stay on the grass

Lists, checkboxes and the rules of perfectionism

Sometimes I am very much Walter Sobchak. Minus the weaponry. I have been known to exclaim, at no one in particular, “Am I the only one around here that gives a shit about the rules?” I am so often Walter that his spastic plea has become a classic joke in my marriage. Along with a few others. Whatevs. I just have high expectations.

Wait. Bullshit. High expectations is just a euphemism for control freak.

Perfectionism is a disease, friends

I can’t seem to leave this yarn alone. Some things you just can’t unsee. Knots and snags of perfectionism regularly trip me up and choke me out. I so desperately *want* to be a go with the flow kinda gal, but, well. Just—no.

It started pretty early. For children of alcoholics, sober takes on an existential meaning. The goal is simple: maintain a serious and capable demeanor. Two people’s worth of sober. All the time.

Not exactly the job description of a pink-cheeked kindergartener.

Silliness? Um. Mistakes? Well… Joy? Shit no. It’s epically sad and lonely. So you adopt OCD-like checklists, rules and routines to cope with the persistent fear and instability. You know, to keep from crying quietly inside your toy box, biting your nails bloody. The lists and routines give you some semblance of order and safety.

Coping, quirks and checkboxes

The summer I was five, I developed a system that only a child’s naiveté could produce. Upon waking, I know to watch for specific signals. Entering the living room, I shuffle more than I need to, making noise. Grandma lowers her newspaper, and peers over it at me. Glasses on? Sobriety :: relief. No glasses? Her [cue airquotes] “coffee mug” holds Blatz :: all bets are off.

I developed scores of these tics and tricks, none of which I will embarrass myself by detailing here. This is not who I am naturally, I am quite sure. [I hope?] It’s a set of quirks, exaggerated under duress, and long since integrated into my habits and patterns. But it’s not an uncommon problem, this urge to list-make, organize and checkbox our way through life.

A good sermon and a bad joke

I learned what the Lord has to say about all this two weeks ago. Lists, rules and the way they lure us, lull us, and ultimately, fail us. My daughter was fidgeting and weepy, overtired from a sleepover, and I missed the relevant reading. After counseling her through a travesty concerning shared crayons, I tuned in to the voice of my favorite woman of the cloth.

Oh and? Can I tell you how bitchin’ camaro it is that the Episcopal Church ordains women? As a once-devout-now-lapsed Catholic, it was a moving moment when I first saw Lisa Hackney at the altar. I was breathless and weeping in seconds. Any woman might have done, but turns, out, this particular priest is awesome.

Lisa has a staggering knowledge of scripture, a searing sense of humor and exquisite timing. This little ditty started out innocently enough:

Law is good. But you cannot put your entire trust in lists because they can lead you astray. The letter of the law is a good starting point—putting our trust in only the law can also pave the way to life of sin—that is, a life of missing the mark—a life of checked off boxes, yes, but also missed opportunities and needless despair.

Even though most of us would prefer not to be identified as “rule-bound”, we do like our rules and our lists. We like them because they can be for us roadmaps. They can be for us an encouragement, or a framework for incremental progress. Lists give us direction; they give guidance. They break down huge, monumental goals into achievable steps.

Yes. Of course! I glossed quickly over the obvious early warning. Rules, lists and laws are good. I am totally rule-bound, and don’t mind saying so. Do you have any idea what this *means*? God likes me. He really really likes me.

Lisa was talking about The Sermon on the Mount, a pretty important Christian teaching. It’s a long list of juicy bits Jesus said. Could it be that is where we get our love of lists…it’s ordained by the trinity? Or maybe those poor, barely A.D. saps were just grappling to make sense of an uncertain and scary world, even then. Especially then, if the plagues of the old testament are to be believed. Rules are scratched out in cave drawings and pagan runes, I am sure of it.

So. Rules are good, yes? Except when they’re not:

How many of us have been to weddings where the bride and her mother have followed the Modern Bride magazine checklist, with Pharisaical zeal, right down to the last letter…but none the less found ourselves sitting at a reception marked more by simmering tensions and grim determination than by the overflowing joy of the happy couple?

