Notes from a Recovering Perfectionist

Notes from a Recovering Perfectionist

Party day had arrived. I had been planning my son’s first birthday for months. I mailed handmade invitations weeks in advance to 40 people, and every one of them was coming. Cupcakes encircled a homemade frosted gold sandcastle cake complete with ice cream cone turrets and handmade sand dollar cookies. A red captain’s wheel hung on the wall, framing month-by-month photos of my son. Family who arrived early were put to work, putting the finishing touches on Pinterest-inspired fruit skewers and croissants disguised as small crabs. As guests continued to arrive, my heart raced, knowing things weren’t quite finished. I was focused on the presentation and not on those who came over to celebrate the birth and life of my baby boy. Instead, guests were ambushed with more food than they could ever eat, a video slideshow, dessert options for days, and favor bags stuffed with more sand dollar cookies. 

I had placed my worth as a mother in the presentation of this particular party. I wince, remembering the undue stress I had created for myself, a new mom, the day of his party, which happened to be my own 29th birthday. 

Several years into motherhood, I realized I could simply let go of striving for perfection, and it was freeing. My definition of hospitality changed. I was not stressed when friends came over. Allowing myself to be vulnerable strengthened my friendships. My house is never immaculate and rarely Instagram-worthy, but I am comfortable in it. I now enjoy hosting birthday parties without the expectations. I’ve learned to ask for help and be okay with delegating. I still love themed parties, but I try to do a few things well, instead of every idea perfectly.

Perfectionism not only impacts me and others around me, but it also creates a barrier to accessing God’s unconditional grace.

When I am around other perfectionists, this tendency is especially difficult to shed. My own narrative tells me that the expectation is still there. But freeing myself from the burden to always be right, always appear put-together, and always complete the perfect DIY project showed me how impossible it was to not only uphold that standard, but also how unsettling it was for others around me. The appearance of maintaining a perfect life creates an invisible barrier in relationships. 

In the past, perfectionism has silenced me from sharing my gifts out of fear of rejection, worried people would only see the flaws. How often do we withhold our gifts out of fear of judgment, imperfection, or vulnerability, paralyzed from sharing our dreams, offering plans, or expressing hopes? Perfectionism does not allow room for others until the presentation is ready.

Winston Churchill approached his creative outlet with an attitude of grace: 

“Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.” (61-62, Painting as a Pastime)

Perfectionism scripts an unfair narrative, an unrealistic expectation that everyone is judging, and the self-fulfilling prophecy takes over. These insecurities make trying new things especially difficult.

Perfectionism makes it hard to delegate tasks, especially if you fear they won’t be completed the way you would have or be done perfectly. You may even be asked to do more because you appear to have it all together, which can be toxic when paired with people-pleasing tendencies.

These impossible standards infiltrated every area of life, even my self-worth. It was hard to feel as if I was doing anything well or ever completing a task. The piles of unfinished projects and the lists of unfinished tasks became overwhelming. Suddenly I was drowning, realizing I’d lost control, my old standards completely unattainable in my current season. I used to have time to pay attention to detail and now we’re getting by with the bare minimum. Somewhere along the line, we’ve attached our self-worth to all of it, to everything that has been left undone.  

I’ve learned to be gentle with myself. It is unfair to uphold the same standards I had before kids. I have to let go of the anxiety tied to leaving loose ends undone, my projects unfinished. It is unfair to compare myself to someone who has a completely different life than I have, with access to other means and more flexibility with time.

To put it simply, we miss out. Waiting for the perfect time to do something might mean that we never burn the fancy candle, we never eat the souvenir chocolate, or we never use the good towels. We never paint the room because we can’t decide on the perfect paint color. We put off stepping into our dreams because we don’t know what lies beyond the fog.

