During my first month as a freshman at Vassar College, one of my hallmates caught me folding my dirty laundry.
Yes, you read that right – I folded my dirty laundry before placing it in the collapsible navy-blue mesh hamper at the foot of my bed. It was a nervous habit that gave me a sense of control in an unfamiliar place.
Of course I didn’t want anyone to know about my odd practice, so I flushed with embarrassment when my hallmate said, “Caroline, did you seriously just fold those pajamas before putting them into your hamper?”
My hallmate’s tone was more amused than accusatory, but even so, I felt like hiding under the bed.
“Yeah, I did. You got me. I’m a total neat freak,” I said, trying to laugh it off. I swallowed hard and tried to push aside the critical voice inside my head that said, You’re so weird! Why can’t you be normal? What’s wrong with you?
Looking back, I have compassion for the shy, scared 18-year-old I was. During those first weeks of college, I was under a lot of stress.
And as a perfectionist, my knee-jerk response to stress is to order everything I possibly can … including my dirty laundry.
Perfectionists like us think that if we just get everything lined up exactly right, then we’ll feel safe.
But the mysterious truth is that sometimes we find our greatest comfort in so-called imperfections.
Long after I stopped folding dirty laundry and settled into life at college, I kept a different secret. Along the wall next to my single bed was a painted-over star sticker.
It was affixed to the wall just above the wooden chair rail, a small imperfection you’d probably miss if you weren’t looking for it.
Every night when I went to sleep, I reached out my hand and ran my fingers over that crooked little star. I felt along the raised edges with my fingertips, and it gave me a shot of strength every time.
Really, that star wasn’t supposed to be there. Some dorm inspector had overlooked it; some painter had swished a haphazard brush over it.
It was a mistake, something you’d think would bother a card-carrying perfectionist. But it didn’t bother me. Quite the contrary.
My mind might have categorized it as a mistake, but my heart believed that it was supposed to be there.
My heart believed that it was supposed to remind me of the painted-over stars on the ceiling of my childhood bedroom, and of the Love that had surrounded me always.
The star was supposed to remind me that no matter how small and scared I felt, in some fundamental way I was safe.
As recovering perfectionists, this is our work:
To shift from self-judgment to self-compassion. To let go of control and hold onto wonder.
Our recovery looks like putting down the dirty laundry and letting our fingers graze the star instead.
Do you want to be the person who stays stuck in judgment and control, or the person who feels grateful and free?
Leave a comment and tell me which type of person YOU want to be, and what’s stopping you.
Yours with gratitude,
PS – If you’d rather not share in the comments, email me at caroline[AT]awishcomeclear.com. I’m here to help!
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