How many of us have watched our children march lockstep with their peers in getting into all the right classes at the right school, distinguishing themselves by learning to play the rarest of medieval musical instruments, the sackbutt; saving a village of orphans; acquiring an ulcer to pull perfect grades in AP classes while training for triathalons on the weekends…only to find this same child—in the spring of his or her senior year—sitting amongst a pile of letters—some of them fat, some of them thin—and accompanied by a spirit of dazed exhaustion and vague joylessness as they commence upon their adult life?

Oh shit. We’re going there, then, are we?

How many of us have found ourselves completely free and clear of murdering anyone, cheating on our spouses, slandering anyone, or coveting our neighbor’s stuff, and yet find at the end of the day that we feel disconnected from our God, disconnected from our neighbor and even disconnected from our self?

Check, check and check.

I nearly squirmed off the pew. I wanted to borrow my daughters tears. Lisa and I have spoken at length about my own personal struggle with connection, relationships and my tendency toward addictive perfection. She was there when everything started to spin apart last year. I had conjured some presence of mind to alternate weeks between pastoral counseling and therapy. For a while, it was like the beginning of a bad joke: a therapist, a priest and a depressive walk into a bar…

How lists fail us

So there we were, rapt, shaky hands clutching our lists—wrinkled and worn, earnest and unfinished—to our hearts. Lisa went on poking holes in them like they were onion skin.

Lists, guidelines, and rules are useful. God’s Law is useful. But lists can fool us. And they fool us in two ways: First, they fool us into thinking that when we have successfully stayed within the guidelines—checked off that list—that we have exhausted our full potential. And secondly, they fool us into thinking that when we have failed to stay within the guidelines—when there is a big red line through one of them—that because we have failed, there is no good in us.

This last sentence slayed me. I do not fail. Well, of course I do. Or promptly quit before anyone notices that I was, you know, um, failing. You know what? Let’s just agree that it’s easier to dodge the fail by avoiding the risky try, altogether.

Admitting this, I worry that my repressed, goodie-goodie adolescent shadow-self will burst from my breast to step on my neck and spit in my hair.

“You blew our.only.chance. You could have been making out and messing up. How many years do you get to cock it all up and remake yourself? What’s the worst that could have happened?” Grind, spit, seethe. “You were young before Facebook and Twitter, for chrissakes. Fuckface.”

I have more than a few regrets lingering under that heading: risk-averse.

It’s not all because I’m a third generation addict, but grandma and mom add to the burden, for sure. It’s my original wound, as far as I can tell. [Don’t take my word for it…100% of my counselors back me up on this.]


I never let myself screw up royally because that would mean I am just like her. Again with the binary thinking, the endless either/or. Either I have it together, or I don’t. Mom didn’t, I must. Never, ever divert from the rules, the world will end, you will fail, you may die.

But, goddamit, I couldn’t succeed either—I mean really succeed, rainbows flashing and joyful celebration—because I was terrified that kind of attention might spotlight the secret. If people notice me, they’ll notice mom, too. Bipolar and choke-crying. Drunk and pissed pants. Mom was busy with tears and incontinence, so I celebrated successes alone. Even *incredible ones* eventually fell joyless.

One more gold star. Check. And it didn’t make a bit of difference.

There was no way I ever came to close to having ‘exhausted my full potential.’ Fear made me live small. As small as my list.

God doesn’t like this. He really, really doesn’t like this.

Even with the meek inheriting the earth and all that, I like to think that God wants me to go ahead and exhaust my full potential…passion, f-bombs, epic mistakes and all. So what to do? Beats me. But here’s what not to do [another list!]:

1) Do not let a list keep you from being your best self by tempting you to aim too low.

2) Do not let a list keep you from right relationship with your neighbor, by tempting you to judge others before you judge yourself.

3) Do note let a list keep you from the love of God by making you feel unworthy.

