early days of parenting. I just understand to viscerally that yearning for “perfect” and the anger and sadness and guilt that come with not achieving it. I hope that you are finding real ways to subvert this perfectionism in yourself… and that you can give yourself grace and compassion and even accolades for doing all the things you do, in your way, so well.

    1. Suzanne – I’m so sorry to hear about your challenging introduction to motherhood. While I’m glad your story had a happy ending, I understand how it would have long-term impacts on your feelings around mothering and anxiety. Trauma, along with the sense of loss when things we envision one way turn out so different, are powerful forces that can colour our perspective for a long time (maybe, sometimes, forever).
      And your story highlights another point: I always imagined a natural birth and being able to nurse as the epitome of my body being a “success”. But, really, I wanted the “perfect” version of that perfection of birth and feeding. And that so rarely exists! I felt guilty about bottle feeding and imagined everything would be perfect if it could only nurse…and you can look back and wonder if things would have been positively impacted by making the switch from breastfeeding to bottle feeding. (Side note: I pumped for a month – insufficient supply – and it was an absolutely horrible experience and I felt like there was not a single minute where my body wasn’t in use. I am so, so sorry you endured that for so long!)
      I wrote a post months ago about the moment when I really felt like I was able to break free from the guilt of not being able to breastfeed. It was several years after Abby was born and a friend told me: Elisabeth, she can still be a doctor. I had this idea in my head I had ruined her chances in life, even though it was physically impossible for me to feed her…but that comment from my friend really helped me reframe things. And when I tried for a week with Levi and did all the right things – I still cried when it didn’t work, but I let go SO much earlier. And he can be a doctor too!
      I was also exclusively bottlefed. After my mother struggled with insufficient supply with my older siblings, she went right to the bottle with me without any guilt. And I like to think I did okay with 1980s formula! I just had it in my mind it was the only right way to do things (and it makes me sad how much that messaging is passed to new mothers; I agree breast is best, but not at the detriment of a mothers mental or physical health, and I do wonder if we’ve pushed this ideal too hard. I think I felt more like a failure because of the incessant messaging on this).
      Phew. Clearly I have a lot of thoughts on this topic. My power is also out so I’m writing this reply on my tiny phone screen so I’ll leave it there. Thanks so much for sharing! <3

  4. Thank you for writing this Elisabeth and sharing, I do believe this is so very important, to write and share. It upsets me that mental health struggles are so stigmatised when so very many of us have had them. I came to motherhood in my mid thirties as I was not in a fit state to have become a mother in my twenties. I spent most of that decade running from life, drinking too much to drown out the person who I was and taking anti-depressants on and off. I nearly got married when I was 22, I am so glad that I didn’t, it wasn’t me that put a stop to it, but I can see now that it would have been a disaster and was unlikely to have lasted. That was the unravelling of me for the next few years, more like continued unravelling when I think about it! I was so lucky to find a really good therapist on the NHS at the age of 27, it was third time lucky I had seen two others who were useless, I only saw her for about nine months before I moved away from the her area but I can honestly say she turned my life around. I have worked hard since then and motherhood has been the making of me, something I never thought I would say, I am the happiest and most content I have ever been now. I don’t regret any of the decisions I made or the things that I have done, I know how far I have come and am proud of myself for getting this far.

    I really believe that we can only change ourselves if we understand why we are like we are, so if you are a perfectionist rather than trying to stop being perfect over everything, consider and think about why you are like that. It is never easy to work it out. It can be like peeling an onion, you take off one layer and then find something else underneath.

    Thank you again Elisabeth for sharing these words with us all.

    I just wanted to add that your post did not read as ramblings to me at all, it was very coherent x

    1. Your “peeling an onion” analogy is so true. And while I do wish I could change my reactions and expectations as a new mother, the hard lessons I learned really do still feel applicable to other areas of my life. So I appreciate the valuable insights they provided, even if the whole experience did feel excruciating at times.
      I often say that I’m a “high functioner” with a mood disorder. I think it’s so easy to forget that mental health struggles are very real and not just among people that “look/act” like they’re struggling. No one really knew how desperately hard and isolating it felt when I became a mother, for example. And I played the part with my smiles and assurance that “I’m fine.”
      I have learned a lot and now work very hard on mental health – and see it as equivalent to exercising regularly and eating healthfully to take care of my physical body. But too often we seem to stigmatize, as you highlight, mental health issues.
      Maybe that’s because the solutions can feel so nebulous. When someone has a broken leg, the issue and solution is obvious. But it’s harder to diagnose and heal from mental wounds.
      More specifically, I’m so glad you’re growing in happiness and contentment and that motherhood has been such a blessing in your life (and that you found a wonderful therapist at such a critical juncture)!