Perfectionism impacts those around us as well. It perpetuates an unrealistic impression that things come easily, which makes others compare, doubt themselves, or worse– give up entirely because they feel as if they can’t compete. It sets an unhealthy and unrealistic standard. Perfectionists might abandon a hobby or passion if someone else is already better at it. Maybe you are comparing yourself to an expert and abandon your “messy middle” of learning something new. What a tragedy to give up an interest or passion simply because you think you are not the best. Perfectionism creates an unspoken precedent that if you are not the best, it’s not worth doing. It causes us to abandon the hobbies that made us come alive. It not only robs us of those passions, but it robs others of experiencing our God-given gifts.

Setting an expectation of perfectionism imposes a fear on others that they will never measure up, they’ll never be good enough, and that if they aren’t the best, they shouldn’t even try. I was encouraged to take a safe path, to take the first job I was ever offered instead of holding out for my dream career, one highly sought-after by creatives. If that career was the gold standard, it was that or nothing. Two decades later, I know there were hundreds of opportunities to use those creative skills. It saddens me that I believed the untruth that if I couldn’t be selected by the best, I shouldn’t even try. I placed my creative outlet on the backburner, something once so life-giving, my passion diminished under a gold standard of perfection. 

I also consider the opportunities I missed simply because I was a beginner. I turned down ski trips with my youth group because I had never skied– I didn’t want to ask for help, slow anyone else down, or potentially make a fool of myself, as if my ability to ski was a reflection of me. It’s exhausting to maintain a facade that I can do it all myself, I have everything under control, I have it all together. That person is not real and is not approachable. It fosters an unhealthy expectation for other women and exacerbates a culture of comparison that is spawned largely by social media. Accepting others’ offers to help and allowing ourselves to be teachable lifts the invisible burden of perfection from our shoulders.

Is there something you’ve never pursued because you were afraid to ask for help and afraid to be the newbie, the one who didn’t know what to do and didn’t have the right tools to start? Was it a new hobby, a new sport, a new gym membership, or a new committee? Not allowing ourselves to try something new, to be teachable, to fail, or to be vulnerable limits our opportunities. What have we avoided simply because we don’t know how to start?

Allow room for slow growth. Winston Churchill continued, 

“Try it, then, before it is too late and before you mock at me. Try it while there is time to overcome the preliminary difficulties. Learn enough of the language in your prime to open this new literature to your age. Plant a garden in which you can sit when digging days are done. It may be only a small garden, but you will see it grow. Year by year it will bloom and ripen. Year by year it will be better cultivated.” (62, Painting as a Pastime).

We are raised in a competitive culture that values being the best. When I share with my students that I ran a marathon, they always ask if I won. They look perplexed if I laugh and say no, that there were thousands of other runners and I wasn’t even trying to win. 

“Well, did you at least come in second?”

These are the teachable moments, opportunities to share that there is more to running a marathon than coming in first, that you can set a goal and follow-through and be proud of yourself for finishing what you set out to do. Those months of marathon training shaped me in ways I wouldn’t have ever known unless I tried and finished.

When my boys see me appreciating simplicity, a slower pace, and learning from my mistakes, I am demonstrating God’s grace. On the last day of kindergarten, my five-year-old won the “Problem Solver” award. He wants to be an engineer someday, and I know that I need to give him the space to tinker and figure things out instead of fixing everything for him. Not a day goes by that I don’t tell my boys I love them and am proud of them not only for their achievements and accomplishments, but also for the things I want them to come to value– for being helpful, kind, a good friend, including others, and a good brother– qualities that matter to me.

Perfectionism creates a reliance on self, not on God. We need to allow ourselves to accept the grace and unconditional love that God gives us every day, in every season. We must allow ourselves to rest, as He did in Genesis 1:31, and call it good–call it good enough–and call it finished: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning–the sixth day” (NIV). Perfection left me trying to please others instead of God. 

