Learning to Slack

Written by
Kelly J. Baker

Published
Dec 3, 2018

Dec 3, 2018 • by Kelly J. Baker

I am a recovering perfectionist. OK, that's not entirely true. I'm a perfectionist who is working against these tendencies. My desire for things to be perfect—or me to be perfect—manifests as overachieving. I couldn't just be on the honor roll; I had to have all A's. I couldn't just write a dissertation; I had to write a book. And the book couldn't just be good; it had to be award‐winning. And now, I can't have just one book under contract but three. For most of my career, I have tried to work harder than everyone else.

The Pressure to Be Perfect

I somehow learned that imperfection was failure. Things would be perfect or things would be ruined. There was no gray area in which to live.

I needed to be the best teacher, scholar, writer, partner and mother. Part of this was because I had learned—as a woman in the academy and our culture—that I had to prove my competence every day. My CV had to be better than my male colleagues to be taken seriously. Perfection was sought no matter the cost, while performing at a level I held no one else to. I wouldn't give anyone an excuse to doubt me or my abilities. At 38, I finally decided this was no way to live. Perfectionism and overachieving breed unhappiness. And how could I be happy as I constantly compared myself to others and pushed myself to do everything I could?

This impulse to be perfect is partially due to my anxiety disorder, in which I have an iron grip on what I can control (or what I think I can control) and a remarkable fear of uncertainty. Anxiety pushed me to be as productive as I can be to prove my worth, and perfectionism ramped up my impulses to overachieve. I was never good enough, so I had to produce more, write more and be more. Many women in the academy have a similar experience of constantly needing to prove you are just as smart and talented as men, who do less than you and still receive accolades.

I have been remarkably unable to give myself any slack, and maybe you have felt the same way.

If I'm always supposed to perform at a peak level, how can I relax or take a day off? When I attempted to slack, I felt guilty and lazy. There's always more work to do or some skill to master. This wasn't living; I knew it but couldn't stop myself.

Overfunctioning

Recently, my therapist explained that I overfunction: performing at a high level, being busy, always overcompensating for other people and working not just to be competent but hypercompetent. I'll give you two examples. When Hurricane Michael swept through the Florida panhandle where I live, I cleaned up my yard and then my house as I waited to hear from my family in nearby Jackson County. My youngest sister and her two small children came to live with my family because their rental house was unlivable, and I tried to write a book because the deadline loomed.

We were doing hurricane cleanup or supply runs with groceries and generators, and I was quietly freaking out because I wasn't writing. I was caught up in what I needed to accomplish professionally rather than pausing for a moment after a crisis. I pushed the deadline for all of my books and felt like a failure, even as this was the only reasonable thing to do.

I focused on work rather than my life. It wasn't the first time. When my grandmother died six years ago, I didn't take time off to process my grief or even think about living in a world without her. I showed up to teach my classes with a grim determination that nothing would throw me off my schedule. It didn't matter that I also had broken my right arm a week earlier. It didn't matter that I was trying to explain to a four‐year‐old what this kind of loss meant. It didn't matter that I felt a void that tried to suck me in. I worked no matter what. I overfunctioned.

Letting Go of High Standards

I gave myself no slack because of the impossibly high standards our culture (and I) created for me.

It didn't matter what crisis happened. It didn't matter that the world seemed to be falling apart. I moved forward. A crisis didn't matter if there were things to accomplish. I couldn't give myself some slack when I needed it most. But lately, I'm learning to not overfunction or compare my life to the lives of other people. The costs of trying to be perfect and getting ahead are, finally, too high. Perfectionism and overfunctioning keep you from living in the moment and appreciating what you have. At least, they've kept me from both.

I'm giving myself some slack, and I want you, dear reader, to give yourself some slack too. I imagine a lot of you hold yourselves to similar impossible standards and refuse to slack.

So, today, if you feel like you need someone to give you a permission slip to slack, I'm writing it for you now. Don't miss all the messy imperfections of life because of impossible ideals or the compulsion to be perfect. Give yourself some slack and live. I'm more than I accomplish, and you are too.