Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Perfectionism - How Much Is Enough?

A reader has asked me to share on the topics: "I do enough," and "dealing with chronic pain."

I can relate well to both of these, as I have had back pain for about 25 years, as the result of an injury sustained at work, and more recently, I've had to struggle against my early training in being a rabid perfectionist.

I was talking to a program friend the other day about perfectionism, because I've noticed that in dealing with the cancer diagnosis, if I'm not careful, I can get caught up in the "right way" to manage my feelings and thoughts regarding the situation I'm facing. Before Al-Anon, I was a person hiding my true feelings behind the mask of "Oh, fine thank you," and it's been rather alarming to discover just how quickly I have wanted to revert to this behavior since the diagnosis. Part of this is a response to the pain in the faces of the people I love, when the cancer is mentioned, partly it's my pride -  wanting to deal with this "well" - either way, it would keep me isolated and alone, were I not to recognise that's what I'm up to, and work to be mindful of my own behavior.

I've had to make a conscious choice to answer honestly, when asked how I'm doing, how I'm feeling, how am I handling this, or any one of the ways in which friends and family offer me the chance to unburden myself.  I've had times when I wanted very badly to respond with the "I'm fine" reply, because that would save us both the discomfort of honesty. It can be quite the struggle to admit that I'm feeling exhausted by the myriad of tests to stage the tumour, the stress of waiting to find out if it has metastasized, and what sort of surgery, and/or long-term outlook I'm facing.

It is disconcerting to recognise and admit to my fears. At the same time, my relationship with my partner is a delight and a joy - he can always make me laugh, and gives of himself so generously, being a support and an encouragement when I'm feeling weak, tired, or just flagging from the stress of it all.

I spoke to a cancer survivor, and one thing she repeated several times was, " Let other people help you, they want to do it, allow them the room and the chance." I've been independent; I believe it will help me with achieving humility, to learn to accept help graciously, and without the frustration of wanting to do it myself.

I need to relearn how to accept that whatever I've managed to accomplish in a day is "enough." When I do this, I give myself room to be out-of-sorts, tired, unwilling, or even lazy, that crime of my childhood. One could be anything but lazy; doing nothing was completely unacceptable in my childhood home. If sitting, one couldn't just sit and cogitate, one had to be doing something with one's hands, sewing or embroidery, painting or reading, something. One couldn't just be.

When I was a kid, I used to like to sit on her bed with our Border Collie, but wasn't give the peace to just sit and pet her, or sit quietly beside her. So I'd get the dog's brush and use it on her silky hair, because that was considered "doing something" and meant I could spend time enjoying her company.

My partner and I like to sit on the rooftop terrace and admire our pots of flowers. I'm always entertained if another resident comes out and asks, "What are you two doing?"  I will sometimes reply "Nothing at all." I find it enormously satisfying to be able to say that.

In dealing with chronic pain, acceptance of my limitations is the key. Admitting to the pain is another. My back always hurts, it's a matter of hurting a bit less or a bit more, but the pain has been a constant companion for many years. I've discovered that being involved in something which catches and holds my interest will allow me to detach from the physical sensation, and push it from my conscious awareness. It won't be until I stop for a short pause or rest, that I will realise that my back is hurting, and it's time to stop for the day. This works for me, whether the activity is gardening (I don't do any heavy digging or lifting) sewing, painting, whatever I like to do.

My Higher Power is continually finding new ways to teach me patience.


  1. I am so grateful for learning patience in Alanon being able to sit with my feelings and with this approach service to others with mindful listening.
    Just for today life is just fine

  2. We talked last night at the meeting about Concept Nine and taking responsibility. I have happily let go of a lot of responsibility since retiring three years ago. I feel that doing nothing is okay on some days. And having flexibility and spontaneity in my life is a beautiful thing.