Thursday, March 26, 2009

Pressure, pushing down on me ...

When songs come on the radio in the car, they almost always manage to change my mood, if I let them.

Most times, though, I'll be in a certain mood and will want to remain there -- whether it's happy, sad, tired or grumpy -- and I'll search the radio stations until something fits.

This is definitely related to my little problem of over-thinking. (I do it all of the time, on a wide variety of topics, and it's most certainly a result of being a perfectionist and wanting to analyze every possible angle of everything, before coming to the perfect conclusion, decision, whatever.)

So anyway, back to the car. I usually need to find a song complimentary to my frame of mind because I'm always wrapped up in my thoughts, and in these moments, I feel these thoughts are important and must be seen through to some end.

But last night, I didn't let my mood control the music. Or actually, the music snapped me out of my mood -- not a good one -- and I actually started laughing at myself.

I was driving home bleary-eyed from my longest workday of the week, all embroiled in a stressful work-related situation in my mind. And boy was I in it. I was having conversations in there, playing out possible scenarios and how I would react, how others would react, what I would say. It was some juicy stuff!

Then this song came on, and just as I was about to change it, I started laughing.

"Pressure, pushing down on me, pressing down on you ... "

And so it goes.

I immediately realized I was putting myself under pressure, in a made-up scenario in my mind, a scenario that hadn't yet happened and probably wouldn't happen, and therefore certainly didn't deserve this much time.

I do this all of the time. And when I choose to share such a scenario with my at-home sounding board/husband, I get huge flack for it. His favorite reaction to most of my scenarios -- "This doesn't even exist!"

In the car last night I finally had a moment of clarity -- sans the exasperated reaction from my husband -- that I was doing it again. Making up situations in my head, and having physical, emotional reactions to them when they hadn't even really happened.

I took this perfectly placed Queen/David Bowie song last night as a kind gesture from the big guy upstairs, telling me, "Hey, you, snap out of it!"

And I listened! It's amazing what you can hear when you open your ears -- and your mind, and your heart -- and listen for those subtle reminders that everything is really going to be OK.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Do you dwell in your disasters?

This phrase is from a song by one of my favorite musicians, Ray LaMontagne.

To some, quite a few of his songs might sound sad, but I find them touching and poignant, and so true to things I never would have otherwise realized I feel or do.

The lyric is, "I never learned to count my blessings, I choose instead to dwell in my disasters." (It's from my favorite song on his 2006 album, "Till the Sun Turns Black.")

The reason this speaks to me so deeply is that, frankly, I do this, but never realized it until I heard this song.

It’s not that I’m bummed out all of the time, or even a lot of the time. I’m a pretty happy person. But when I’m sitting quietly in the car, or with my dog, or looking out the window, I’m probably worried.

Who knows what it is I’m worrying about. It’s so often, it really could be about anything. It could be something as huge as the health of a family member, the safety of my loved ones, or as stupid as, “Did we shovel out the mailbox enough? Or am I going to have to deal with standing in line at the Post Office again?” (The thought of dealing with the Post Office brings me more anxiety than I think is normal. I blame it on a certain postal worker in a certain small-town Post Office. That’s all I’m saying.)

Obviously, I’m not as upset about the Post-Office-type worries as I am about the really scary ones, but the point is, they’re all there, swirling in my mind, obscuring the brighter things I could be thinking about – the blessings.

And there are many. I am blessed. Very blessed. I do realize this. But it’s not the natural course of my thoughts. I don’t linger on how lucky I am to be happy, healthy, have steady work, a real home, an abnormally awesome dog, and equally awesome spouse. I do think of these things often and remind myself, “Hey, this is pretty awesome!” But it’s almost as if that thought takes me by surprise. It’s not the more comfortable thought in there. It’s the, “Ooh, I like having this thought,” thought. The, “Why don’t you come around here more often?” thought.

I think this is (surprise!) tied to the perfectionism thing. Here’s why: No life if perfect. What does perfect even mean? It’s an impossible goal, an impossible ideal. And do you know what the definition of ideal is?

According to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, ideal means, “a: existing as a mental image or in fancy or imagination only; broadly: lacking practicality,” or, “b: relating to or constituting mental images, ideas, or conceptions.”

Yep. Ideal is not possible. It’s in the “imagination only.”

So for many of us who have this perfectionism in our personalities, we’re so hung up on the ideal – which is, by definition, impossible – that the real is kind of an afterthought.

Now back to the song about dwelling in disasters. (I didn’t want to bring this up earlier, but I will now that I’ve made my point.) Do you want to know the name of that song?

It’s “Empty.” Ouch.

(I actually didn’t even know the name until I began writing this post. Double ouch.)

Perfection is a search that will always leave us empty. It will always have us dwelling in our disasters and forgetting to count our blessings.

