I’m giving myself a good shake today, my friends. A get over yourself, ditch those silly unattainable expectations, and get real kind of dressing down. That’s because lately I’ve been experiencing a kind of nebulous dissatisfaction with life and with myself. I’ve been bogged down with trying to achieve the unachievable. As a teenager I imagined that my tendency towards uber self-criticism fueled by perfectionistic tendencies would have disappeared by age thirty, at the latest. Let alone age sixty-three. But you know, it seems to be my continued lot in life to be plagued by the perils of perfectionism.

Let me explain. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been feeling a bit blue.

Despite the fact that Hubby and I focus on healthy eating and I work hard at my fitness, despite the fact that I’ve ramped up my exercise program with respect to both cardio and weight workouts, I’ve gained weight. Parts of my anatomy are expanding, and I feel unable to do anything about that. I don’t feel good in my clothes. Well, at least some of them. I know that aging brings lots of surprises, among them how our changing body changes how clothes fit us. I know I could cut out my glass of wine with dinner. Or maybe look at the situation as an excuse to expand my wardrobe. Arg… poor choice of words there. But neither of those prospects fills me with anticipation.

My chronic neck and upper back issues have been bothering me lately, and physio does not seem to be working as well as it should. I’m battling back and neck pain, posture problems, yadda yadda, as I always am, and have been for years. Trying, with the help of Hubby and my physio, to find a way to be able to continue to do what I love (reading, blogging, cycling, sleeping, even) and not hurt myself. This is nothing new, and not life threatening in any way. Some new stretching and strengthening routines will no doubt help eventually. But still, I find myself struggling to stay positive.

Which is silly, I know. Because any way you look at it (and believe me I’ve been looking at it every which way) I have it pretty good. Damned good, in fact. I really have no reason to be in a funk. On the contrary, I think I might just really, really need a shake to remind me how good my life is.

I’ve always needed a good shake every now and then. To remind myself that I am placing unattainable expectations upon myself. That my life, my body, my hair, my job performance, my whatever does not have to be perfect. That perfectionism gets me nowhere. And what really matters has nothing to do with whether my life is “perfect.” And that shake, and the resulting epiphany has to come from within. Wise, well-meaning counsel from family, friends, husband, or whomever does not usually work. I have to get there by myself. And I always do. Get there, I mean. Eventually.

See this shot below? It was taken in July of 1983. My hairdresser at the time was being interviewed by the Ottawa Citizen for an article about summer hair styles. He asked me to hang around, after he finished my cut, to be in the photo which would accompany the article. I’d rarely, if ever, had a good photo taken, but I remember loving this shot. So much so that I saved the article. I was young, single, not bad looking, I had a good education, a nice new apartment, a good job, and I was unhappier than I’d ever been before. Or since. All those things that looked perfect on the outside were simply hiding the fact that my life was not perfect at all.

The shake that I gave myself that time was a major life-changing one. And involved quitting my job and moving back to New Brunswick for a year of self-analysis, and rejigging my priorities.

Photo from Ottawa Citizen summer of 1983.
Ottawa Citizen photo, July 1983.

Let’s just say that every now and then I still have to give myself a priority-realigning shake.

Like this past week. I don’t think I even realized that I was in a bit of a funk. I was cranky. My hair never seemed to do what it was told. I felt bored, restless, a bit depressed if I’m honest. I tried to find a comfortable position to read or to write which did not involve neck pain. And I felt fat. Then I wrote that post about those yellow pants.

Honestly, if it weren’t for the problematic pair of yellow pants that I tried to style for my blog post, I think this bout of perfectionism would have passed me by without my realizing what it was that was bothering me. I am serious. Those yellow pants were my epiphany.

You see after I published that post the other day bemoaning those pants and what to do about them, I received a text from my buddy Liz. She was there when I bought the pants, saw me grab them off the rack enthusing that they were just what I needed. She saw me pull them on and sigh. So when she read that post, and all my moaning about those yellow pants, she fired off a text saying, “Susan, what do you want from those pants? They look great.”