Consider these verses:

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9, NIV)

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” (Philippians 3:12, NIV)

The way I love my boys doesn’t even begin to skim the surface of how much God loves me. As I carefully unpack these thoughts, considering God’s great love frees me from the things that don’t even really matter, and I pause in reverence. God placed unique desires on my heart. My boys adore me, so why am I trying to live up to someone else’s expectations? Why am I so caught up in the details when it is our relationship with Him that matters? Our sinful nature necessitates this relationship, and acknowledging our own sin draws us closer to Him. 

“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 4:8-11, NIV)

Letting go of perfection was a slow process, but it was freeing not only to me, but to my family and the people around me. It allowed me to be vulnerable and helped me to step back and define what truly matters. My boys did not need perfect birthday parties, they just wanted to share their day with people who love them and eat cake! Now I give myself permission to delegate, allowing others to use their God-given gifts. Letting go allowed me to step out of my comfort zone to finally pursue my God-given dreams.

Simplifying Holiday Traditions

Simplifying Holiday Traditions

The kitchen clock approached 2 A.M. as I pulled my orange Williams Sonoma apron over my head and scrubbed flour and gingerbread remnants from my fingers. Cooling racks covered every surface with the walls and roofs of identical A-frame gingerbread houses, enough for each child to decorate his own at our party the following evening.

With the gingerbread finished, I ran through the remaining tasks. I skimmed a new recipe for the homemade gingerbread roll I’d attempt in the morning. I lined the candy bowls along our dining table. Soon I’d make the icing that would frame and set the gingerbread walls together. And I still needed to make sausage dip for the adults.

Five families came over to join the festivities with us that first year, each bringing their favorite candies for decorating and arriving in their favorite holiday pajamas. The Polar Express soundtrack welcomed them into our home. My then-two-year-old and eight-week-old wore matching organic cotton Christmas pajamas.

My husband ran out to grab peppermint coffee for me before the party and returned, musing, “Oh, they had those gingerbread roll things in the checkout line at the gas station,” pointing at my homemade effort, which had consumed literally my entire morning. Never one to enjoy baking, especially last-minute, I threw up my hands.

“Of course they did!”

Four years later, our gingerbread pajama party has evolved into one of my family’s most anticipated and treasured holiday traditions. But now that I’m a seasoned mom with three young boys underfoot, I set more-realistic expectations for myself, and I don’t feel guilty about it. I just can’t pull off the same dedication anymore, one that requires hours of focused planning, when I’m juggling so many other responsibilities in this season of my life.

I defined my expectations for throwing a party, and the subsequent parties got easier as I granted myself permission to simplify. That ridiculous homemade gingerbread roll was the first to go. What began as a last-minute touch had taken painstaking hours. 

I also took the pressure off myself to make the gingerbread from scratch. The next year, I purchased gingerbread train kits at our local craft store. The following year, I waited too far into the holiday season and sent my husband out for some kits, and he returned with pink Shopkins candy houses, the gingerbread section completely wiped out. Lesson learned: simplify, but don’t procrastinate.

Last year, we dropped the houses altogether and decorated homemade gingerbread people. In fact, a dear friend baked the gingerbread herself (from scratch!) and brought it over with her, because she enjoys baking. Other dear friends brought toppings and yummy Grinch fruit skewers. Sharing the responsibilities made the event more enjoyable. I even had time to do something I truly enjoyed – sewing tiny gingerbread man ornaments monogrammed with the date for each guest. My husband loves to make delicious wassail, another favorite from my hometown.

Jen Wilkin said, “Entertaining seeks to impress. Hospitality seeks to bless.” When I began to identify my purpose behind this tradition – the desire to get together with close friends – I left behind those elements of the party that were too stressful for me to undertake alone. Other people might let go of other tasks, depending on what they value and what they find to be stressful. Kendra Adachi of The Lazy Genius says it best with her wisdom: “Be a genius about the things that matter and lazy about the things that don’t.”

The gingerbread houses that first year were stunning, and that first party was so much fun, but I also remember the overwhelm that came with trying to curate the perfect holiday party. And the overwhelm is not what I want to remember. In such a busy holiday season, I wanted my party to be worthy of my friends’ time. 

