Perfectionist Who?

Trigger warning: If you get nervous reading about rule-breaking, steel yourselves. I will break a rule in this article and it may make you uncomfortable.

You may have noticed that I talk a lot about needing to “know the rules” and liking “firm boundaries and expectations.” This is so tightly wound up in my being that, like a spiderweb, it is caught on every single aspect of my life, Ideal Life or not.

If I ever get to a point where I am willing to reconsider the over-arching themes of my Ideal Life, I would find a way to work this in. It might actually be what I would need to finally tie my happiness up in a neat little bow.

As I mentioned last week in my Ideal Life Reel on overcoming perfectionism, there are many dreams I have had in my life that I never even began to chase out of fear of not being able to do something perfectly the first time. This is obviously ridiculous. Nonetheless, this is my reality. I do many things relatively well, some even remarkably well, and I am not afraid to admit that.

(Caveat: there is a flipside of this coin–when it comes to sewing my refashioning projects, when my creativity takes over, I am not and cannot be bothered by perfectionism. This is yet an example of the complexity of the human psyche, n’est-ce pas?)

Perfectionism and Rules

What I am learning, little by little, is that rule-abiding, guardrail-needing me is the one at play when it comes to my perfectionism (with, of course, that one caveat for my refashioning projects.)

My need to know the rules and boundaries and be able to abide by them is so strong, that I resist entering situations in which the rules are not clear, or where the boundaries shift. This can either be institutional rules or societal rules.

I lived through something last weekend that brought into very sharp focus the conflict between enjoying life and being paralyzed by perfectionism. I want to unpack it here.

The Dreaded Pool

Last summer, my family started going to the municipal pool to beat the heat. When I say “my family”, I mean, “my indulgent husband and his ramshackle scalawag sidekicks.”

I dread this kind of outing for myriad reasons. For one, going out in public with my scalawags is unthinkably stressful. Even worse, going out in public in new circumstances in which I don’t know the rules is even more stressful to me. Stressful to the point of not wanting to go at all.

However, after they had gone to the pool a few times and it sounded like it was going relatively well, I agreed to go.

It was a nightmare.

It started with which line to stand in to purchase our entry, continued on to which changing room we were to use, whether or not we had the right coin to operate the locker. Mask or no mask? Shower with soap, no soap? Where do we put our towels? Oops, we were supposed to disinfect our water wings. Boys, please don’t run! “Oh, sorry, I didn’t know you had reserved this spot on the grass.”

All this and we hadn’t even hit the water yet.

I didn’t know the rules and it was going to make me miserable.

Try, try again

Last weekend, I shocked my indulgent husband when I volunteered to take my scalawags to the pool. By myself.

I’m pretty sure he didn’t believe me, because he actually corrected one of the scalawags who was jumping up and down singing, “Yoohoo! Yoohoo! Mama’s taking us to the pool! Mama’s taking us to the pool!! Yoohoo!!!!” (Can you imagine which of my two offspring this was? If you guessed the enthusiast then you would be correct.)

Do you know what my single greatest motivating factor for wanting to go to the pool was? Last year I bought a new swimsuit which I had only worn once. The CPW on that sucker was killing my global CPW and darn it, I needed to get another wear in. That was why I was willing to try going to the pool.

Also, I wanted to try something. I wanted to put myself in a situation in which I didn’t know the rules, but I had to act like I knew what I was doing for the sake of being the adult in the situation.

I did my very level best at completing my Pool Checklist. I set in place a few rules for the boys that would be very firm and would be cause for us to return home immediately if they overstepped the boundary. And then steeled myself for a world of mistakes, errors, discomfort and imperfection.

In Media Res

Naturally, I forgot a coin for the locker, so we had to schlepp our stuff around. Once at the pool deck itself, I put our stuff down. The boys started getting in the water.

Then, that dreaded sound. “Excusez-moi madame, mais il est interdit….” (Excuse me, m’am, but it is prohibited…)

My stomach churned. Adrenaline coursed through my veins. I had been at the pool complex for ten minutes and I had already broken a rule.

“Boys!” I called. “You stay right there.” They were on the steps of the pool, being good little scalawags waiting for me. This was one of the unbreakable rules. If I told them to wait for me, they were to wait. They did!!!!!! Then I turned to face the music.

Apparently we weren’t allowed to leave our things on the pool deck. So I thanked the lifeguard who informed me and I, stomach still churning and feeling embarrassed for doing something wrong, schlepped our stuff to the grassy place where last year we had accidentally taken someone’s reserved spot.

I had survived a reprimand. Darn it. Just out of spite and a need to take up space, I lay our our towels as if we had reserved the whole darn grassy place to ourselves.

Then I returned to the scalawags who were patiently waiting for me.

They had a wonderful time. All in all, with a few flashes of panic aside, I had a good time too. What I found myself doing, subconsciously at first, and then intentionally just to get it out of my system, was observing other people who were getting reprimanded for one thing or another… No flippers in the pool, m’am. You need to be with your parents, sweetie. We don’t allow those kind of swimsuits, sir.

I watched those people react to intentionally, or unintentionally, infringing on the rules. They all seemed so cool about it. So un-soul-wrenchingly unmoved by it.

Why can I not be more like that?

Time to go.

As the morning wore on, the boys and I visited the different pools. I started to gain a touch more confidence in the whole experience. Then they discovered a cute little park in the pool complex, replete with a big ride that was like a boat. They played on that thing for a half-hour, while I got out our clothes to change into for going home.

In the end, because there was no one else at the park, I had them change discreetly under a tree. They were getting tired, and so they didn’t put up a fight. If we could avoid going back to the changing rooms, it would make me feel safer, like there were fewer rules to break.

I had them put their shoes and socks back on. They were exhausted by then, and I was sensing that we had quite approximately three minutes and twenty-six seconds to get back to the car before there would be a double meltdown.

There was only one way to the exit, and it was through the bathrooms. On the outside, there was a sign which I did not see, but my eldest did see, that showed a shoe with a big red line through it. He mentioned it to me.

In the moment, I made a choice. I could follow the rules and take off their shoes and socks, walk ten feet through the bathroom to the other side, put their shoes and socks back on and then continue on our merry way, or I could break the rule and pretend I didn’t see the sign.

I broke the rule.

I broke the rule because I wanted to see what it would feel like to prioritize my boys over my need to obey every single rule. I broke the rule because I couldn’t risk ending this relatively pleasant morning in a meltdown.

What was bound to happen happened: an attendant looked at us as we walked out of the bathrooms and said, “you were supposed to take off your shoes.”

I looked at her, with all the respect I could muster and said, “Oops.”

And then I took one tired scalawag’s hand in my left, the other scalawag’s hand in my right and we walked hand-in-hand back to the car, where they both fell asleep on the way home.

In my Ideal Life, I am not paralyzed by the fear of doing something wrong.

Published by Lily Fields

I am passionate about contentment. This is a challenge, because I am equally passionate about progress. I get up at 4:00AM to chip away at a solution to this monolithic problem: how to make progress on my contentment. Born and raised in the USA, I married a French philosophy teacher in 1999. We have lived in France since 2007. We stayed young and carefree until life threw us two curveballs in the form of little humans one after another in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Now I am a slightly older, slightly more exhausted version of myself, but with mystery stains on my walls and a never-ending pile of laundry.

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