I laughed out loud when I read that. Because in my head I saw those yellow pants as a cartoon character, throwing up her arms and yelling in exasperation: “What do you want from me, lady?”

What did I want from those yellow pants? To look perfect, of course. Which of course they could not do.

And just like that the penny dropped. I’d been side-swiped by a bout of pernicious perfectionism.

Woe is me. I’m getting older, and wider. I still have frizzy hair. My back and neck ache most of the time. My feet swell in the heat. French fries are not my friend anymore. Sob. And I don’t look the same in my jeans as I did when I was twenty-three. Let alone a pair of yellow linen pants. Despite all my striving, I’m not perfect, my body is not perfect, my life is not perfect. But, and this is the important bit, when has perfectionism ever, ever got me anywhere? When has worrying about being perfect ever brought me anything but trouble?

And just like that I felt better. Not thinner, or less frizzy. My neck still hurts. But I’m doing good. I just needed to get that little whine off my chest. And it felt great, actually.

You know, I realize that this post is mostly navel gazing on my part. I’m not looking for advice on how to avoid being a perfectionist. That ship has sailed, people. With me firmly on board. Ha. I am who I am, to quote Popeye. I know I have a good life. That my “problems” are first-world problems, if indeed they can even be considered problems. But I also know that every once in a while I need to step back and take a good hard look at myself, and all my sometimes selfish, often obsessive, frequently perfectionistic tendencies. I need to examine myself and my life and what I’m doing with it.

When I was about halfway through writing this post I almost deleted the whole thing. I thought, “Where am I going with this? What is the point of putting all this drivel out there?” Then I read a post on another blog, by a woman much younger than me. She has just turned thirty, is also experiencing self-doubt, and is examining her life through her writing. And I felt a certain kinship with her. I wanted to say to her that we never stop trying to be better. That being perfect is not the point. It’s all about knowing ourselves and learning how to be better in the world.

Besides a little naval gazing never hurt anyone. Did it?

Now, how about you my friends? Are you ever plagued by perfectionism?

P.S. Hubby and I are off to the semi-wilderness tomorrow. We’re finally getting out of here for a few days. The truck is loaded, the canoe strapped on, and I am looking forward to a week of no make-up, bad hair, and no worries except trying to decide whether to ride our bikes or go for a paddle, and which book to read next. I’ve scheduled a reprise post for later in the week. Pray the rain holds off and the bugs are not horrendous. Ha.


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33 thoughts on “Perils of Perfectionism”

  1. You are very hard on yourself sometimes , unnecessarily so , but of course you know that . I wonder what causes some people to feel this way – family background , birth order , genetics or even your star sign ? I’m not sure it’s a bad thing though . It must have helped you become an excellent teacher ( & blogger ) & make a successful life for yourself . Perhaps it’s more problematic with age when it is physically harder to be perfect . I’m no psychologist so if I advise you to be kinder to your body & allow it some leeway you might think ‘ what does she know ? ‘
    I don’t think I am a perfectionist , except perhaps a bit in the wardrobe department sometimes . Maybe being a keen gardener has taught me to accept the unchangable like weather conditions & naughty wildlife or it could be that I’m basically lazy ! Hubby on the other hand has to do things properly & it’s difficult for him to ease up . So I know how your Stu feels & I can sympathise with him too 🙂
    Hope you enjoy your trip & come back refreshed both physically & mentally . The perfectionists I know really wouldn’t cope with that kind of holiday so progress has been made .

