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. But for those of us who truly suffer from perfectionism, it can become an overwhelmingly unhealthy obsession.
My personal experience with perfectionism spawned from that need-to-be-the-best-at-everything complex. 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 college and at the beginning of my professional career, 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 cookbooks. I’d always excelled in life by putting in 100% effort; why would the domestic realm be any different?
Channeling my inner Martha added one more title to my list of to-dos: Domestic Goddess. For the first three months of our marriage I threw myself into a daily pre-dawn workout and a full day in the professional sector, and spent the rest of my day at home—cleaning, organizing, and cooking elaborate meals.
By the time I was done there was rarely any time or energy left for myself—or my husband. At first, I criticized myself and resolved to work harder and become better organized and more magnificent.
My original 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 resolution to take at least one hour per day for myself. 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. But 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. 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 to spend quality time with my husband.
By focusing only on what I was capable of and what felt good to me, was I truly able to find perfection. Here, my five top tips:
1. Me First
Unfortunately the eight hour (or more) workday is typically non-negotiable, so the other eight hours you’re awake need to count. Being able to differentiate between necessities and niceties was a huge game-changer.
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. One of my favorite cheats is my glorious slow-cooker. What could be better than spending five 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.
3. Maximize Resources
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 a failure to enlist 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.
4. 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. But 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. 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.