But don’t feel guilty about that (yet another issue I suspect is tied into perfectionism). Just hear it. Think about it. And notice how you’re thoughts are going some quiet day. What’s on your mind? If you’re dwelling on some worries, try to consider your blessings. It may not be second nature, but that’s OK, too.

It’s not about changing who you are, but just changing your view.

And only when you want to. Sometimes dwelling in your disasters just feels right. And feeling right is what it’s all about.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

When your puppy makes work look good, something’s amiss

When I look back at old pictures of my impossibly cute puppy, Clover, and me, I realize something sad – I spent most her puppyhood freaking out.

Of course, I cuddled her and oohed and ahhed over how cute her little fuzzy face was, how tiny and prickly her little teeth were, and how fun it was to snuggle her in my arms, feeling her soft, precious puppy fur beneath my fingertips.

But I was also terrified of her. Yes, I was terrified of a tiny, 10-pound, fuzzy, funny Golden Retriever.

Like any puppy, she was like a newborn baby in her inability to control her pooping and peeing. But the thing that makes that even worse with a puppy is that (A) they don’t wear diapers (Although, why not?) and (B) they’re free to and very good at roaming around all over the place, places where I might not have glanced in months. Places that were not easy to clean. Places that were, well, everywhere.

Having this kind of pooping and peeing machine walking around our apartment – never mind her need to chew on anything she could reach – was absolutely horrifying. To a perfectionist, that is. What does a person who tries to make her life and living space perfect do when something’s walking around making everything, well, not perfect?

She freaks out. And then she runs.

I ran to work, and found solace in my eight hours of only having to worry about meeting my deadlines. At home, I had to watch the clock and take puppy Clover outside every 30 minutes, begging her to “go potty,” which would usually end with her not going potty, and then promptly going potty as soon as we got inside, on the kitchen floor.

At least, this is how a crazed perfectionist saw this period of her life.

My much more laidback husband was fully engaged in Clover’s puppydom, not fretting over the poop and pee everywhere (and I do mean everywhere, both in the house and in every inch of her fur). Sure, he didn’t like coming home to her covered in her own you-know-what and scrubbing down every crevice of her crate each time this happened any more than I did. But he saw the bigger picture – this is our puppy! It’s her only time to be this tiny, cute little thing, and it’s awesome!

While of course her cuteness and the fun of watching her learn how to walk on a leash and climb stairs wasn’t lost on me, it was certainly mixed in with a fog of wondering if we had enough cleaning supplies, if a walk to the store on a nice spring day was really worth the mess I would most likely return to, and so on.

Freaking out about all of this to a friend, I’ll never forget her saying, “Renee, you’re being ridiculous. You have to leave your house. It’ll be fine.”

But the horror of having a major clean-up project upon my return was not only making me think twice about running errands, it was making me look at her as an unpredictable mess machine, not the adorable, most awesome little puppy I could ever ask for. (I knew this then, of course, but wasn’t able to enjoy it.)

Sadly, I can’t get those precious first weeks back. But I can file this away for the next time we have an unpredictable little mess machine on our hands – I’m thinking … a baby … someday?

I’ll be sure to surrender to the ride, and embrace all of the messy, un-perfection of it all. And that, by then, will be my new perfect.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Perfect doesn’t beget clean

I was replacing the brush head on my electric toothbrush yesterday – a move long overdue due in part to the outrageous cost of these things and also to the even more outrageous way they build up a horrifying green goo that can only be described as yuck – when I realized something.

Perfectionists are dirty.

It’s completely counterintuitive to what most people and even perfectionists themselves would think.

Wouldn’t someone bent on keeping things perfect be one of the cleanest people you know? That’s logical. But it’s not always so.

Here’s how it works, or rather doesn’t work, at least for me. I like being clean, and like having the things around me clean and orderly. I think it actually gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

However, stronger than my penchant for cleanliness and warm fuzzy feelings is my need to be able to devote the amount of time it takes to achieve this perfect state of clean. And guess what? That time never comes. So I find myself tiptoeing by my nightstand so as not to disturb the dust that would most certainly land on my pillow should I exhale too forcefully.

And now I realize, it is this hate for living with dust that seems to be the reason why I so rarely dust! Maddening, isn’t it?

Here’s what’s going on inside my head at these intersections of life and dust: If I try to wipe up those nightstand dust mites, no matter how carefully I wield my Pledge-moistened towelette, some of that dust will inevitably go up in a poof and land on my pillow, which will then require I change the sheets, which might mean I’ll have to do laundry. And while I’m at it, I really should vacuum this rug while the sheets are off so none of the stirred up rug dirt lands in my bed.

But I don’t have time to do all this. So I tiptoe by the nightstand.

And this brings me back to the toothbrush. So long had it been since I’d cleaned out the hollow inside this thing – knowing that waiting inside was the sickening, electric-toothbrush-gelatinous-goo (anyone with an electric toothbrush will know exactly what I’m talking about here) – I actually literally shuddered and screamed when I saw what was in there. It was black, yet green, and looked most likely toxic and was probably not helping the cold I’ve been battling back all winter.

