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“I’m not as perfect as you” or “Not everyone can be as perfect as you” are comments I’ve heard, ad nauseam since I was probably about 12 or 14 years old. I heard it from my friends, from kids at school, from family members and co-workers throughout my life.

This has been very difficult for me because my mother demanded a level of ability, her standard of ‘perfection’, from me in everything I did, whether it was household chores, grades at school, following her rules, meeting her expectations or even the respect she demanded. I understood, from a relatively young age, that nothing I ever achieved, nothing I ever did was ever going to be good enough to meet her expectations.

I had and still do have a lot of issues surrounding confidence and self-esteem.

I realize now that I took a mixed approach to dealing with her demands. At the time, I’m sure it wasn’t a conscious decision but more a matter of self-preservation. When it came to school, I didn’t really apply myself as much as I could have. I passed all my classes, I was on the honor roll a couple of times each year, I graduated with a grade point average that missed ‘honors’ by two tenths of a percentage point, but I really didn’t try all that hard.

At home, where my mother was ‘judge, jury and executioner’, so to speak, I had to step it up a notch, just getting by would have brought about emotionally and/or physically painful consequences.

When she said she wanted dinner on the table at 4:00 that meant dinner had to be on the plates on the table at 4:00, not 4:05. If she said she expected the laundry to be done when she got home from work and she wanted it hung outside to dry, that meant it had to be washed, hung out to dry, taken down and folded before she got home, not as she was pulling in the driveway. If she wanted the floors mopped that meant to mop them and rinse them and there shouldn’t be streaks, shouldn’t be spots or residue left behind. When she told me to run the vacuum that meant I ran the vacuum, used the hose attachments to get anything accumulated around the perimeter of the room, there couldn’t be anything on the carpet, no threads, lint, nothing. If she told me to dust, she expected me to take everything off the shelves, off the furniture and dust with furniture polish.

I spent a lot of time working very hard to meet her expectations. Making an effort to meet her expectations avoided punishment for letting her down. No matter how well I did what she wanted me to do, I knew it would never be good enough, she would inevitably find something wrong with it. I started challenging myself to do a little more each time, to do it in less time each time, to be more thorough each time than I had the time before. It hurt less, to hear the criticism if I knew I had done a little bit better than the time before.

I realize now, that I utilized this same method of managing expectations in the various factory jobs I’ve held. I worked in ‘piece rate’ positions, where I was given a minimum acceptable number of pieces to complete each shift to make the minimum rate of pay, the more I completed beyond the minimum required, the more money I made. It became a daily ‘challenge’ to out perform myself from the previous day. There was always the ‘threat’ that supervisors would find my production inadequate and hand out the ultimate ‘punishment’ by ‘terminating’ me.

I’ve used this strategy in everything I do. I’m constantly challenging myself to do better, do more. I want to do the very best I’m capable of doing, all the time. In the back of my mind, I’m pushing to avoid criticism, to avoid ‘punishment’, at this point in my life it would be ‘self-imposed’ punishment, as there isn’t anyone else who can deliver consequences.

Several people have come into my home and criticized my housekeeping, even if I thought it was immaculate, if they found fault, then I would have to push myself to do better the next time they came.

When I’m doing something creative, I push myself to do the best I can do. I work very hard at learning a craft. If I know the way it is supposed to look, I try hard to recreate that. I make mistakes all the time, but I try to learn from them and improve the next time.

I am my own worst critic, as I know my flaws, failures and short comings better than anyone else. I know what I’ve become capable of, from all the years of practicing, working on developing my skills, from all the years of self-evaluating in an effort to ‘pre-empt’ the criticisms of my mother and others.

I don’t believe that I or anyone else is perfect, we are all flawed human beings, no amount of effort will allow us to achieve ‘perfection’. As I said, I know my flaws and short comings, this is why it has been so emotionally painful, so personally devastating to have so many people label me as ‘perfect’ or suggest that I think I’m perfect, when in reality I have spent my entire life struggling with the constant emphasis on my ‘imperfections’.

My husband said to me yesterday that he has known me for nearly 29 years and he doesn’t think of me as a perfectionist, he thinks of me as someone who tries to give their best effort in everything they do. He knows my mother and knows that I was ‘conditioned’ to try harder, do more.

When I was in therapy I rejected the suggestion by my psychologist and support group members that I wasn’t really a perfectionist, that I had been conditioned to perform in a certain way under the threat of punishment. I bought into the characterization and accusations of others who labeled me a perfectionist and took responsibility for the way the results of my conditioning made them feel.

I now understand that a perfectionist is defined as someone who has to be the best at everything, who sets unreasonably high standards for themselves and others.  This definition doesn’t fit, as I don’t think I have to be the best at everything, I’m realistic about my abilities, I know that others have excelled in ways I’m not capable of. I don’t set unreasonably high standards for myself, but rather I’ve been trying to live up to the standards imposed upon me.

Yes, I have high expectations, primarily because I take responsibility for everyone and everything around me. Being a care giver, feeling a sense of duty to others is also the result of conditioning.

I had bought into the insecurities of others, who compared themselves to me and others, who needed to label me ‘perfect’ or a ‘perfectionist’ to feel comfortable with their own imperfections.

My husband reminded me that striving to improve oneself isn’t a bad thing, doesn’t a perfectionist make.

Now that I have this better understanding, now that I’m looking at things in a different light, I see the possibility of ‘freedom’ from this label.