I'm not perfect, you're perfect
Hi, my name is Melissa and I'm a recovering perfectionist.
I've often joked that I should start a support group for perfectionist ladies. I'd call it the "All or Nothing Club." Do you want to join? Read on.
To be clear, when I say I'm a perfectionist, I don't mean that in a douchey* humble brag kind of way. You know when you're interviewing for a job and the interviewer asks what your biggest flaw is and you look them straight in the eye, flash your pearly whites, and say, "Well Steve, I'd have to say it's my perfectionism. I really just throw my whole self into a project and work until it surpasses team standards." No. No, I don't mean that at all, Steve. And do you ask everyone that question because honestly, it's a bullshit question, Steve.
What I mean is the type of perfectionism that keeps you up at night replaying all the things you could have done better that day. Then, once you've gone through that day in excruciating black and white detail, you widen the lens to include the last year, the last decade, and before you know it, around 3 am you're kicking yourself for not winning the spelling bee in 3rd grade. Damn you, "subpoena"* and your unexpected vowel combination.
It's the kind of perfectionism that drives you to constantly want to (fill in the blank) better but when you finally get around to doing (fill in the blank), the finished product will still never ever be good enough in your mind. Then you just crap out altogether because really, who has that kind of energy? In a nutshell your standards for yourself are just unrealistic and it can stall your efforts before they even begin if you let it. Welcome to the All or Nothing Club.
I, as founding member of the AON club, count many of my lady friends as members. In fact, I'd say I don't know a single lady who isn't a perfectionist about something. Ok, I do possibly know one and I bet she's pretty damn content with her typos and for that I am jealous, but I digress. Our club's ladies are smart, successful, funny, and they get shit done. They are masters of self-deprecating humor and I love them for it. But I know most of them criticize themselves, second guess themselves, and assume that most of their success was just luck. Why? I surely know plenty of mediocre dudes who just straight up think they hung the moon. Many of them have mansplained the moon to me and their role in hanging it. I'm looking at you, Steve.
One of the worst professions for a perfectionist is academia. When I was in grad school I was suddenly and horrifically struck by the fact that my research would NEVER be finished. At least not if I was doing the whole academic thing right. There would always be another book or article on my chosen field, always another revision to a paper that could be made. I actually made myself sick trying to get ahead of it all when truly, there was no getting ahead of it because that really wasn't the point. There was no clear cut end and at that point in my life I wasn't ok with unknowns. In fact, they still make me a little queasy. I wanted distinct tasks with quantifiable completion dates. So? I left grad school and read trashy magazines and watched Buffy for a few months then eventually went back to being a television producer. In production I had clear deliverables and I could hand them over at the end of the project and move on. Plus, did the world really need to know about the introduction of bellydance into nineteenth century burlesque as viewed through the lens of orientalism? No, I doubt it. All or nothing, pal.
Listen, I know why I'm a perfectionist (Mom). I know how it got hardwired into my tender young brain (Mom). I even know precisely when it started (birth), but what I don't know is why is it so pervasive among my favorite women? Why are we so hard on ourselves? Perhaps we just flock together like birds of a neurotic feather. I know so many brilliant women who talk themselves out of doing something they want to do before it even begins. Is it fear of failure? Fear of success? Surely there's a book I can read or 20 books. I like homework.
I have one friend (Oh heyyyyy, Laura Herbert) who told me our combined pre-emptive worry keeps the Leaning Tower of Pisa upright and keeps the Oak Ridge Boys alive. They're still alive, right*? As a producer I never had a plan B, rather I had plans B through Q because that's how you're forced to function as a producer. All your ducks in a row, all your chicks counted with margin of error considered, all your eggs evenly distributed in several baskets, all your...I'm out of bird cliches...
But things never go entirely as planned do they? And what I've struggled with over the many years of sleepless and completely imperfect nights is that most of it doesn't fucking matter. Read that again. IT DOESN'T MATTER. And sometimes surprises, like leaving my 20 year production career and starting Miss Havisham's, can actually be a good thing. Sometimes you make mistakes (oh god) and sometimes you have to improvise and sometimes... you have to just get things really wrong.
This from the woman who hates surprises and financial risk. How did I arrive at this fleeting moment of zen? (And it is truly fleeting by the way, but let's enjoy it while it lasts.) You're going to hate me, but the answer came from a very unexpected place...
