Perfect to a T

A visitor the other day asked me, “So, are you a perfectionist?” Ha! I had to chuckle. It’s like asking me if I like chocolate. Or ice cream. Or books.

Uh, yeah. I’m a perfectionist. I’d like to call myself a “recovering perfectionist,” but that would be implying I’d actually improved a bit and stopped some of my perfectionistic ways. Nah, I’m firmly off the wagon.

This moniker is accurate despite the fact that my friend came into my house while I was in the middle of vacuuming my dining room. The chairs were arranged haphazardly along the edge of the living room carpet, and I was wearing a ratty old T-shirt and sweats. My hair was up in a clip and I was, as is typical for a weekday, without any makeup. Luckily, and unusually for a weekday inside my home, I was wearing a bra, and this is only because there were men in my house installing some new windows. My four-year-old was running around doing whatever while I vacuumed, which was the precursor to mopping (which only happens about once a month around here, though I’d like it to be once a week). With the men stomping around upstairs and creating some background noise, plus occupying my driveway with their big truck, my home was the site of some serious action, and I was a little sweaty and rattled. My main goal was to get the house clean and put the preschooler in her room for some quiet time so I could sit down and rediscover my equilibrium.

Mostly, I wouldn’t point to these markers as signs of perfectionism. Perfectionists’ homes are just naturally clean, with outsiders never seeing the behind-the-scenes action (like the best of magic tricks, everything looks amazing with some sleight of hand); female perfectionists always are stylishly dressed with neat coifs and impeccable makeup; their children do not run wild. But I know the truth: cleaning my home is a must because I am a perfectionist. I like clean floors and surfaces. I like them to stay clean. Since people (children and husband included) live here, they do NOT stay clean. I am perpetually frustrated.

I can’t explain away the lack of makeup, the hair always in a clip on the top of my head, or the fact that I ALWAYS wear sweats and old T-shirts at home (or, if I leave the house,  blue jeans and T-shirts without holes). Perhaps that’s the one category in which I just let myself slide because even I have realized I can’t do it all. (Unfortunately, I have yet to realize I can’t even do half of it all, but I keep on trying.)

And people do see me sweat because I go to the gym every day. And I certainly do not wear makeup or have my hair fixed there (although in that case it’s in a ponytail rather than a clip).

But I can’t point to these habits and say, “See? I’m NOT a perfectionist.”

A whole list of qualities and habits shouts loudly that I most certainly AM (this is only a sampling, mind you):

  • I can’t stand having unfinished projects lying around. When I sew, for example, which is maybe once a year, I just get it all done in two days. I may sew four dresses at once, but I will sit at the sewing machine almost nonstop until they are done and I can put away all my materials and the machine back into their appropriate “homes,” out of sight.
  • Look at what I do for a living: copy editing. Can one be more perfectionist than that? The goal is to have an article or manuscript with NO ERRORS. No misspellings, no grammatical blunders, no style mistakes, no factual goofs, no libel. It kills me to look back on a story I’ve edited that still contains an error that I MISSED. That fault on my part will haunt me for days.
  • I’ve already written about my body issues and will continue to do so. Let’s just observe that my glaring imperfections (hello? 40, possibly 50, excess pounds?) do not slip by my eagle eyes. But in the interest of full honesty, I will say that I’m generally content with my hair and my face. I think I have a pretty face with some very fine features (always got compliments on my eyes and smile) and good hair that rarely gives me problems, unless it’s in dire need of washing.

The thing is, I’ve always been like this. My mom says I was born this way. I believe her. My family dynamics and circumstances tended to reinforce that tendency, but it was always there. My first two children didn’t inherit the trait, but my third has. I sympathize with her. She’s always going to excel in school and activities, but she’ll feel tormented when she doesn’t do as well as she’d hoped (it already happens, even with pictures she draws).

No, I’ll never be labeled “laid-back” or “easygoing.” But people like for me to be in charge. I get things done — and well. But it comes with a price. I’m not the friend you want to take to the beach. I won’t sit there quietly and companionably for five days running, the sand tickling my toes and the sun kissing my skin, thinking only about wispy clouds and bright blue skies. I can only sit and do nothing for about two hours. After that, I’ll be grabbing your hand and leading you on a tour somewhere, or hooking up to the Internet to write or edit or search for useful information. No, I’m not a relaxed gal most of the time. Mostly, I’ve come to be OK with that. And I’ll insist on that until stress makes my cortisol hit freakish levels and I have a heart attack. But when I’m gone, you’ll look back on my body of work and say, Look how much she got done. Wow, those articles are completely error-free. She was amazing.

Author: Cathy Carmode Lim

I'm a copy editor, writer, and book reviewer with three decades of experience. My book review website is I'm a mom of four and grandma of three.

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