Sometimes, it just feels like I live with a monster. A monster called perfectionism
t’s not straight!” I bark, as Malka and Shiri hold up the brightly-colored poster, trying valiantly to pin it to the door. “Nope, still no good,” I snap, as they move it again, exchanging small looks. They try this way and that, but it’s still just not quite there. I sigh and march over. “Here, let me do it.” Within two minutes, the Bnos poster is up perfectly, even if my friends are both sulking. Oh, well.
I’m used to having to do things myself. People talk about delegating, but I’ve learned the hard way: If you want something done properly, do it yourself. And I like things done properly.
I also like doing well. Really well. Which explains why I come home in a rotten mood on the day I get an 87 on my Geography test, when I was expecting a 95, at least.
“What’s up, Raizy, are you okay?” my mother asks as I walk in the door, slamming it for good measure. “Bad day,” I mutter, then go up to my room. Everything looks just the way it did when I left this morning. Duvet carefully turned back, throw pillows scattered just so, laundry neatly folded and knickknacks perfectly arranged. This is me, I think, then throw myself onto the bed and look angrily at the ceiling. Meanwhile, my brain plays like a broken record, saying: only an 87, only an 87, only an 87…
Other people don’t get this at all, I’ve learned. They laugh at me when I say I wanted a higher mark. They prod me playfully and say things like, “Oooh, Perfect Raizy wants to get 100!” They think it’s a joke, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. Sometimes, it just feels like I live with a monster. A monster called perfectionism.
Some days I chill with friends at recess, go to the mall after school, chat on the phone, or hang out with my siblings. Other days, I spend hours and hours organizing my bedroom, filing papers in tens of categories, putting my books in rainbow order, and looking at the finished product with satisfaction. It doesn’t last long…
“Did someone let Effy in my room again?” I yell, storming down the stairs and brandishing a gross pacifier on a long yucky orange string. My mother sighs and looks up from her phone. “Sorry, Raizy, he moves so fast and sometimes he gets ahead of me.” I growl and drop the offending article on the table. Then go back upstairs. I know that wasn’t nice of me, but I can’t bear a mess in my room. And anything out of place is a mess.
Perfectionism is a cycle, and the monster remains while I feed it. Being perfect makes me calm, being imperfect makes me stressed, being stressed makes me want to be perfect again, and I find myself with a compulsive need for things to be just the way I want them. But I live with others — four siblings, for a start — and slowly but surely, my monster starts to become me. I snap and bark when things are messy and get steadily angrier and more intolerant day by day. Something inside me is constantly prowling and restless.
School is less of a problem, most of the time, except my obsession with getting my ideal mark. Each time I achieve higher, it pushes me to work like a dog and do it again. Each time I don’t, I’m grumpy all day, like a constant thundercloud driving everyone crazy. To be honest, I’m beginning to drive myself crazy, too. Nothing is ever good enough.
I stopped raising my hand in class, scared of getting things wrong, and at any available moment I’m trying to find the exact matching pair of shoes for every outfit in my wardrobe. The mirror is both my friend and my enemy, helping me get every hair in place each morning, while earning me many detentions for being late to school. I harass my siblings to look “normal” and walk ten paces ahead of them when they don’t.
It’s weird because nobody’s telling me to be like this. It’s just that I want it. It helps me, I think. Keeps me calm. Life feels safer this way. Until it doesn’t.
Finals are starting to loom and my sleep is beginning to suffer. Every night I hole myself up in my bedroom, poring over my notes — perfectly written, highlighted, and filed. My mother is starting to worry, my father is wondering, too. “Please, can you help Mommy with the dishes tonight?” he asks me. I have tons to study if I want to do well, I tell him. My parents both look at me, concerned.
They try to talk to me about it, each in their own way, but I shut them down, thinking they would never understand. My mother is as pragmatic as they come, organized and efficient. She doesn’t care about things like fashion. My father is perfectly unflappable about anything which isn’t Torah or halachah. Their simplicity annoys me, their satisfaction with mediocrity is jarring. Why don’t they care? I find myself thinking as we walk outside on a Shabbos afternoon, the boys with their untucked shirts, my mother wearing an outfit at least two seasons behind. They don’t get it.
The perfectionism is becoming more and more of a problem. It speeds along, like an express train on a track, but doesn’t stop, day or night. I toss and turn, worrying about my grades and ruminating over life in general. I’m beginning to realize this isn’t normal anymore. But I’m not sure what to do about it.
Shabbaton is coming up, and I’m head of the Friday night program, together with Chana and Elisheva. We meet to discuss what to do and choose a theme. “Menuchah v’simchah!” suggests Elisheva. “We can do little marshmallows as pillows, and have smiley face confetti!” Chana smiles, I cringe. “Hmm, I was thinking of something a bit more sophisticated,” I say. Elisheva’s face falls. The meeting is two hours long, and by the end of it, we are all exasperated and have achieved absolutely zilch. “Let’s meet again tomorrow,” Chana says. “Maybe a good night’s sleep with give us all more ideas!” We nod, even while I wonder if the others are even capable of good ideas.
We meet again on Tuesday. This time, Chana comes with a list of ideas, and Elisheva keeps agreeing with them all. They talk about doing silver and gold — so tacky. Then they discuss different blues —so masculine, puh-lease. I don’t think I even realize that I’m nixing every idea, until Elisheva snaps and says, “Okay, Raizy, let’s hear your perfect idea since none of ours are good enough.” I look at her with a sinking feeling and realize three things at once: One, I don’t have a perfect idea; two, that’s because nothing is ever perfect enough; and three, unless I do something about this fast, nobody is going to want to go anywhere near me ever again.
The meeting ends with us deciding to have a few days break, and I go home and find my mother.
Mom is in the kitchen, cleaning up. She smiles at me as I come in, and I notice her drab grey hoodie and old-fashioned glasses, which usually grate on my nerves. She looks at me inquiringly, but I’m having a hard time putting what I’m thinking into words. So I watch as she dashes around cleaning, shining the sinks and clinking the cutlery. I notice her efficiency, but even more, her calmness, and I think about how safe I feel here. Usually, I notice the grubby kitchen tiles, and the mismatched countertops and wallpaper. Today, I feel the warmth, the acceptance of me, the feeling of being good enough. And suddenly, from nowhere, I start to sob.
Mom turns to me in alarm, and I still can’t talk. Feelings and thoughts jumble inside as I think about needing to be perfect, and then this, which is so far from perfect, but so healthy and wholesome anyway. Instead of looking at the soap suds running down Mom’s arms, I move in for a giant hug, which she gives, unquestioningly, no strings attached.
Something here fills me up with love, and with remorse for the last few months and the person I’ve become. Somewhere, in my quest for perfection, I’ve pushed everyone away. Yet, right here, right now, I am fine, just the way I am.
Being good enough is a gift, I realize, as I brush the suds away and look around my dear old kitchen. It’s a gift I want to give to myself, and to others around me, too.
(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 913)
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