It’s really hard looking at a blank page. It’s intimidating. It’s a bit scary. I’m worried those first few words will set the tone for the whole page, and probably the next page, and maybe all the pages after that too.
For me, bordering on obsessively compulsive as it is, I evaluate the success of that first page based on how neat it is. I assess the consistency of the form of my words and my letters. I look at the form of each line and each paragraph and whether the form starts to fall apart as my eye moves further down the page. Does the last paragraph look lazy and tired when compared with the first?
There’s a very simple, forgivable explanation for why my page usually does get messier line by line. The first few instances of mess are an accident. My hand slips, my pen smudges. My hand tires easily – I don’t write with pen and paper very often anymore (curse this digital age for making my hands lazy). After those first four or five mistakes, my hand loses the will to try. I’ve put it under so much pressure to form perfect, beautiful, consistent shapes on this very first, blank page and it crumbles under the pressure. It knows the future of the rest of these pages lies on its tired, stressed fingers and it falters under the weight of my disappointment. I am not forgiving and it can’t cope. It just lets go, stops caring, and as each line gets more and more careless, I get more careless too. This blank page isn’t working and I usually give up about halfway down.
In life, every day, I’m the same. If I make a few mistakes at work, I find it impossibly hard to pick myself up again after that. My disappointment weighs on me as heavily as it does on my poor hand. For a moment – these moments vary in length, depending on the size of the mistake – I let everything go. I sleep through my alarm and six snoozes; I’m late to work; I cancel on my friend; I snap at my boyfriend or my mum or my colleague. I sag, mentally and emotionally. It can take a lot of effort to pick myself back up.
I first started noticing this tendency when I was still at school. Unless my entire bedroom was tidy, I couldn’t start my revision. There was no point – I’d failed before I’d even begun. Back then, it was more a procrastination technique than anything else. But the idea took hold and now it’s a fully-fledged perfection obsession. I notice how the more things go wrong, the more I demand perfection from the tiny, insignificant things in my life. My flat needs to be clean and tidy. The bed has to be made. My handwriting has to be neat. My planner has to be up-to-date (and neat, and in black Bic pen only). I need to get up with my first alarm. I need to be on time for everything.
I’ve built up other little defence mechanisms now that I demand perfection obsessively from too. I have to be wearing rings, at least three. I have to have a book in my bag, whether I read it or not. I must always carry a lip balm, always, and if I don’t I have to buy one immediately (I have an endless supply of lip balms at home, as a result). My inbox must be near 0. Breakfast at home before work is a must (and I need to have time to drink a cup of tea without scalding my tongue).
There are problems with all of these perfection obsessions. I don’t have the time necessary to keep my flat spotlessly clean and tidy all the time. Even if I did have the time, I would probably choose to use it doing something else, like sleeping. That’s another big problem: how much I love sleeping. I love napping. I don’t like getting up when my first alarm goes off at six thirty unless I get eight hours sleep the night before, which is rare.
I am also perpetually late and always have been. Not stupidly late – we’re not talking half an hour or more. But five to fifteen minutes is pretty standard and I rush and I hate myself for not leaving earlier and I arrive hot and bothered and apologetic. My boyfriend is also perpetually late, but while I stress and rush to try and save myself, he remains cool as a cucumber, not bothered in the slightest. He also doesn’t believe in making the bed, and as he is always last to leave the bed, it remains unmade until I get home from work at 5 PM. I’m always reassured of the strength of our relationship when I think about these two differences and how we manage to threat them light-heartedly. Once he starts getting seriously annoyed with how many cushions are on the bed once made (four, and two pillows, and one or two throws), or I start getting annoyed with how calmly he walks when we’re late, I’ll know it’s a sign something else is going wrong.
These perfection obsessions are consequently often disappointed by the fact that I am not perfect, by the part of me that doesn’t really care about being perfect, by the part of me that is just a bit lazy all around. The result is difficult, emotionally and physically: in some tiny way, every day, I feel like I’ve failed. I feel like a failure. Picking myself back up from this is exhausting.
Consciously avoiding this mentality is exhausting too. But I’m trying. It’s a two-fold effort: trying to improve when it really matters to me and trying to forgive myself when it doesn’t. This mean realising that being on time to work is important to me, and not rushing through my morning routine is important to me too. So I need to stop snoozing my alarm and I need to go to bed a bit earlier. It means realising that being late to a group hangout is not a big deal and not stress out about it if I am late. It means if I’m not wearing any rings, or I left the flat untidy, or I didn’t have breakfast before work, I’ll be okay and I haven’t failed my day. My fingers could do with a break, the flat can be tidy later, I can grab breakfast at Victoria. It’s not the end of the world and I am not a failure. I don’t have to start from ground zero and reassess my entire life and remodel my entire being just because I didn’t do those things.
And the same goes for big things. One argument with my friend doesn’t mean I’m a horrible person. It doesn’t mean I’m a failure. That meltdown one Friday night with my boyfriend doesn’t mean he’s going to stop loving me and it doesn’t mean I’ve failed. Ignoring what “missing links” meant and being unable to send off the magazine to print because I don’t understand InDesign doesn’t mean I’m shit at my job.
Sometimes I have to remember I’m human and so is everyone else. Everyone has arguments and everyone has meltdowns and everyone makes mistakes. Everyone fucks up. No one is looking at me and keeping a tally of all the things that go wrong and knocking me down with every mistake. No one is counting down how many mistakes I have left.
That’s not to say I shouldn’t ascertain where I could do better and be better. I can work harder and nap less. I can go to bed earlier and not snooze my alarm. I can be kinder and more thoughtful. But I can also forget my rings and still feel beautiful. I can leave the bed unmade and still be organised. I can be late to work and still be great at my job. I can have a meltdown and still be happy. None of these things are failures, but, I can also fail and still succeed.
I can get messier and messier as I write these words, and still finish my story.