  2. Yes. But I have made efforts to curb it now. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in a mirror without feeling I had somehow failed…which is crazy…I’ve been like this all my life and I do know how it started so that helps. Our mad society, obsessed with looks and surface really doesn’t help so I tend to avoid anything of that ilk. I refuse to apologise all the time, even to myself. And I’ve disposed of all those items of clothing I used to hang onto, just in case I could somehow squeeze into them again. The limits I impose on myself are designed by me and nobody else and they are open to adaptation, again only by me. When I think of all the self-destructive things I used to do just to fit and fit in…mentally, as I type this, I am sitting back and puffing on a huge cigar, two fingers to the rest of the world. Again, it helps. Enjoy your week outside.

  3. Oh, boy, I wish I could give you a tiny bit of what 60 gave me, which was a massive injection of “don’t f*** with me.” It was actually gifted to me by dear friends and spirit guides when I turned 40, but it took me a little while to grow into it. 🙂

    I digress. Hi, I’m Carol, and I’m a perfectionist, too. I’m also 50 pounds overweight, have bad knees, and you know what? I’m pretty good with all that. I walk, a lot. My last three major vacations have been segments of the Camino de Santiago – that kind of walking. I eat well, and well. Good food, and healthy food. My blood levels are great, a testament to genetics and luck, and good food. Would I like to be 50 pounds lighter? Of course. My knees and I are in agreement on that score. But even if I were at my marriage weight, I suspect that the pounds would be redistributed, because gravity has her way with all of us.

    So here I am, and I’m utterly delighted to be me. And I sincerely hope you can get to a similar place. That body you fret about allows you to canoe and hike and bicycle and walk and do so many things that a whole lot of women our age can only see in the rear view mirror. Revel in that, enjoy the french fries and the yellow linen pants, and *live.* ‘Cause that’s all we’ve got.

  4. Oh yes! Feel your pain on this one… so frustrating, particularly when you know better and most days hum along very happily! That upcoming camping trip is the antidote to pernicious perfectionism!
    May it not rain and the bugs take a few days off.
    Love your blog.

  5. Last night, I took my kid to a 5K run. In the cetner of the square were Lycra-clad hard bodies, ready to start the race. At the café terraces around the periphery were normal people. I saw a woman at a table, about my age, who had “let herself go.” She was about to dig into a big chantilly-topped dessert. And I thought, “maybe it’s time to let myself go.” I’m 10 lbs. more than I used to be, and those 10 lbs. aren’t going to go away now–thanks to FitBit, I see that even when I do 17k steps, I just barely top 2K calories. It is very easy to eat more than 2K calories in a day. After menopause, our bodies’ metabolisms shift gears and slow way down. Weight gain is inevitable, unless one makes a gigantic effort to exercise and to meticulously watch our diets. A friend in her 60s is admirably slim; she walks an hour a day, never drinks (wine has lots of calories) and eats almost nothing. I am all-in for the walking, but not for the no wine or dessert, and minuscule portions of anything else.
    Despite the fact that my butt is migrating to my waist and new lines in my face make me not even recognize myself, I feel pretty good about my state–mostly healthy and in physical shape despite a complete absence of athletic ability, “only” 10 lbs. heavier…. My Pilates teacher, who recently turned 50, is taking it so much harder. She has a perfect body and is strong, too, but she sees only defects. She looks like a young Mariska Hartigay. She still turns heads but maybe not of the young guys anymore. It’s hard on her. And I’m glad that having always been unexceptional–neither pretty nor ugly–my looks are not what define me. The Vintage Contessa just posted a quote from Helena Bonham Carter about life as art. It reframes it–what’s important isn’t about being beautiful or perfect but making the world more beautiful.

  6. Funks, among other things, seem to be an inevitable part of life. All you can do is greet, accept, and let them flow on through. Sounds like that is what you have done. Now you can go have fun.

