I recently watched “The Aviator” with my husband. There was so much for me to be amazed by with this movie–the length (almost three hours!), the period costumes and hairstyles, the peculiar speech and mannerisms that Cate Blanchett brought to life with her portrayal of Katharine Hepburn–but what I marveled at the most was the spectacle of Howard Hughes’ life, as it played out on the flat screen.
By watching the movie and simultaneously reading the crib notes on his life from Wikipedia (don’t judge me!), it seemed like Hughes lived the life of maybe five people. Building an electric bike at 12. Inheriting a sizable fortune on the cusp of adulthood, accumulating financial steam in multiple industries, and parlaying his fortune into a multibillion-dollar empire by the time of his death in the 1970s. Gaining acclaim in the early days of cinema. Making sleek, yet improbably gargantuan, record-setting airplanes–and being the pilot to set those records. I laughed when I read in the Wiki entry that Ironman from the comics was patterned after the good aspects of Hughes, but I quickly understood, considering his vast fortune, his larger-than life manufacturing feats that were unparalleled in early 20th Century America, and his popularity among the A-list starlets of the time.
Although Hughes was responsible for astonishing strides in technology, he clearly had a downside that marred his life and legacy. He was called eccentric in the movie and online, but it’s clear that he suffered from mental illness, not just simple quirks that he could take to the extreme courtesy of his financial holdings. His squalor-filled, self-imposed exile in a movie theater for several months, as depicted in “The Aviator” (and detailed as real life in the Wikipedia entry, too) is a disturbing look into the life of someone with immeasurable intellect and talent being paralyzed by overwhelming demons that went unchecked.
There was the Hughes with the seemingly untreated mental illness, but there was also Hughes the perfectionist, as my husband pointed out. And that part I can relate to. A prime example of his compulsion is him having spent two years and an unprecedented hundreds of thousands of dollars to make the epic movie “Hell’s Angels,” only to go back to the drawing board and shell out the same kind of cash, again, from his own reserves, to remake the film incorporating the new novelty of sound–before the silent version ever saw the light of day.
I have never had an obsession with perfectionism play out in such an extreme way (primarily because I don’t have millions of dollars to throw around), but I have suffered from seeking it out. Mostly in maintaining an image of perfection at all costs. This was a struggle I kept up during my 20s, and one that I’ve only started to let go on in the past couple of years. (Me attempting to break out of perfectionist mode has been helpful to my weight loss efforts; more on that later.)
The best I can tell is that perfection has meant so much to me because I perceived it as an inroads to acceptance. As a youngster, I certainly wasn’t considered the most popular person in my school, but I was definitely considered one of the smartest. I sought attention, accolades and acceptance through academic achievement. It was a punishing path, particularly when you throw in my competitive streak and the school’s supply of other smart, driven kids, but my hard work and the anxiety that kept me in line worked. You could say that I had a solid brand as a “smart, good girl” during those years.
This perfection obsession worked in my favor when I was younger, but only served to isolate me in adulthood. Actually let me correct that: It helped professionally, as the work for which I’m trained–reporting, editing and proofreading–demands high levels of accuracy, but it only helped to keep me imprisoned, in a sense, from a social standpoint.
Fresh out of college, I rose through the ranks at my first job pretty quickly. In the highest position I achieved there, I met many challenges, and I didn’t get the full extent of help that I needed because I was too ashamed to admit that I didn’t have it all together. It frustrated me that I didn’t have a good grasp from the get-go of the new work and skills I needed. Though I made some strides in the job, I was haunted by the growing pile of imperfections that emerged here and there as I stumbled my way forward. I felt like I was dying slowly inside from a thousand paper cuts, and that it would destroy my uniqueness and my chances of being liked if I admitted that I was being challenged.
With countless real and perceived challenges, during much of my twenties I turned to food for solace and other material ways to comfort myself. Every Wednesday, for a couple of years, I’d go into the city, have dinner at McDonald’s by myself, buy some candy, music and magazines, and take a $30 cab ride home. It made me feel better temporarily, but the problems always seared caustically under the surface of my aseptic, professional exterior.
I moved on from that job, but I got married, had a child, and took my skills to a new industry. In effect, my world shifted in many areas, into new territories that would challenge my sense of competence and high standards. In this phase of my life, I have watched the idea of perfection ride off into the sunset without me.
It floored me to come to terms with my “humanness,” because it made me feel like what I thought made me special in others’ eyes–a relentless commitment to top-level output–was being threatened. Not knowing how to cope with the double thrust of being spread thinner energy- and attention-wise than I’d ever been, and being exposed as not being as perfect as I thought I was, was hard to bear.
These are feelings that I still struggle with, but here’s what I’ve noticed as the way out for me so far:
Letting perfection go. No one can achieve it, and when you focus too much on perfection, you miss the pleasure of what it is that you’re actually doing.
Being straightforward with others about my needs. I don’t have to do everything or solve everything on my own. If I have a task that needs completion, it’s OK to get help from someone else; there’s no shame in that. If it’s an entrenched negative feeling, I know that I can pray or meditate through it, or talk to someone about it–either in a venting fashion, or in a solution-seeking manner. I harm myself and others around me when I resign to suffer and smile.
Understanding that my life is multifaceted and my value comes from many places. Putting all of your emotional eggs in one basket is hazardous to your health. And it’s not accurate to think that you generate influence and value in only one area of your life.
Facing reality, and making a home there. This is probably the toughest thing for me to do. Thinking objectively about where my head is at when I make a mad dash for perfection, I’d say that I’m following many self-imposed rules and restrictions, creating and acting upon a line of thinking that isn’t necessarily in touch with others’ expectations. I’m also anticipating criticisms that, 9 times out of 10, never manifest.
I need to find a way to stop my mind in its tracks before it goes too far down an imaginary negative road. That’s where I’m at today, trying to make that happen. Mindfulness exercises have been a big help, as well as focusing on Bible verses about thinking on positive things and not worrying.
Finding ways to cope with emotions other than eating. I’ve written about this many times, but I can’t stress it enough that suppressing emotional unrest with food is not helpful. A well-worn weight loss adage is “If hunger isn’t the problem, food isn’t the solution.” I started my weight loss journey at a time when I when I was on the verge of fighting the detrimental effects of my perfectionist tendencies, and I’ve found that my strides in eliminating emotional eating have helped me in both areas.
My weight loss journey has been an exercise in weaning myself off of perfection, because all of the considerations I’ve mentioned have come into play for shedding pounds. I don’t expect perfection in losing weight–I will not always get it right and lose weight every week. (I may have lengthy plateau periods, even.) I need to communicate my eating needs at events and restaurants, and be a food advocate for myself. I don’t focus my whole life on eating; I now seek out ways to get more enjoyment out of my life on a regular basis. I face reality by logging what I eat on a regular basis.
I can say without grimacing that my weight loss journey has not been perfect. It is something I’ve sometimes walked through breezily, but I’ve also often crawled or stumbled my way through. I have been pleased with what I’ve gained from my efforts, however–and not just in the realm of the number going down on the scale. I still have work to do, but I’m in a much better place physically and mentally for having stuck with the work, even when it’s been messy and I haven’t had all the answers.