Jesus. Cue the tears. The word unworthy leaves me unhinged, every time. And that’s the struggle named: we adhere too rigidly, we cling stupidly to our lists out of fear. Of what? Maybe if I can just *do* enough, people will forgive me for not *being* enough.

The lie of perfectionism

Under the routines, puzzling beliefs, and must-do lists lies a terrible [airquotes again] “truth”. If you can just be good enough, sweet enough—achieve enough, already!—you can stave off the phantom that may just destroy it all.

You busy yourself so thoroughly with becoming, and proving and outrunning the fear, you don’t even notice that the plan to organize the universe into a tidy button drawer fails miserably. Well, you *might* notice, if you gave yourself permission to slow down and take in reality. Because, oh man, you are awesome at this flavor of failure.

Blind, as well, to how the list is too small to predict every inevitable exception.

Like the one effing morning my Grandma started slurring words *while wearing her goddamn glasses*, you will eventually learn that checklists are not a reliable method for life management. With uncertainty as the norm—and, lemme save you the suspense, it is the norm, for everyone—I turn to either/or choices, and a rigid, linear approach to everything.

This framework may be comforting, but it’s a lying bastard. Controlling/avoiding/bullet pointing our lives into perfection leaves no energy for self-actualization. That work is messy, friends. Wait, I mean. That’s a nebulous adventure. You may end up all but abandoning your universe-crammed-button-drawer, your cherished list, your tidy row of checkboxes. And it will feel incredible. Terrifying and incredible.

Beware the box

Beth Berry of Revolution from Home, wrote a compelling piece last year. She confesses that opting out of cultural mandate on how she should live *still* did not save her from the grist wheel of perfectionism. Lists are inescapable, even off the grid.

The list seemed to grow twice as fast as I could check things off. Occasionally Hunter would look at my transcribed prioritization and, perplexed, question my logic. “Why do you have to make 20 snow globes as party favors?” or “Don’t you think the cold frames can wait until next year?” to which I would roll my eyes, hand him the baby and get back to work.

Though I couldn’t see it at the time, I had inadvertently bought into the cultural lies that told me more was better, while still holding tight to my ideals about the “best” way to live. Passionate about so many subjects, and feeling somehow thatcompromise equaled failure, I had created an unrealistic and unfulfilling lifestyle that left me wondering what else I could add to create the harmony I envisioned.

We’ll never make it to perfect, none of us. Is this good news, freeing in its simplicity? Or does it leave us crestfallen and crushingly determined? Women have a special relationship with perfectionism. And when I say relationship, what I mean is this: perfectionism is a goddammed terrorist, and we are well…women. Like a proper war, we suffer a million atrocities, unarmed casualities, alongside the high-achieving, perfectionist-in-training children we raise. Perfectionism in 21st century America threatens, daily, a psychological My Lai.

Besides yours truly [currently in recovery, thankyouverymuch], I think about Sheryl Sandberg. I celebrate her success, but wince at her Lean In brand of feminism…do it all, do it well, rest when you’re dead. A list-heavy approach, if ever there was one.

In fact, as I was trying to wrap up this piece, a friend posted a great link about Sandberg on Facebook. It was the rug that tied the room together.

Friends, there is no situation that a quote from The Big Lebowski doesn’t cover. But that’s just, like, my opinion, man.

This excellent article by Rosa Brooks instructs us all to Recline! already. It’s a less Biblical warning against The List as life governance. She writes:

Long ago, before Sandberg’s book Lean In convinced me to change my ways, I had a life. I had friends. I had hobbies. I could generally be relied upon to remember my children’s names, though I sometimes skipped their adorable little preschool events to take naps and read novels. I had a job, too, of course, but I also took occasional vacations, knocked off work at a sensible hour and got eight hours of sleep each night.

Then I read Lean In and realized that I was self-sabotaging slacker.

I became a room parent at the children’s school, hosted the class potluck and the mother-daughter book club, and decided that my children would go to school each day with organic, homemade lunches packed in attractive, reusable, eco-friendly containers.