Here’s where that day’s light bulb went on – perfectionists, or just people with a few perfectionist traits, are so bent on doing things right and completely and to the best of their ability, that a lot of things never get done. Even important things. Probably especially the important things. Sound ridiculous? I know.

Sound self-defeating? Definitely. And therein lies the problem with doing things perfectly. You can’t. So save yourself from the toothbrush goo gone wild – or from putting off writing that job application until the perfect moment, or from slapping some new paint on your walls until you’ve sampled 42 colors in all lights of day – and just do it. Sure, giving it your best is great. But giving it your anything is better than not.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A serendipitous sign for my blog: A perfectionism story in the Globe!

I started this blog late last night, and found myself actually dreaming about blog posts all night long. I know, that's not normal. I half blame what were unusually loud plow trucks startling me out of sleep what seemed like every half hour for the strange dream scape of last night.

But anyway, imagine my delight when I opened today and what was the headline in the top left-hand spot? "Perfectionism can be a problem."

I actually checked myself for a second there, thinking, "Wait a minute. Is this a joke?" I honestly felt like I was being punked.

But then I looked around and noticed the page was in fact the legitimate Boston Globe Web site, so I excitedly clicked on the story and gobbled up every line.

Basically, the premise is that perfectionism is great when it drives people in the top of their fields to go over and above to achieve success. That's perfectionism at its best.

It becomes problematic -- and insidiously so, it seems -- when people begin going, well, crazy, driving to achieve some unattainable end.

The trait can actually cause the reverse effect of its intent, creating problems in relationships, and even at work, where you'd think perfectionism would be an ideal employee trait.

One line in the story particularly spoke to my brand of perfectionism, which I'm currently working to overcome.

Carey Goldberg writes this quote from Jeff Szymanski, who is the executive director of the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation, based in Boston.

"Perfectionism is a phobia of mistake-making."

And that's it. It's all about the fear of a bad outcome that pushes perfectionists to do some of the crazy things they do. As my husband likes to say, "You're worried about something that doesn't exist."

And that's the moral of that story. Let us all, fellow perfectionists, worry-worts and overachievers, just be here now. Let's just try -- try -- to remember that if the house is a mess when friends stop by, or you're not the best golfer on the course, or your work output suffers because you've finally been sidelined by the flu, or even just a cold, that the world will continue to turn, your friends will still love you, golf will still be a sweet way to spend the day, and your boss will just be happy you're not getting everyone else sick.

If that's too scary, pretend it's not. I might turn out it's actually kind of fun.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

No slave to the iron

I came up with the name for my blog when I was making my bed last night. Finally, I was putting on the clean sheets and shams I’d washed three weeks ago – having had every intention of putting them on that day – and noticed how embarrassingly wrinkled and creased my “hotel-esque” bedding was looking.

I was kind of annoyed at first, but then I realized, and this made me laugh, “They don’t make homemakers like they used to!”

Not that I’m a homemaker. I work fulltime and have only a husband and dog to take care of. But since my husband wouldn’t notice dirty sheets if they started disintegrating beneath him, I’m as close to a “homemaker” as this family’s gonna get.

So back to the wrinkles. Seeing that the duvet and sham set for which I’d searched for months to get that clean, crisp hotel look – on a budget, hence the search – had turned into “rumbled-hotel-chic,” made me realize how much I hate wrinkles, and as a result, have managed so far to avoid anything in life that would make me have to deal with them.

Let’s start with my job. I'm a newspaper editor, and lately, I’ve been working from home a few days a week and, therefore, wear whatever I want – I won’t get into details, but it’s a pretty comfortable, ironing-free wardrobe. When I’m in the office, it’s also all about comfort, because I’m rushing around a newsroom like a harried maniac either on deadline, just off deadline, or approaching deadline and still stressing as the days near deadline.

I do have to look professional when I’m covering events or government meetings, or when I’m interviewing people in person. But even then, I’ve somehow managed to find the most professional-looking pants, shirts and dresses available for a person who both hates wrinkles but even more hates ironing.

So, as I looked at my rumpled bed last night, wondering where I went adrift during the “dress for the job you want” lesson, I realized, I have the job I want. A freshly pressed blouse versus a nice, wash-and-wear shirt really doesn’t decide that. I do.

So, my long-winded point is that even though my bed’s not as crisp as that of the hotel I can’t wait to check into next weekend (thank you for showing me the Sunshine State sale!), and even though I was petrified wearing a wrinkle-prone silk dress to a friend’s wedding this weekend – so much so that I wouldn’t put on my coat in 30-degree weather and held the seatbelt away from my body for the hour-plus ride – I’m doing just fine here in my iron-avoiding world. And if having wrinkled sheets and avoiding all iron-required clothes means I’m doing it my way, than that’s OK.

It’s better than OK. It’s my imperfect life, and I’m starting to like it.