As the holidays approach year after year, it’s still one of the first dates I block off on my calendar. The tradition matters. The friends matter. But for me, the presentation was never what it was all about for me. (It might be for some, and that’s totally fine — you do you!) Once I was able to identify the part of the tradition that I valued most, I was able to let go of the pressure to entertain in favor of bringing my friends together for a festive, cozy evening spent together.

And the sweet Christmas pajama group pictures we take? They long-outlast those perfect, made-from-scratch A-frame gingerbread houses, anyway.

Being Mindful in Simple Family Moments

One day they_ll realize we intentionally carved out that time for each other and guarded it fiercely against our bulging calendars.

Captivated in a moment of complete mindfulness, I scanned my backyard on Saturday night at the imperfectly-perfect happenings all around me. My older boys were deep in imaginative play in their mud kitchen, scurrying around filling orders from fictional customers while singing something unintelligible.  My toddler, safely gated in on the back patio, was happily splashing away at the water table, seemingly-carefree despite his now-sopping play clothes. Just living his best life. The large ceramic water feature behind me, installed by previous owners, mimicked the sounds of a serene brook. As I flipped a glossy page of the large hardcover in my lap, my husband used a poker to put the screen on our family’s fire pit as we waited for the flames to diminish so that we could gather to make s’mores. It was 9:38 PM, long after my kids should have been in bed, but we were taking advantage of the dwindling daylight and the brief gap in storms to carry on a relatively-new tradition.

I took it all in — all of it — as I thought about this simple family tradition we committed to at the end of last summer. The sounds of crackling wood and trickling water, the smell of smoke and yet another impending storm, and the sight of my family all around me all made deposits toward my own self-care while drawing my family closer together.

The sounds of crackling wood and trickling water, the smell of campfire and yet another impending storm, and the sight of my family all around me all made deposits toward my own self-care while threading my family closer together.

Today, I’m so honored that Emily Sue Allen chose my essay to feature on her site, Kindred Mom. I hope that my family’s simple tradition will both inspire you to spend quality time with those closest to you while granting you the permission you need to make room for moments such as these.

You can read my essay here at Kindred Mom. If you are a new reader, welcome. Thank you for stopping by. I’ll hope you’ll find what you need.

Ashley

 

Striving for Work-life Balance

Storm clouds roll in over the hill in my backyard, pregnant with impending rain, much needed with the forest fire raging an hour away, already doubling in size despite the frontline of firefighters poised for battle. The seven-degree temperature drop and the rolling clouds blocking the sun cut the edge off the blaze of the 88-degree afternoon just hours before. My boys set buckets around their homemade outdoor mud kitchen, excited at the prospect of full buckets for tomorrow’s muddy culinary pursuits.

I love the way that even as the gray-blues of the sky darken, the grass turns a bold and vivid green. The coming storm catches my breath as I inhale the refreshing smell of spring and freshly-cut grass. Just minutes ago, my husband and his John Deere raced the storm and won. The wind gathers momentum, ferrying sweet fragrances of my neighbor’s pink dogwood across my patio.

My husband is the first to notice that the tree beside the patio, for so long bare from winter, now has tiny new translucent green leaves emerging, the first layers of shade over the outdoor wicker sofa my husband insisted on last season. I am so grateful for the sofa now, my outdoor writing and reading perch. My boys rush to get the cushions inside as the storm clouds threaten, their tiny bucket brigade passing and tossing pillows past the glass door. I count 15 more working days until summer and a much-needed respite from my counseling office and the near-daily deluge of conducting threat assessments with children born just this decade.

@TENDINGWILDASHLEYBARTLEY.COM

People often ask me why elementary school children need counselors, even as I drown in the busyness of appointments, classes, small groups, parent phone calls, drop-in meetings, and schoolwide projects. I’ve seen everything from friendship drama and separation anxiety to abuse and neglect, suicidal ideation and pacts, and parents incarcerated for drug use. In fact, I hope I’m not becoming hardened in my position–in ten years as a school counselor, I’ve pretty much seen it all.