This is impressive. Seriously, what an outstanding citizen. [Isn’t that what we all hope to hear, really?] And it worked for Brooks. At first.

Just as Sandberg promised, the rewards of leaning in quickly became evident. My confident, assertive yet non-threatening feminine charm helped me rapidly expand both my business and social networks.

When I dropped the kids off at school, other mommies gazed upon me with approval, and asked me where I had purchased those adorable little lunch containers. “I handcrafted them from recycled tires!” I explained with a humble but authoritative laugh.

Older colleagues took me aside to tell me I was an up-and-comer and offer me plum assignments. Younger colleagues asked me to mentor them and join their Lean In Circles. Speaking engagements flowed my way, and rich people asked if they could buy me lunch. With my confident yet charmingly self-deprecating smile, I accepted all offers and invitations.

But, eventually:

I realized that I hated Sheryl Sandberg.

Because, of course, I was miserable. I never saw my friends, because I was too busy building my network. I was too tired to do any creative, outside-the-box thinking. I was boxed in. Trapped!

Less to-do, more ta-DA!

Sandberg is an overachiever, we get it. But she’s also a privileged, white, uber-educated woman. Her prescription is not for every one and even drowns out other views. Voices calling for equity and balance, excellence and empty space to create. The glorification of busy that Sandberg promotes is regress, not progress for women. It’s feeding the perfection demon, stroking the achievement beast—cautiously—hoping we don’t pull back a bloody stump.

Brooks has a revolution/solution:

Sheryl Sandberg can keep right on leaning in if it makes her happy, but here’s my new feminist manifesto—call it a Manifestus for the Rest of Us.

We need to fight for our right to lean out, and we need to do it together, girls. If we’re going to fight the culture of workplace ubiquity, and the parallel and equally-pernicious culture of intensive parenting, we need to do it together—and we need to bring our husbands and boyfriends and male colleagues along, too. They need to lean out in solidarity, for their own sake as well as ours.

There’s nothing wrong with working hard, checking our lists from time to time. We are wired to strive for equity and excellence. But we also need to make room for balance, boredom, play, joy *at least* as much. How would you mark those off a list? We might create a list titled Busy Detox…meditation, yoga, novel reading. I would love to regularly check those off a list. But the very concept of balance is just not measurable.

But somewhere you’ve got to know, right?. A list is too small to contain the ripples of the big bang, the wonder of the stars, the mystery of Everything That Is. Likewise, a list is too small to contain the fierce, fragile, awesomeness of you.

God Goggles™ [patent pending]

Your best self will never spring whole from a list…even a list you yourself pen on 20-pound linen paper with gold leaf edging.

Can we endure the thundering troika: vulnerability, surrender and uncertainty? These are what our best self needs to emerge. More than leaning, reclining or staying in line-ing, I think this is our most important question to consider. Am I enough? Who decides?

I do. My work is not done until *I* feel like I am enough. Even with hair two-days unwashed, kid crunching on a dinner of toast, a to-do list crumpled at the bottom of my purse.

Through narrowed human eyes, our vision is fogged by comparison and judgement. We need God Goggles [Are you listening Dragon’s Den? Shark Tank? I’m headed your way.], that we might see each other, our world—ourselves—as God does. It may be the closest to perfect we might hope for. Flawed and feeble, but whole, beautiful and worthy of love. As is.

Lists are fine. Checkboxes provide a good framework for big ideas and complex dreams. Sometimes we might be lost without them. Can we just agree to be careful, then? How sad would it be if we end up on the wrong end of our own pencil, drawing ourselves inside that tiny checkbox.

Neither God nor Kid President would sign off on that. Because you were made to be awesome.


patti carlyle

Writer, feminist and activist in Cleveland, Ohio. I curate a collectic blog of quotes, links, images and long form writing. Learn more or find me on Facebook, Twitter, .

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  1. Preach, sister. I had my own 5-year-old version of the “sober” checklist. Powerfully described. Thank you.

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