  7. Apart from your relatable comments on your changing body, your hair, your yellow pants, the common thread that seems to tie it together is pain. When you are dealing with pain, it eats away at your soul. Maybe if you got a better handle on your pain, you would be able to put all other things into perspective. Anti-inflammatories? Massage therapy? Different physio approaches? I’ve had bouts of chronic neck and lower back pain and found that it really put me in a bad place. I feel for you and hope that you can be relieved of the pain soon. In the meantime, being out in nature sounds like a perfect antidote. (On a side note, I saw a funny quote the other day that said something like, ‘I wish I was as skinny as when I thought I looked fat!’ ) Oh to look like we did in jeans at 23! -Jenn

    1. I would love to look as I did when 23 but think as I did now. But only if I could go back to then. The fun I would have. The shit up with which I would not put.

  8. Thanks for posting this and not deleting it! I have been a perfectionist all my life. Five years ago I had knee replacement surgery. Since then I have gained 20 pounds—despite being more active and careful about my diet. I give the numbers on a scale too much importance. My knee remains swollen so slim pants won’t fit. I feel your pain. It helps to know I’m not alone!

  9. Morning Sue
    You are not alone!! Thank you for not deleting this post.
    I’m a perfectionist too. I get blue too. And I sometimes need a talking to, by my self or I ask my hubby to. 🙉
    At this current moment my lifestyle has slightly changed and I’m hoping it’s temporary. I have medical ‘stuff’ going on and treating. I was near tears this morn thinking I’m not used to this discomfort. Then I read your post and new I was not alone with my feelings. I also said to myself … this too shall pass.
    I found this quote on Instagram…
    Welcome to your 60’s!
    If you don’t already have a mysterious ailment,
    One will be assigned to you shortly. 🤔 😉
    Enjoy your vacay….

  10. I’m so glad you didn’t delete the post. Most of us feel disastisfied about some aspect of our lives, yes I’d love to have the body I had when I was twenty, I look with dismay at the flab I’m going to have to expose now that swimsuit time is here. And those varicose veins. But there’s no point in being a perfectionist any more, and anyway who was ever perfect.
    There where I tend to beat myself up is over relationships. or should I say friendships.. I always worry about having said the wrong thing, even with my oldest and dearest friends.
    I also know that I need to make some new friends as geographically it’s not possible to see mine very often. But recently having been semi-rejected by people who I thought I had a real connection with, I’m thinking, did I try to hard, am I boring ? Seems we never really get over the ‘not being picked for the games ” thing however old we get.
    Regards the aches and pains, I think a little warm sunshine helps !

  11. I empathize with so much of this. I do believe, however, that to underestimate the triple whammy of perfectionism, pain, and physical aging effects (body changing) that we cannot control is to underestimate how significantly these factors can be in causing that “funk.”

    These are legitimate and understandable feelings of frustration and so much more.

    Be kind to yourself. You’re fabulous. But also – if you don’t mind my “advice” from one who knows – recognize that pain can be an insidious companion. To be “blue” as a result, when strong will and determination aren’t helping the way they used to (common traits of perfectionists, no?) is only natural. So give yourself a little break on that score.


    1. Agree with all you’ve said, and Sue I hope you give yourself a break as well about being “blue” or in a “funk”. I’m also a perfectionist, and now that I’m very close to 67, and my strong will isn’t working the way it used to, has me in a bit of a funk as well, but although I do feel a lot of gratitude, and also feel the “shadow” side.

  12. I thought you looked great in the yellow pants with the black T! I would certainly wear that outfit. But then you and I look somewhat similar, although being 12 years younger you very much have the edge. In 12 years time, if you look at that picture again, you will say to yourself, ‘I really was kind of hot, which you are! Enjoy your break!

  13. So glad I found this post today. I, too, am a perfectionist and it has plagued me most of my life. I turned 40 last year and thought some of the perfectionism would abate. Alas, it has not. In fact, I think it has probably ramped up. Sigh… Anyway, I enjoy your blog so much and wanted you to know I can relate to this post. Hope you have a wonderful time on your camping trip!