Children are not immune to their own problems and to those of their parents. I’ve had so many children lose parents through death or incarceration that I’ve run small groups so that kids can see they’re not the only ones who’ve faced significant losses. Groups offer them a safe place to learn and practice coping skills. It is a fine line in finding time for prevention activities in the classroom in the midst of putting out fires in the confidentiality of my office.

Our realms as school counselors fall into the acronym ACES – academic, career, and emotional/social. It’s up to us to prioritize the demands that come on a daily basis. I’ve learned not to make promises even as a recovering people-pleaser.

Maintaining balance between this heavy work and raising three small boys forces me to simplify routines and prioritize commitments. After nearly six years of juggling both roles, I’ve established many new habits that have just become a way of life, from the layout of our home to my carefully crafted yeses and nos. I’ve intentionally created functional spaces throughout our home, once problem-areas, to make life run more smoothly. We just changed the guest room off the kitchen into a playroom (the day my baby swallowed a screw), which corrals many of the toys and large ride-on vehicles out of sight. We also made a mudroom of sorts using a blank wall across from the garage door, where each kid has his own hook for a coat and backpack, basket for shoes, shelf, and hanging area for schoolwork. We transformed the sitting room by our front door, once lost in its purpose, into my personal library and writing space, my retreat without leaving the house.

Sometimes people assume that I’m too busy if I have to say no to a perfectly good offer. But that’s not the case at all. Yes, we’re busy, but I use my yeses and nos judiciously so that we are not overwhelmingly busy. Being available for quality time with my boys, especially after being away from them all day, is just as legitimate excuse as any. I love being able to come home and enjoy time outside, time with my boys, traditions with my family, without rushing out to one obligation or another. Being open to spontaneity in spite of being a meticulous planner by nature is rewarding in its own rite.

Sometimes I even wonder if I say no too often! But then I remember my life of yeses, the life I used to live, and how hectic and unfruitful that time was. In fact, I have a hard time remembering it all because it was so frantic. Even back then, with a baby in tow and another on the way, we were out of town most weekends running half and full marathons, pulling long hours at work, and racing to get out of the house in the mornings. We were involved in all areas of our life and were quick to say yes if someone asked a favor of us. I’ll admit that some of that hasn’t changed, but we’re much more cognizant and careful about it now.

My work as a school counselor offers a much-needed perspective of gratitude on a daily basis. I have a plaque from Hobby Lobby on my desk at work that reads, “Children only have one childhood.” The reminder is both heartbreaking and inspirational, both for my students at school and my children at home. I constantly wonder whether I’m doing the right thing (see previous post), if I’m doing enough by dividing my time and attention. Do my students know I care about them, even if I struggle to remember all 700+ of their names? Do my own boys know that I’d spend every waking minutes with them if I could? Are they aware of the sacrifices their daddy and I make for them?

There’s no right or wrong solution to this. I’m doing what I know, and I admire those who can walk boldly in whatever path they choose for their own family. But I’m also trying to keep an open mind, reevaluating each season what else I can simplify to avoid spreading myself too thin. The worst thing that could happen would be that I’d burn out. That I’d lose heart in my pursuits. And sometimes I already feel that way!

Self-care comes in many forms. Unfortunately the many options that work for me happen so infrequently, but it’s up to me to recognize the importance of self-care and build it in, no matter how small. I know I’m a better person for it, as a mama to my kids and a confidant to my students. I just pray God will continue to cultivate and guide my heart in His calling, whether what that looks like changes or remains the same in all the different seasons of motherhood.

And speaking of seasons, my curly-haired five-year-old redhead just came in and asked me if he could shave his head for summer.

What does simplifying and self-care look like in your current season?