Perfectionism is in my blood.
As I walked home on report card day in the 8th grade, I couldn’t wait for my mother’s praise when she beheld my straight-A’s. Full disclosure: I had one B in math, but that was always allowed because my parents dreamed I’d one day be a professional’s wife who wouldn’t need to worry about numbers!
The first words out of her mouth after opening the report:
“What happened here?” she asked, pointing to my one A minus.
I looked at her, puzzled, so she continued.
“You got an A plus in History. What happened with this A minus in English?”
My mother’s pursuit of perfection was admired during my childhood. It was only in her last year of life that I learned how it had been rewarded during her own early years… She had always described her dad, John Kanastab, as an ideal father who loved nature and picked violets with her during their walks in the forest. When Mom reminisced on her death bed, she confessed that she knew she had to keep her father “as a friend” during her childhood.
An intense, Austrian immigrant, John disciplined her two older brothers harshly with a leather belt; a little extra boisterous activity upstairs was all it took to incite his wrath. In order to avoid her poor siblings’ fate, she had to vigilantly mind her “p’s and q’s.”
Was it any wonder she suffered from obsessive, never-enough tendencies while we shared the same roof?
A variety of perfectionism manifested on my paternal side as well. My father came from Polish immigrant parents and experienced a loving, lower middleclass childhood. His dad, Martin, was a machinist who worked long hours to support his wife and five children. When his asthma was severe, predictably in the summer months, he came home quietly through the back screen door so as not to wake anyone, and fell asleep sitting up at the kitchen table, his head in his folded arms.
Not surprisingly, my dad grew up with a fierce work ethic. A consummate salesman and storyteller in addition to being an ambitious breadwinner, he’d frequently speak of his dream of one day becoming a millionaire. He’d often joke, “You know what I tell people when they ask me how much money I want? Just a little bit more!” His income, no matter how ample, was never enough.
His older brother, my Uncle Bud, was infamous for refusing a piece of fruit pie if the juice was oozing out from the crust. He was also notorious for going into other people’s houses and straightening the pictures on their walls and the towels in their bathrooms!
For better or worse, the passing down of beliefs, perspectives and behaviors from one generation to the next–“generational patterning,” is real! The big takeaway for me is that it’s not fair to villainize any of the players: They–WE–were all originally innocent, vulnerable, impressionable children simply trying to survive… to be loved and accepted by those upon whom we were completely dependent. Each family’s legacy is mixed and complex; and the strands of emotional programming weave a multi-textured, multi-dimensional tapestry to be ultimately evaluated with compassion.
The very trait I had been raised to believe was my ticket to worthiness and lovability, (perfectionism) turned out to be my greatest obstacle to self-compassion, acceptance (of myself and others) and, ultimately, contentment. For as shiny and idyllic as it might initially appear, in reality, perfectionism creates chronic stress, fear (of making valuable mistakes), compromises self-image and true intimacy, and isn’t even attainable!
As I approach the end of my 7th decade, I still sometimes catch myself getting snared in that net of “never enough.” The best news is that, as I continue to process my history and my present choices, I’m better able to break that destructive pattern, not only for my own sake, but for my daughter’s as well. We can’t control which traits are passed down to us, but we do have some influence over how we allow them to impact our life. We all have the opportunity to end those harmful cycles.
I’d love to hear about any journey you’ve traveled with perfectionism or still may be working through. And if you’d like support with moving beyond “never enough,” it would be my privilege to help support that process.