Discover more from a very messy life
A love note from a recovering perfectionist
thoughts on how 'perfectionism' manifests on a moment-to-moment basis
When I started my ‘messy’ coaching about 2 years, I couldn’t quite articulate what exactly this was all about.
I knew loved the idea of allowing messiness - something I learned and was wholly encouraged to do by my PhD supervisor, Dr. Ann Kaloski-Naylor, through the 4 years of doing doctoral research in a world that prides itself on being excessively ‘tidy’ and ‘perfect’.
I fully embraced the epistemological approach that acknowledges and works with the messy, unpredictable complexities of life and research. Feminist theorists and academics such as Gayle Letherby, or autoethnographic researchers such as Ellis and Bochner, offered new, exciting ways to disrupt conventional expectations that we need to be ‘objective’ and distant and never get our hands dirty in the data.
But still - while I ‘got it’ about messy research and the messy PhD journey, I still couldn’t quite put my finger on what it is I really meant by my own messy coaching.
Having now coached multiple one-to-one clients, hosted group coaching communities and delivered workshops over the last 2 years, the answers came sharp and clear as anything just a few days ago. I finally get it:
my messy coaching is about countering and healing perfectionism, in all its guises.
It’s not just about ‘embracing what feels messy’, or learning to untangle what is messy into distinct, clear threads so we can understand what’s going on.
It’s going deeper than that: it’s getting into what it is we define as mess in the first place, and what makes us so uncomfortable with it.
As a self-professed recovering perfectionism, I can tell you now that I have lived most of my life in terror of not being ‘perfect’
or of not reaching perfection
or of making mistakes (which of course will disrupt what is or could be perfect).
But very often perfectionism isn’t just about getting things perfect. A lot of people might not even explicitly think of themselves as perfectionists, or think that they’re trying to do things ‘perfectly’.
And yet, much of their lives are ruled and shaped, at least by some degree, by a need to meet some sort of ideal and to control the all the processes and relationships on the way to getting there.
Importantly, that ideal doesn’t have to be about ‘being perfect’; but it is something that we’ve deemed in some way to be necessary, worthy, a destination to aspire towards.
And then we tie ourselves up in knots, push ourselves beyond reasonable limits, develop massive anxieties, feel like failures, push and punish ourselves harder and harder, to get there.
Again, ‘getting there’ doesn’t always mean something that is typically defined or thought of as ‘being perfect’. Perfectionism is sneaky and can show up in all kinds of ways, including, for example:
a particular (usually arbitrary) idea of how many words we should be writing a day
the need to complete everything on a to-do list (whether that’s 10 items today or 198 tasks for the week - again, an often arbitrary number that changes hour to hour)
getting married / having child / owning a house by a certain age
having a partner with very particular characteristics / checks off very specific boxes
working uninterrupted, with no distractions, for full 2-hour segments
losing 10 pounds (or 20, or 35.6)
needing to anticipate and prepare for every possible outcome in every possible scenario
understanding every sentence, concept or theory in a journal article
trying to recover from illness in exactly 3 days (or 5, or 7)
working out exactly 3 times a week (or 4, or 5) for at least 45 minutes (or 75, or 90)
an obsessive need to receive a particular title or accolade or award
feeling a ‘need’ to reach 10k followers on the socials (or 25k, or 100k, or 1 million)
making a ‘steady income’, or 5 figures, or 6-figures (and does that mean 100,000 is good enough? Or should it be nearer 999,999?)
You get the picture.
We bluff ourselves by saying “No no, I’m not a perfectionist. I don’t want that whole ‘perfect’ thing of marriage, kids, a house or a huge amount of money. That’s not me”. But then we proceed to torture ourselves trying to pursue something else - a career our parents will approve of, a new personal best at the gym, an immaculate 10-minute presentation to the board - and feel absolutely horrible for not getting exactly that.
OR, we do get exactly that - that career, that deadlife PB, that flawless presentation that every board member applauds. But then the goalpost now shifts ever so slightly and we’re off again, in search of the next best thing: a better career that our extended family will also approve of, a higher personal best, an even slicker 20-minute presentation with even more board members.
Perfectionism doesn’t have to look perfect.
It just has to be something we don’t have yet, that we (think we) want; something we must have full control over. It’s something that will not permit us to be at peace; that makes us feel constantly less-than, or restless, or out of control until we have it.
(and remember that that ‘it’ constantly evolves or changes or moves further away - so we never actually, ever have it)
All of this is perfectionism masquerading as perfectly healthy ‘goals’, or ambition, or ‘being conscientious and careful’.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t have intentions or goals or beautiful, dreamy aspirations to make our hearts flutter.
But it is to remain in a self-loving, equanimous space of ease and contentment and gratitude, even if we haven’t met those goals yet (or possibly never do).
So. Back to my messy coaching and the kind of service I want to offer in my work now:
I am making shifts in my coaching work now to focus more intentionally and deeply on responding to perfectionism, perfectionist ideals / behaviours / tendencies.
This is an uncomfortably familiar place for me, somewhere I have resided in for a long, long time: I remember feeling this way as far back as age 6. But I have also managed to release a lot of those (self-imposed) pressures. Today, I live with so much more ease than I have ever done; and I want so much to be able to support you, and more and more frazzled, stressed perfectionists to live with this same gentleness and soft-sink-into-your-sofa sweetness that I get to experience every single day of my life.
I want to mess up those expectations - not in a menacing, nasty-edged, confrontational way (although yeah, I can get bitchy and I won’t apologise for that), but in a way that I hope can begin to normalise more slowness, more pausing, more of feeling okay with how things are right now.
I’d love to start creating micro-worlds for individuals and their immediate communities that don’t feel the need to be constantly pushing, incessantly competitive, always looking over their shoulder in terror of not being ‘perfect’, not reaching ‘perfection’, making a mistakes or losing control - because guess what? You not perfect, you never will be, and you will definitely make mistakes and lose control.
Let’s face those moments with so much more ease, a gentle shrug of the shoulder and a unconscious ability to simply say, “eh, it’ll be fine!”
So that’s where I am now. I’m sloooooowly transitioning things (on my website, socials, etc) at a pace that feels most right for me. It doesn’t need to be perfect. There’s no hurry. I’m letting things change and evolve as I feel like it, and I’d love for you to amble along with me as I do.
I’m spending more of time now on Substack and LinkedIn (I’m relishing the gloriousness of long-form writing again; clearly the limited micro-blogging spaces of X or Instagram really don’t suit me!). So find me here/there and let’s hang out ☕ 🧁😍