  14. Glad you found it inside yourself to get out of your funk. I hope your new treatments provide some pain relief – I can see how pain would be depressing. Your time in the semi-wilderness sounds like it will be a great break. And like Mary above I can promise you that 10 years from now you’ll look at that picture of yourself in the yellow pants and see how great you look.

  15. I recently read that it is good to de-stress and drop the perfectionism. Instead re-train yourself to think Good id good enough! Tall order but sometimes it helps to keep the smaller things lower on the list!

  16. Thank you for this post- it resonated deeply and was a good reminder that we are tied together by our what it means to age as women- physically, emotionally, spiritually!
    Enjoy your opportunity for re-creation!

  17. So very happy you did not delete your post. Been there, done it, done it again and again. Now in my 80’s I’m enjoying every minute of my life. I do the best I can with what I have. Have a wonderful trip.

  18. Thanks for the real post. Your frustrations resonate with me. We women of a certain age need to be kinder to ourselves. Easier said than done, though.

  19. It’s good to know I am not alone in feeling blue or in a funk sometimes. Like you I suffer from neck and shoulder issues and there is nothing worse than pain to bring one down. With some time out in the bush to do the things you love and not have to worry about hair, fashion etc will enable you to come back refreshed and to tackle the hair, fashion etc. again. Otherwise I will miss your fabulousness in that department.

  20. Right with you Sue. Neck still hurts, hair fizzy but when I had it straightened it turned green, can’t lose a pound but easy to gain a pound or many, I could go on and on. We’re all with you if we think about it. Perfectionism certainly does kill our creativity. Bottom line, have fun on your adventure. Come back and we certainly accept and enjoy you just the way you are!

  21. Ha! I’m so glad you posted this one. That’s the Sue I know and love. I was wondering what the deal was with the yellow pants which are fabulous. As are you! Xo Nancy

  22. You are really suffering from the need to be an A student, not perfectionism. It takes one to know one! There is a difference. I’ve always known that no one is perfect. But for many of us high achieving girls of a certain age, getting an A is the expectation— and the curse. A lot of my stress during my career years was due to always striving for the A when maybe the circumstances dealt me a B minus or even a C (Horrors!) through no fault of my own. I’ve also discovered that the physical changes in each decade hit about two years in. I got my first bifocals at 42. You’re just experiencing the sad-but-true signs of aging. I’m 67 and have noticed a slowdown in the last couple of years. I do get twinges of sadness that my best wardrobe days are behind me, so I’m dressing up more each day for hubby. (He always thinks I’m going somewhere!). I wish I had a silver bullet piece of advice. Just give yourself permission to be who you are now. Even with those nagging extra pounds and at age 60+.
    It’s working for me, one day at a time.

  23. Wow, pretty much exactly how I’ve been feeling lately, so very grateful you didn’t delete the post. Thanks for that!

  24. Another perfectionist here and like you I’m recognising that this trait doesn’t always serve me well, I used to think it helped me perform well in my job and to achieve some of the other things I wanted (nice house, clothes and accessories I enjoyed wearing). But it also stops me from being really content and comfortable in my own skin. At 65 perhaps it’s too late too change but I hope not. Nearly two years into retirement I’ve finally figured out how to better structure my post paid-employment life and that’s given me a great deal of satisfaction. You are smart, funny, attractive and tell a great yarn. There’s a lot to be grateful for and I’m glad you’re feeling cheerier. Enjoy the wilderness. I have my fingers crossed for no rain and not too many pesky bugs.

