I am a recovering perfectionist wannabe. Sometimes when I think about who I used to be, I marvel that I could have gotten so flustered about so many things, but that version of me wanted everything to be perfect (everything being defined as those things which felt most important to me, of course). I used to spend a fair bit of time worrying about the clothes my kids wore to preschool, for example, especially when I didn’t get them dressed in the morning (because I was teaching a class), but had to pick them up. What would the other mothers think when they saw those mismatched outfits, I sometimes worried. Turns out, what they thought or did not think has been of zero importance in the long term scheme of things. But you could have guessed that, I’m sure.
I worried a lot about what other people thought, though. I still want things to be perfect, but I’ve changed my definitions in a healthier direction. I still get flustered, but in far fewer areas of my life. Over a decade ago, for example, I was taking a one year old on a flight by myself. Let me clarify – I was taking my one year old on a flight by myself. He was a fussy little person and I had packed some wedding mints as a treat to coax him into good-ish behavior on the plane. But then I worried that the people sitting near us were judging me for feeding my baby candy and – gasp! – counting the number of mints I gave him. Now I understand that most of my fellow travelers were glad that I was keeping him quiet. They didn’t have time to count pastel mints! Now I don’t worry about that kind of thing. I also let my kids pack their own carry-on bags.
As part of my recovery from perfectionism, I’ve backed slowly away from New Year’s Resolutions and softened the harshness of that official list of tasks to complete in the new year …or else! Those lists were never much good anyway. I made them so long and so impossible to achieve that I half wonder now if they weren’t just an exercise in making myself feel inadequate. I certainly got good at disappointing myself. And lest I present myself as some kind zen master now full of love and acceptance, oh no, I still know how to disappoint myself. But I no longer write a long list of unattainable wishes on January 1.
However, I have found a meaningful replacement tradition. Make that, I was given a meaningful replacement tradition by my family. A few years ago or so, one of my sisters or my mother read a book called One Perfect Word by the wildly popular author, Debbie Macomber. And yes, I will admit that I had made fun of my sisters for reading Macomber’s feel-good romance novels, but I stopped laughing once I started counting the sheer number of published books listed under her name. The woman is amazingly prolific – and she got her start through sheer tenacity, both writing daily and submitting manuscripts while she had young children at home and not much to eat in the cupboards. She kept at it though, writing and writing and writing. And this book, the one that was being shared and discussed in my family, was about Macomber’s tradition of selecting a word each year to, as she said, “serve as a personal focus.” Her book shares some of the words she had selected over the years, along with lessons learned during each particular year that helped moved her toward success. But her success wasn’t the main reason we were discussing this book in my family.
Instead, my mom had the idea that we should adopt Macomber’s tradition and each select a word for the year to serve as our personal focus too. And this was something I could get behind. Goodbye lengthy list of soul-crushing aspirations, hello simple phrase that could be easily remembered. We shared those words during the 2011 holidays, then my mom ordered a set of vinyl letters spelling out our word selections for each of us, to help serve as a reminder.
The word I selected at the end of 2011, the one I wanted to be my focus and guiding principle, was energy. And I can say, with more than a little self-satisfaction, as someone who had regularly and consistently failed to keep resolutions much past February, that this word really did serve as a personal focus for me during 2012. I placed the vinyl letters on my shower door so that I would see them every morning. I put up some reminders in my office at work too. And I thought of that phrase multiple times a day. And as someone who struggles with anemia and fatigue and burn-out and good old fashioned laziness too, the focus was beneficial. I took some steps toward increasing my energy, for starters. I was also more careful to marshal it, to protect it, and to value it. I think that I became better, too, at steering clear of energy sucking activities that I would have previously tried to cram into my schedule. By the end of the year, I felt that I had discovered more about how to get it, use it, and conserve it: energy.
So over the holidays this past year, my family again gathered and shared our word selections for 2013. We talked a little bit about what we had learned during the past year and why our new word selection resonated with us. For me, as I told them, the new word jumped right into my mind practically the moment I realized it was time for a new one.
My 2013 personal focus is follow through. For a multiplicity of reasons – my flakiness, my fatigue (the same condition that pushed me toward “energy” the previous year), my own nagging disappointment at my inability to figure some important stuff out, my need to see some tasks through, plus the deep satisfaction I feel when I do complete tasks to the best of my ability – this phrase felt right. And thusfar, it’s been a handy reminder of what I want to do and be in this year.
So what word would you select as your personal focus for this new year? We need to get that vinyl letter order in pronto!