I never make New Year’s resolutions. Ever. I don’t keep them, and I feel like a total failure when I forget that I even made one before January is out. But I did this year, and though I am preparing myself for that familiar feeling once again, I am trying. I really am.
This year, I decided that my motto would be “Simplify.”
The desire to make this particular resolution didn’t come out of a self-deprecating need to create a promise to myself that would give me some narcissistic sense of achievement if I kept. It didn’t come from pressure to be in the “Resolution Club.” It didn’t even arise because I consciously thought I needed to make a change.
It was all because of a leaf.
The “leaf incident” went like this: It was a Friday, late afternoon, and I needed to get something out of my parents’ house. I had just picked up my son, and so before we went home, we swung by their place to pick up said object. They keep a key outside, and it is always in the same place. Has been for years. But when I went the “hiding place,” the key wasn’t there. Panic set in. I knew I was the last person who had used it, which meant I had probably unlocked the door, taken the key inside, and left it there. I called my parents. They didn’t have a spare on either of their key chains (as they, too, rely on that hidden key), and they were out of town but coming back the same night. Which meant I had not only locked myself out of their house, I’d locked them out as well. So I drove home to try to find a key to their house, only I knew I didn’t have one. I found a box of keys, none of which I suspected would unlock their door, but I was hopeful, piled my child back into the car, and headed back to their house. All the while, they were calling and texting with ideas about how to get into the house and where the key might be. (In other words, they were both in a tizzy.) So, I went back to their house and tried every key in the box. No dice. I was frustrated and mad at myself and afraid that my parents were literally going to have to break the glass out of a window or door in order to get into their own home. Daughter’s guilt is not a small thing. So, though I felt like it was a fruitless exercise, I went back to the hiding place, and I noticed a leaf. A leaf that I had not noticed when I first attempted to find the hidden key. Said leaf sat atop said key. Right where it should have been. I called my parents, thinking I had good news…the key had been located! No breaking of windows! No getting the entire house re-keyed! Just the instant bliss that comes with walking in your own back door, via your hide-a-key.
Instead, the next day, I got the speech: The key was exactly where it always is, but because a leaf got in the way, you couldn’t find it. Your reasoning skills have flown out the window because you can’t stop long enough to reason. You are trying to do too many things, be too much to too many people. Something has got to give.
Interpretation: If you don’t slow down, I’m going to take you to the doctor because your head is a mess and you are making silly mistakes which means to me: You are fixing to get sick again. And NONE of us have the time, strength, energy, or mental fortitude to go through THAT again. Least of all, you.
(Note: Getting sick again=somersaulting into a “cycle” perpetuated by an “atypical eating disorder” I had for 11 years. If I find the courage, I will address this in the near future. Y’all be patient with me there, though, please.)
I got it. Note to self: Don’t call your parents until you KNOW the key is lost forever.
See, I didn’t realize I was a perfectionist until a few years ago, during law school. It took law school to put the pieces together, but if ever there is a mirror for your faults, there is none more crystal-clear than law school.
My picture of perfectionism is the girl with the perfectly coiffed hair wearing the perfectly put together outfit (and purse to match) no matter what time of day or day of the week you see her, be it at Wal-Mart or at work, who always has her nails done and brings a homemade dish anytime she walks into someone else’s house, even if aforementioned house belongs to her best friend.
Her own house is immaculate. The couch isn’t 8 years old, over-sized, ugly brown with even more heinous pillows, and doesn’t have more food under the cushions than the entirety of her perfectly-organized snack drawer (because you know she has one, whereas mine is the entire pantry.) She has rugs and curtains to match the décor, accentuating her perfectly placed oil-paintings. Her child’s room could be a photo in Pottery Barn Kids. Everything has a place, and it is labeled with pretty, Pinterest labels and easy to reach.
She wakes up at 4:30 to pound the StairMaster. She dresses (and she matches), has on jewelry, has replied to a couple of emails, had her quiet time, and her perfectly coiffed hair is achieved before she wakes her perfect child(ren) up in more than plenty of time to get them perfectly dressed and perfectly nourished with a well-balanced, organic, dye-free breakfast before they all pile in their dirt-free SUV with absolutely no empty Coke cans or last week’s mail on the floorboard and to school well before the bell rings.
Her child never has do-nut sprinkles on his shirt before school, as do-nuts are forbidden and even if they weren’t, the wayward sprinkles would not cling to the beautifully ironed clothing of her perfect children.
She can multitask like nobody’s business. She can juggle family, career, public service, and a concrete relationship with Jesus without a hair every coming loose.
It is more than obvious that the perfectionist woman has her life together. All 82 parts of it.
I’m the polar opposite.