  25. You are so lovely in this photo. And you are today as well,indeed
    I hope that you will find remedy for your physical pain
    And,I hope, you’ll hug Sue from this post and tell her that everything is just fine,and will be!
    You are certainly not alone,your post resonates (perfectionism etc) with me (as with the other ladies here). There are good days and there are blue days…..and I’ve slowly learned (and still am learning) that there are a lot of things to be happy,to enjoy,to be grateful for…..and to start to count them during blue days
    Enjoy your holidays-I hope without mosquitos and rain

    1. I’m late to this post which so echoes what I feel from time to time — both the blues and the giving-oneself-a-good-shake. And apparently echoes what many in this community feel, which I find very reassuring. . . . And now, if I might do some echoing myself, I’d echo Dottoressa’s wish for you to give that Sue a hug for me. And yes, may those pesky mosquitos leave you alone. xo

  26. The title of your post could easily have been the Perils of Pain. Very hard to think clearly or feel upbeat about anything when one is in constant pain. It colours much of life in gray–if not black.
    Hope the trek to the wilderness (getting out of town has to help your mood) is a nice break–that the bugs take a hike in a different direction and it doesn’t rain on your parade.

  27. Oh Sue, I also feel much of your pain!! I am so grateful that many women wrote supportive posts expressing the same sentiment, and without judgement…
    I have a doubly weird life journey in that, I look like the kind of woman folks envy. At the same time, I was taught as a young child that I was ugly, stupid and ‘no good’. So guess which one sticks with me to this day? Striving to prove that I am not stupid or ‘no good’ has become a bad habit. And feeling more of the tidal wave of grief over all of it as I age! LOL
    Thank-you, for opening up, everyone!

  28. Hi Sue, one of your paragraphs, in particular grabbed me. The one where you talk about chronic neck, and back pain. You talk about posture, and exercise, and physical therapy.
    I too have had a lifetime of it. I’ve had chronic migraines, neck and shoulder pain, and most recently debilitating lower back pain. I lost my quality of life when back pain took over. I told people I’d had permanent changes in my health, and felt that I’d lost the active life I’d had. Through almost five years, I sought answers from multiple doctors and PT’s, and had several rounds of injections to no avail.
    Last summer, a PT was so bold as to tell me that there was no real physical reason for this pain. She said “You are relatively young, you are healthy, and there’s no reason you can’t get through this.” She helped me with some physical therapy, but also building strength and stamina. She suggested I look into the body mind connection.
    I hadn’t heard much about that term, so I started to look into it online. Interesting stuff. One site that popped up was Curablehealth.com After reading through the information there, I signed up for a 30 day trial on their App. It’s a fourfold approach to learning about how your brain can create pain, and can learn to let it go. Working through exercises on the App, including education, meditation, brain training, and writing exercises has dramatically improved my health.
    I’ve learned a lot about myself over the past months of doing Curable. I know that perfectionism is one of the personality types that many people with chronic pain share. To have a a strong inner critic is another.
    I had also been going through a stressful time with many major life changes, both desperately difficult, and joyous. My brain was interpreting sensations of fatigue, stress, and muscle tension as pain.
    I still work with Curable often. I still have back pain on occasion, but I’ve stopped catastrophizing it. In that way, I can move through it more quickly, and get back to pain free days. My sister also began using it. She has had a life changing journey as well.
    I think you can try it for 30 days for free. Even after that, it’s not very expensive. I ended up with a one year membership. I wholeheartedly recommend just trying it!

  29. Whoa, another perfectionist (and retired teacher!) weighing in here. The difference is that I’m 8 years ahead of you in this life game and have had time to reflect on why those existential blues also hit me when I was in my early sixties. It took some time to realize that, despite my best efforts at diet, exercise, and diligent bouts of goal setting, age wasn’t an adversary I was going beat down into submission.

    As I used to point out to my students, there is usually a middle ground whenever things appear black and white. Accepting that my body was no longer mine to command and re-shape at whim was a big step in helping me come to terms with the perfectionist demands and expectations I had made on myself. Being pragmatic about the realities of a situation doesn’t mean letting go, or giving up, as much as it means figuring out how to work within a different set of circumstances—something I constantly had to do as a junior high teacher. Perfectionist tendencies don’t disappear as we age but, a good dose of pragmatism can help us figure out more productive ways to work through the realities of aging.

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