The Perfectionist Conundrum


How do you define yourself? What are the main characteristics that encompass who you are? Is it a strong work ethic or athletic, musical, or artistic talent? Perhaps generosity or courage or fortitude? For me it’s always been my intelligence & my kindness. Throughout my whole life the main feedback I’ve ever received from the world, be it teachers, family, friends, coworkers, or managers- whether said feedback was solicited or not- has always been, “Oh, Rebekah? She’s so nice. And very smart.” Or something very similar to that. Now there’s nothing wrong with that & I’m certainly not complaining. Whether intentionally or not, these are the ways I’ve defined myself too. But I’ll confess I’m having a bit of an identity crisis right now, precipitated at least partly by two events that have occurred in the past 24 hours.

First, when I was coming home from work yesterday I stopped to get gas. As I was finishing up at the pump, a man approached me with a sob story about how he & his pregnant wife needed money to fix their car to so they could get back home to Charlotte. I was suspicious of his story, partly because I’ve heard this same story from other people quite often in my life, but being the nice person I am, I couldn’t say no seeing as I DID actually have cash with me & I COULD actually afford to part with some of it. I ended up giving him most of the cash I had because he was so persistent. He didn’t even say thank you, just moved on to the next pump saying “I need 7 more dollars, 7 more dollars.” I left feeling a bit used, I’m not going to lie. And yet, I don’t think I could have lived with myself if I’d either lied & said I had no cash or just refused to give him any. I know this is a very complex issue & in many cases I have given homeless people food or water rather than cash, but on the chance that this man’s story WAS true, food or water wasn’t going to fix the problem, so that wasn’t really an option here. Even if he was in fact lying, I can’t help but feel that he must have had SOME kind of need or he wouldn’t have been begging from strangers.

I am always happy to help when I can, so in the end I don’t regret giving him the money- I really don’t- but I DO have to wonder if I have some kind of sign on my forehead that unbeknownst to me proclaims “CAN’T SAY NO- WAY TOO NICE!” And if so, how the hell do I go about removing that “sign” without actually becoming a cold-hearted mean person? After all, I have long since learned how to draw boundaries at work & in my personal life so that I’m not constantly being taken advantage of there. In reality, that would be a much bigger problem. Even so, in situations like this where I don’t actually feel threatened but do feel a bit pressured, I can’t seem to find the guts to say no. Hell, once I had a man approach me at a gas station saying something creepy along the lines of “Hey, if your husband doesn’t appreciate you, I can” all while leering at me lecherously. As angry I was, I was so shocked that all I said was “Have a nice day.” In my head, once I drove away, I was saying much worse, believe me, but in the moment I was so flabbergasted that I couldn’t formulate a better response. What I suspect is that I’m giving off some kind of vibe where these types of men somehow KNOW that & that’s why they approach me in the first place. Actually, I shouldn’t say men because these things have happened with women too. And I find it even harder to say no to them!

Now obviously if I saw the same person every day telling this same story (or a very similar one), naturally I would not continue giving them money. I am not Jeff Bezos or Oprah here, after all! I cannot fund every crisis I encounter. It’s just hard to be a kind person in an often cruel world, so often wondering if you’re being taken advantage of & yet unable to live with yourself if you say no to someone who may in fact be in real need…

As a side note, these are the stories I always want to scream at people who tell me that I’m such a terrible, uncaring person because I’m not a socialist or communist (as if the only way to have compassion is through the government- please, give me a break!) I always want to scream “You don’t know anything about me. You have no idea how many times I have given my time & money to help both friends & strangers in need.” But usually I just clam up & let them rant because it rarely feels worth the effort.

The second thing that happened to provoke this identity crisis is that I wrecked my car on the way to work this morning. Thankfully it was nothing too serious & I wasn’t actually injured- I’m just a little sore & psychologically torn up. Most importantly my daughter wasn’t with me. Furthermore the only major damage to the car was a flat tire & a small dent, the latter of which isn’t worth fixing. My husband was able to come remove the car from the ditch & change the tire so that I could get home & try to spend the rest of the day recovering so that I can make it to work tomorrow. But the whole thing has left me feeling like a total idiot. I mean, for someone who has spent her whole life priding herself on her intelligence & rational decision-making, going off the road & ending up in a ditch feels like an incredibly dumb thing to do (because it IS an incredibly dumb thing to do)! Being a perfectionist is hard because even when everyone around you says “It’s ok, it’s just an honest mistake, it happens to everyone,” your own brain won’t let you off that easily. And I’ve always had this terrible anxiety that if I weren’t such a perfectionist about everything, my whole life would fall apart, like that’s the only thing holding me together or keeping my life “on the tracks.” So when I make a mistake like this, I’m left feeling like: A. “I’m not as smart as I think I am or as people so often tell me I am.” Or B: “My life is going off the rails! How could I slip up like this? What is wrong with me?”

I’m sure this is just part of getting older but I’m left wondering how we are supposed to define ourselves when the things we’ve always been defined by feel somehow wrong or invalid. I’m also sure that after some good sleep I’ll probably feel much better, both physically & psychologically. But one thing I’ve learned over the years- albeit slowly- is that the only way to really move past something is to just face it, to allow myself to feel every emotion I’m feeling rather than telling myself “I shouldn’t feel this way. This is stupid. Just move on.” None of those things are helpful. I’ve found that the best way to actually “toughen up & move on” is to be weak for a moment, to cry when I need to, to scream at the universe when things feel unfair. Otherwise I’m just creating a powder keg that will inevitably explode in a much more unpleasant & hurtful way later down the road.

I think one mistake many people make, perhaps women more than men, though I could certainly be wrong about that part, is that we often allow the world around us to define us. I know I am guilty of this at times. The truth is that we have to learn to define ourselves in a world that so often seeks to box us in or to make us conform to pre-arranged identities. Fighting against that is hard & when we inevitably fail to live up to our own standards at times, we have to learn to forgive ourselves but still keep trying.

So I guess I’ve written all this to say, I forgive myself. I want to do better- I need to do better. But I won’t accomplish that if I spend all my time berating myself for not being perfect.

So dear perfectionist brain, take a “chill pill.” It’s going to be ok.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: THE NAKED NIGERIAN

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