Yeah...I know, gardening is the past time of the elderly and the gentile. I was born elderly and I aspire to be gentile so stay with me. When I first decided to take up gardening, I did so out of a need to prettify my surroundings. I'm the type of perfectionist that is visually driven so if something is off or just plain fugly, I can't concentrate. For more information on my personal brand of perfectionism and its roots (Mom), I direct you to read my memoir if and when I ever stop writing and rewriting it. Until then, just walk with me down this garden path for a while longer.
While beginning this project, I meticulously researched and planned my garden layout. I checked the soil type, I tested the drainage around the property, I cleared the weeds, I studied the changing arc of the sun across my yard throughout the day and I even read somewhere around ten books on California native gardening. Oh and did I mention I took a class? Actually I probably took five classes.
And so began my obsessive planting, watering, and tending to these young little plant nuggets. I wanted the garden of my dreams, buddy. Once it flourished I planned to spend all day in it luxuriating with a book and a fizzy cocktail. I wanted hummingbirds to alight on my outstretched finger. I wanted koi to leap out of the the pond when I whistled. I yearned to have perfumed breezes waft through my bedroom window every day while woodland creatures dressed me in gossamer gowns. I wanted night blooming plants and morning blooming plants and alien looking flowers as big as my head. I wanted a poison garden to rival the Borgia's. I wanted secret gates and maybe, if I'm truly honest, a peacock or four. I'd seen those gardens and studied them. My garden plan was foolproof...until it really really wasn't.
After I planted everything, I waited for things to grow. First off, things never grow at the speed the gardener wants. You can't make nature bend to your will (lesson 1). Then came the summer sun and a good twenty five percent of what I planted shriveled and died in the scorching heat despite my careful efforts. Yet, I persevered.
Every autumn after that I planted more flowers, sowed more seeds, watered everything meticulously and yet still didn't get the garden I wanted. My obsessive gardening became a symbol of my new life in LA. I was working really hard to fit into this new city and still I felt like my efforts were not paying off. And so? I finally said fuck it as the good old "all or nothing" instinct kicked in. I ignored the garden that autumn. I averted my eyes from its glaringly sparse appearance and stomped into the house every time I pulled into the driveway. Screw you, garden.
And that's when the real fun started. The rains finally came. Before I knew it all the seeds I'd sown over the past few seasons sprouted. Suddenly things I'd forgotten I'd planted over the years started popping the fuck up in places I hadn't even intended them to be. Note: California native sunflowers will take over your yard if you let them and they get HUGE. I was suddenly living in a jungle with 10 foot high plants towering over me. I was dwarfed by nature.
Every morning I'd walk outside and look at what was blooming that day and it became my favorite part of the day. All I had to do was let go and stop trying so damn hard and suddenly I was being rewarded. Could it really be that simple? Of course not, but for the purpose of this tidy tale, let's just say it got me thinking.
The garden has become a reminder to me that some surprises can be good and that nothing ever turns out exactly as you expect it to so being adaptable is now my super objective. Actually napping is my super objective but I can't nap if I'm obsessing.
My garden is far from perfect. In fact, it's kind of a shit show explosion of wildflowers that I have to rip out mid summer or they start to look like something out of The Grapes of Wrath. Even five years in the citrus trees are still too small, there's no koi pond and the hummingbirds prefer to buzz straight at my head kamikaze style rather than alight on my outstretched porcelain hand. It's messy and chaotic and a hodgepodge of plant styles, none of them are poisonous and I have nowhere to stash a peacock. In the end, I have a yard that bears zero resemblance to the meticulous garden plan of old. I love it.
And really, if I look back at all of the major milestones of my life, I can honestly say that not a single one turned out as I imagined it and that's really important to remember.
Truth be told, even when a plant (or best laid life plan) does thrive, you can't control its shape or growth pattern. It's an exercise in embracing imperfection and letting yourself be surprised because the little details really DON'T MATTER. Maybe you all know that already but I'm learning it again every day.
Another happy surprise is that our yard has become a haven for all the neighborhood stray cats so I have anywhere from 3 to 8 cats hanging out there at any given time. Pro tip: grow tall plants and cover your porch with cat food and catnip and you'll get cat friends.
My "just fucking relax already" philosophy has led to some good things and while I doubt I will ever be able to fully abandon my relentless self improvement, for now I'm bringing my solid B+ game to the venture.
Ok that's all the touchy feely new age dogma I can handle for one day. I'll let you know when the next All or Nothing Club meeting will be. We've had to reschedule several times due to everyone's demanding schedules but until then, stop worrying about stuff so much. Perfection is boring, just look at Gwyneth Paltrow.*
*Stupid shit I googled and/or spellchecked because facts and spelling matter, damnit.