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“Why am I the only one around here who cares about having an impeccably clean house?” 

This is one of the most common complaints shared by attendees in programs based on my forthcoming book, The Productive Perfectionist: A Woman’s Guide to Smashing the Shackles of Perfectionism.  

I recently led a workshop to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 6. The audience was primarily women scientists. I began by sharing that I call myself a “perfectionist in recovery.” Most of the particpants agreed that they, too, have perfectionist tendencies. They acknowledged that taking control and doing the housework feels better in the short term, but can be self-sabotaging as a long-term strategy. 

That’s the question: If I’m the one who does everything “better”, how can I grow without exhausting myself? 

Two weeks later, Covid-19 is a world-wide pandemic. No handshakes, hugs, traveling, visiting in person, and so on. My business is down 40-50% and I’m scrambling to figure out how to navigate this new world. My first response is to try to take control—just like the women in my seminars.

Here’s an example: my husband read his mail last Saturday and quickly got agitated about a problem he discovered. I advised him to stop reading his mail outside of office hours. “Can’t we have a day off from the real world?” I ask. He angrily responded that he prefers to handle things immediately—it helps him stay calm. 

I am the opposite. I need at least 24 hours off from the “real world” to quietly reconnect with myself. I check the mail during the week, very rarely on the weekend.

My husband sternly said, “Stop telling me what to do. You do it your way and I will do it mine.” Then I told him that it stressed me out to listen to him venting about work problems. To which he replied, “Then don’t respond!” 

I explained that we’re living in a small apartment, so ignoring his rants isn’t really an option for  me. I am stressed, too, and could use a respite from “reality”. He said he understands, and that I don’t need to solve his problems. He just yells, gets it out of his system, and moves on. This disagreement is straight out of “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus”!

Giving up control is not so easy for me, but I need to find a way to let this go.

To cool down, I grabbed Gloria Steinem’s latest book for some wisdom and perspective. These quotes jumped out at me:

“The art of life is not controlling what happens,
it’s using what happens.”

“Limits lead to invention.”  

Recently, I attended a talk by Gloria on her new book, The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off!. That title speaks to me now more than ever, and reminds me about my situation. There a limits all around me and I want to take charge, but I can’t control my husband, the virus, or its effect on the economy and life. For my husband, “screaming it out” is a form of acceptance. I don’t have to agree. 

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Later that day, we both calmed down. I thought about my husand’s approach and accepted it. I asked for his support and understanding. He gave me a big hug and said, “I am here for you.” 

Then he asked, “Can you be a little more patient and understanding of your husband?” His request made me smile. Warmth filled my heart and I immediately felt more connected to him.

Maybe the answer is to lighten up on myself first. The challenge for perfectionists is that we have unrealistically high standards—and we tell ourselves that aiming high gets results. We might want to gently remind ourselves that during a crisis, pushing too hard and striving for an immaculately clean house might be too much. This is a time to consider new ways of operating. Yes, I am scared of all things I can’t control. But I learned that having compassion for myself and my husband takes the pressure off and makes me feel better. 

I’m taking this tiny step, practicing a new response: giving myself and those I care about a break from perfectionism. This approach might lead to a path forward.  

How do you practice self-compassion during this difficult time? How do you inspire creative problem solving? Can we invent something new?  

 

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