I feel like I’ve lost any sense of vanity I ever had (and I’ll admit, the sense I used to carry around was ginormous.) I go out looking like I’ve rolled out of bed every day, unless I have to either see a judge or be a judge. Make-up has become just one more thing to do that I just don’t have time for…and the longer this goes on, the more I need it. I’m about to have so many wrinkles that I will look like a Sharpe by the time I’m 40. Same goes for my hair. One of my closest friends cuts it and colors it, usually at least 3 weeks after the roots start showing, but since I think it takes too long to dry it, I wear it “curly.” My hair is not curly. It has a modicum of wave to it, but that tiny amount gives me permission to put some really amazing smelling stuff all over it, scrunch it up, and either let it dry on its own or dry it for 1/4th the time it would take me if I dried it straight. So, I walk out of the house, 9 days of out 10, looking like a colorless, wrinkled Medusa.
I have taken to gritting my teeth. It makes me feel better, but I doubt the sound is pleasant.
Nothing in my house is how I want it. Even on those rare days when laundry that I have managed to fold has magically found its place in drawers and closets and bathroom cabinets, it still makes me insanely anxious. I need rugs. I need pictures hung in different places. I need to get a bed skirt that doesn’t resemble my son’s high-waters, but I haven’t taken that leap because I’ve realized I really need to have one made, and going to look at fabric and finding a seamstress is less appealing to me that going to have a root canal. Too many decisions. Takes too much time. I haven’t made my to-do list for that one yet.
My child eats donuts on the way to school EVERY day, pink with sprinkles, white with sprinkles, but he only eats the tops which means he only eats the sprinkles, and I am just elated that he ate. By the time we get to school, usually at a minimum, 2 minutes late, he has pink and white sprinkled donut icing on his forehead, and his shirt is so smudged with said do-nut toppings that his teachers probably think I don’t wash his clothes: I just give him donut encrusted shirts to wear every single day.
And my car wears the donut sprinkles that don’t stick to his clothes. Plus, it gathers the mud from his boots, his 48 mini-tractors and all of my junk that, if I take inside my house, will not have a definite place to reside. So it rides with me.
The list is endless. Put-together…gracious, even presentable…I am not. And becoming less so.
So how on Earth can I classify myself as a perfectionist?
Here we go: If I have a task in front of me, and if I don’t know how to do it exactly right, I won’t do it. Just flat won’t even try. I keep piles of things around my house, just waiting for that “A-Ha” moment to occur, to tell me how to start. Until the light bulb goes on, those piles sit, just waiting to be sorted through, organized, boxed up, thrown away, and finally diminished. Until then, they become akin to another piece of furniture that I plan to replace one day: they sit until I either have the time, the money, or the idea to deal with them. If it is a pile of papers, bills or notes someone passed me in 8th grade, I have to figure out a) do I need containers or a container-like equivalent to deal with that pile? b) where will I get those containers? c) how much do they cost? d) what do I want those containers to look like? e) how many will I need? and finally, f) where will the containers go once purchased and filled? These are the steps I have to take to deal with any unfamiliar task on my hands. Some can be dealt with in a short period of time. Some a day. Some a week. Some hang out so long they become dear friends.
And this is how I know that I am an imperfect perfectionist.
But the question remains: How does a “perfectionist” become o.k. with being imperfect?
For me, the list of how to get there is long but it boils down to this: Simplify.
I’ve decided that it is not just alright to allow myself to slow down; it is a necessity. It is time to enjoy some of life’s moments. To realize that I actually DO have time, and that if I choose to stop for a while to watch my son play in the “muck,” as he has decided it is called, that is not something I will ever regret, and the to-do list, usually self-created, is not even remotely as important as the people, the moments, the laughter, the conversations, that we can’t get back once they pass us by.
I’m not sure what “simplify” means to you. I think we all have our own version of the meaning of that word, and I can’t tell you that when I made my resolution, I honestly knew exactly what it meant for me. I’m not even sure I was putting my need to simplify with this perfectionism issue. But I started reading the book Letting Go of Perfect by Amy Spiegel a few weeks ago, and her fourth chapter told me how I felt. Seriously. I couldn’t articulate it, even in this blog post, until I read that chapter. It was meant for me. I want you to read the book for yourself, so I won’t post much….but this is merely one of more than a dozen passages I underlined in that chapter alone:
“Jesus wasn’t friends with everyone. He had a limited number of disciples in whom he invested deeply. He wasn’t a snob, though, and often spent time with those whose company He probably did not enjoy or get warm, fuzzy feelings around. He also spent a great deal of time alone, not eating potato chips and watching action movies, but rather praying and fasting, recharging for the work ahead. He didn’t heal everyone but allowed the Holy Spirit to guide Him and His ministry.
Jesus’ life was one of simplicity. Not of ease and not without complexity. But a cloth that is woven of many hundreds of knots all working together to create a pattern of simple beauty, clear and perfect. It was His willingness to die to His own will and live the will of His Father that created the masterpiece of a life.
Too often my life looks more like a jumble of threads, mismatched, hastily tied, and poorly executed. Pulling colors from here and there, I obscure the Creator’s intent. I go running after my own will rather than keeping my eyes on the race that has been set before me. If I will only slow down and refer to the pattern, everything will turn out beautifully.” (Page 57).