  5. Mental health is so important to talk about, so I’m really glad you did. It’s hard when we have expectations of ourselves and we don’t “live up” to those expectations. There is a really great quote that I think of all the time to the effect that instead of feeling like we failed in the past, thinking that we did the best we could with the resources we had at that time. Sometimes I reflect on things that happened and catch myself thinking “if only I had done x” but the thing is, that helps no one. When the kids are little, life can feel like a chaotic rodeo, and sometimes it’s just about getting through that day. We do the best we can with what we have, and some days the best we can doesn’t look the way we wish it would, but it’s okay. In terms of parenting, it’s my view that things get so much easier as they get older.

    1. Thanks, Nicole. And what a great thought – and so true. Almost always we are doing the best we can do given our knowledge base in any given set of circumstances.
      I definitely agree that, for me, things have gotten easier as the kids have gotten older (at-home learning aside). I know the challenges change over time, but I find the infant stage truly paralyzing sometime since both kids had colic and I felt exhausted all the time. I really enjoy getting to make joint memories as they age, while also having a lot more independence from them (they can get their own breakfast ready, start laundry, make their beds, get dressed, shower themselves)!

  6. This post is, well, perfect. My heart hurts for 2011 Elisabeth and I feel that early motherhood turmoil so deeply in my soul with you. I love you, friend. You’re amazing, but you don’t have to be perfect.

    1. Friend – as the one who told me “She can still be a doctor someday” – those words, like so many other things you’ve told me over the years, have had lasting impacts. In fact, that simple sentence has removed most of the sting over my very “imperfect” start to motherhood. She can still be a doctor!

  7. I am so glad you’re talking about this, especially through the lens of motherhood and how it didn’t exactly live up to the ideas and expectations you have in your head. I definitely struggle with this. It’s so easy to get mired in the comparison game – even if we’re just comparing our reality to what we pictured it to be. Being perceived a certain way – happy, successful, reliable, etc. – is where my perfectionism lies. I am a massive people-pleaser and I spend a lot of time trying to live up to the expectations I set for myself in the way I want to be perceived. It’s something I’m working on in therapy!

    1. Thanks, Stephany. Perfection/perfectionism is a big topic and impacts us all uniquely – but it seems to be a common struggle. I’m slowly working on this in my own life, but realize it will ebb and flow…

  8. Thank you for sharing this, Elisabeth. I appreciate your vulnerability and perspective. I am definitely a recovering perfectionist and while I feel like I haven’t truly had a mental health crisis because of it, I have always struggled a bit with “not measuring up” in certain areas.
    It’s hard – especially today with social media giving us the illusion that so many people have “perfect lives” – to be content with “average” and imperfect scenarios, but I just linked to an article in my Link List post that put things in perspective for me (https://getpocket.com/explore/item/in-defense-of-being-average)

  9. Elisabeth, like usual, I have spent some time thinking about this before replying. (Sorry, that makes for some long-delayed responses when you’ve likely moved on to other things!) One thing that stood out to me throughout your post (and that likely says more about how I use/embody perfection and related traits…) was that perfection can be one way to try to gain a measure of control over situations that are often, unfortunately, not controllable (e.g., childbirth, probably one of the least-controllable situations out there, despite what we like to think). Life spirals out of control… and I (at least) clamp down on the routines, the perfectionism, etc. I am so glad you got help when you needed it. I’ve done the same – and have been increasingly open about my need for such help with others in my life. My therapist and I do talk about this a lot – my need for control when life is just so… out of control. Anyway, despite my delay in posting this reply, it’s pretty incoherent. I guess I just wanted to say that I, too, see you, and want you to know that you are certainly not alone. (This has also prompted some thinking on my part about my perfection as well as my … need to make it clear to others that I don’t need help/support/etc. That I can do it on my own [which makes me sound like a toddler saying, “I can do it my own self!”]. Hm…) Take care of yourself, as always. <3

    1. Never apologize! It’s nice to circle back around to conversations after I’ve had a chance to think more/let the comments marinate.
      And YES – I definitely see perfection as a way to input control into a situation; I did like to think that I could control the whole narrative around what childbirth and mothering could/would be. And when it was so far off from what I imagined…well that was just really hard.

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