As a self-proclaimed overachiever and recovering perfectionist, I thrive on order. I didn’t really know why waking up to a clean kitchen sink was the equivalent of getting high. Every day the small things around me have a way of building up to make a huge difference to my overall mood and happiness with life.
While this kind of perspective certainly has its benefits (I can say with confidence I have never forgotten to turn in an assignment), it is also an exhausting and rather lonely way to live. It’s practically impossible to maintain a clean and organized home, cook perfectly healthy and delicious meals and get the requisite eight hours of sleep to be a functional human being all the while working eight to ten hours a day. Yet, year after year that is my unspoken goal.
What I’m facing now is what happens when you literally cannot even attempt to live up to that impossible standard. With my recent health issues, I am often fatigued and mentally drained from managing my recurring symptoms. Whereas before I wouldn’t have settled for anything less than a spotless kitchen, I now have to be content with clean countertops and semi-clean floors. It hasn’t been an easy adjustment.
While my husband had definitely upped his game in terms of division of labor the last few months, his standards are just different from mine. Our versions of clean can be summed up by a Venn diagram quite easily, where the smallest part is the overlap in the middle. There’s a quite memorable line in Brigid Schulte’s book Overwhelmed as to why women tend to be more exhausted and it’s because we don’t settle for good enough, we need to be able to do open-heart surgery on our kitchen floors. Certainly hyperbolic, but not by much.
As the months have gone on, I find myself struggling with shedding the expectations and ensuing guilt for ‘failing’ time and time again. This week marked a bit of a turning point though, as I worked through these feelings in therapy.
The script of what makes a successful person and a successful woman in particular is deeply engrained. Turning it off is not an impossible task but can feel insurmountable at times. Gently guiding my inner thoughts in a less punishing direction when it comes to what is acceptable behavior is a better strategy. The phrase ‘different not lower standards’ came up and it was as if a light bulb went off in my head.
Although I may not be able to live according to my standards at the moment, it doesn’t mean that this is the permanent state of affairs. Accepting this as a fact helps build resilience as I bob up and down like a ship caught in a storm. Being inflexible in situations that are beyond my immediate control is a recipe for frustration and disappointment.
Moreover, accepting a different set of standards involves an element of grace and self-reflection. I am not where I was, but it doesn’t mean that I am less than before. My furniture may have a layer of dust on it but I am taking the time and space to do what is most beneficial for me at the present moment. It also invites curiosity as to why my standards are what they are in the first place.
Is it the healthiest, most sane way to live to expect so much from one person without additional help? Am I being unreasonable? Why do I and so many other people, women in particular feel that our self-worth and mental state is directly tied to how clean our floors are? Am I really choosing to live this way consciously or just acting out my part on a script that was handed down to me from my own mother many years ago?
I don’t have the answers to all of these questions but one thing I now do have is the time to be more self-reflective in crafting a future where I’m not living on auto-pilot simply because that is the way things have always been done. How to break free from our Westworld-esque loops is a worthwhile endeavor, and ultimately one endlessly more satisfying than a clean sink (no matter what the FlyLady says).