Simplify: what does it mean? For me, the biggest part is giving myself a pass. This is by far the hardest thing to change. To lower my own expectations of myself is not something I am comfortable with, and as you know, we stick to what we find comfortable, even if it is bad for us. I don’t feel comfortable saying to myself, “Go ahead and lower that bar.” It feels weak, and anyone who knows me knows this: I come from a long line of strong, especially strong women. Weak is just not acceptable.
But lowering my own expectations, I am teaching myself, is not weak. It is realistic. It has taken me this long to realize that creating a list of things to do so long that it is guaranteed to result in failure is not helpful. I’ve also realized that, in doing so, and attempting to pile on the obligations to already burdened shoulders means that the failures that will occur are not simply ones that arise from not getting to cross something off the list; instead, it means that the ones that do get crossed off the list don’t get done well. Creating too much pressure to accomplish a mountain of tasks brings on “leaf incidents” far more often than they should occur, and “leaf incidents” leave one weak…to be able to find the spare key when it is exactly where it should be, plus one tiny, highly noticeable caveat, is what makes us strong. Strong in our minds. Strong in our selves. Competent. Self-reliant. To be able to have the presence to not only see the leaf, but to move the leaf is what keeps the goals accomplished, and completed faster with fewer mistakes. One stinking leaf at a time.
I’ve begun to really rely on books like Jesus Calling and Jesus Today by Sarah Young. I’ve found that they are short enough to hold my attention and not make me constantly think about my to-do list while I am reading them, but profound enough to have an impact on my day.
I’ve begun to pray so much more, but in smaller increments. I’ve always been told that prayer should be continuous, that one should pray without ceasing. That always seemed over-reaching for me; who can pray all the time? I’ve realized that if I keep my conversations short and direct, I actually AM in continuous conversation with my Maker. My prayers have become more real, because they are immediate and they are sincere. They may end in ellipses, but they actually don’t end. That small way of changing how I pray has seriously kept me sane. Jesus and I have become better friends than we ever have been, because I know He is still waiting on me to pick up where I left off, and He knows I’m going to.
I’ve realized that it is okay to make mistakes. In my law practice, nearly everything I do is new. I don’t have a deep and detailed file to pull from when a new problem, client, or case arises…in fact, my file is thin and sparse. At first, the approach I’ve always taken (don’t do it if I don’t know how) was my first inclination. But I didn’t have a choice. Did I want to be a lawyer or not? Was I, one day, going to have a bigger file? Yes. Would I have one if I didn’t create it myself? No. So the overwhelming, debilitating fear of not knowing exactly how to do something was overcome by one simple truth: To not do it was not an option. So, I’ve made lots of mistakes. Oodles. But with each one, my file has become thicker, one crinkled page at a time. And the next time the problem arose, I remembered that moment of humiliation and defeat, and I’ve known what to do.
I have taken some practical steps to create simplicity that are not universal: I moved my office closer to home. I have taken a turn in my law practice that has no more alleviated pressure than a man in the moon, but it is a different kind and one I feel I can manage. I have decided that I really can only talk on the phone when I’m in my car, and I save my conversations that will be lengthy to times when I know I will be driving and can’t do one other thing but drive. I’ve stopped volunteering to do everything under the sun that I know someone needs to do, and I’ve sat on it until I feel confident that someone is me. I’ve stopped talking about the things that I’m not sure about to anyone who will listen. If I recognize I have a problem that I genuinely need to sort-out out-loud, I’ve sought out my closest friends and mentors and I’ve gotten them off my chest. But the ones that I know talking to someone else about will only make the listener feel as confused and chaotic as I feel, I’ve saved for that continuous dialogue with the only One who can really sort out my head, which is where the problem actually exists in the first place.
I haven’t figured it all out. I have some guilt over some things in my life that resemble that pile of paper just waiting for me to construct a list in order to begin to deal with, but they are intangible and no container, no matter how cute or inexpensive, will solve those problems, so I’m including those issues in that prayer time I mentioned above. And I know the answers will come. And the best thing is, I’m not obsessing over them (much). I’m waiting. At least, I’m trying to.
Perfectionism comes in all shapes and sizes, I am learning, and so does simplifying. I don’t know what you need to do. Gracious, I’m not even sure I know what I need to do. All I know is, I have a lot to accomplish, and I plan to do it all. I want to be an obedient Christ-follower, a good wife, a good mother, a good daughter, a good friend, a competent lawyer, a fair judge, an empathetic listener, and a citizen who makes a difference. I want to write a book one day. I want a new couch one day.
But this year, I’m telling myself this: if I want to be able to do all that and be all that, I’ve got to see the leaf, and then I’ve got to move it.
So I’m not gonna be all of those things today. I’m not gonna be all of them tomorrow. And I’m definitely not going to be all of them simultaneously, and I give myself permission to not be.
But when I am good at one of them, one day, or more than one for a few days in a row, I’m going to be content, and I’m going to be thankful. A goal was accomplished: One moment at a time. One project at a time. One client at a time. One case at a time. One 86’ed donut sprinkle at a time.
One leaf at a time.