We recently took Levi on his first camping trip. In preparation for the weekend, we took our sleeping bags to the laundromat to clean them. As I removed mine from the oversized dryer and slung it onto one of the folding tables to begin rolling it, I was hit with a childhood memory defined by frustration: I hated rolling my sleeping bag up as a kid because the silky softness of it always created movement so that it never lined up properly (read: perfectly). I was always trying to get the “perfect roll” where the sides of the bag stayed evenly aligned and the end result was tight enough that the ties were able to wrap easily around the bulky mass of stuffing and fabric. I rarely, if ever, achieved this and it drove me crazy. I have numerous memories of ending fun sleepovers in a state of aggravation simply because I had to roll my sleeping bag up, and I knew it wasn’t every going to be quite right.
What struck me about this rather intense and long-forgotten flashback was that clearly I have been neurotic since I was a small child attending slumber parties with friends. (My sleeping bag was used only for this purpose as a kid, since we did not actually camp). In some ways this is hardly surprising. My need for control and having all things in order are clearly deep in my core–a central part of who I am. But this did make me start to wonder about where perfectionism comes from. We tend to think about it as a result of societal influence–a kind of “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality related to how our lives and belongings appear to other people. We’ve learned that perfect = admiration, and who doesn’t want to be admired? But I was just a kid, and we are talking about a sleeping bag here. I feel quite certain that the desire to have it rolled perfectly was mine and mine alone. So where did that desire come from? My parents aren’t particularly interested in everything being perfect, or at least that was never shown to us as children. I didn’t look at magazines, nor watch much TV as a child. All in all I was fairly shielded from a lot of mainstream media and typical values.
I think that maybe there is an element of “nature” to perfectionism that doesn’t often get talked about. And because, I believe, nature is a bit more challenging to overcome than nurture, it seems addressing this side of the quest for control and perfectionism is an important angle. Perhaps this has been written about and discussed, but it hasn’t in any of the books, articles, blog posts, etc. that I’ve read. And perhaps psychologists, sociologists, and self-help gurus don’t think it matters where the issue comes from, we just need to get over ourselves. But I do think there is a difference between saying: “look – society has asked you to be this way. It’s unnecessary and potentially harmful, so just look society in the eye and say you don’t care. You be you.” And all that. Versus saying: “wow – this a deeply embedded part of your core personality (life-long in fact). How can we address and change that essence of who you are?” And should we? These are obviously questions and ideas that I cannot answer. Yes, I believe people can change. I am always changing and always striving for change. Yes, I believe in therapy and self-help approaches. But I also believe that “you be you” can mean that I’m a damn perfectionist, obsessive, controlling, anxiety-ridden person who cares about the sides of the sleeping rolling up in perfect alignment for me, not because of the person at the next dryer over (who could give two shits anyway).
Maybe the self-help folk and CB therapists are right–maybe it doesn’t matter how far back this unhealthy desire for control and perfection goes; what matters is addressing it now. And so after camping and sunning out my sleeping bag, I rolled it up to the best of my ability. I let go of the seeming inadequacies of my “roll” and tossed it in the rubbermaid camping bin in the basement happy not attempt the process again until next year.