The Mental Clutter of Perfect
Years ago when I was going through my coaching training, my very astute leader, Elaine, picked up on my need for perfect. I don’t’ remember how the conversation started, but I do remember wearing sandals and my toenail polish was chipped. During our conversation, she looked down at my foot and said, “I’ll bet that chipped polish is driving you crazy, isn’t it?” Boy, did she have me pegged. I hadn’t had time to deal with it before class, and it had really, really bugged me to leave the house with it like that.
Shortly after that incident, I learned about Flylady, and subscribed to her email blasts for a time. I credit her with helping me develop routines at home that I relied on for years. What really stuck was how well she understood that perfectionism keeps us stuck. It keeps us from starting something if we don’t have time to do it perfectly, it raises the bar higher than we can ever reach and makes us less satisfied with our lives.
Back then, I wouldn’t clean my floors unless I could sweep and mop everything at once, shake out all of the rugs, and put clean ones down. The result of this was that I didn’t do it very often, so instead of getting the worst of it taken care of and looking decent, I didn’t do it at all. It looked and felt terrible, hardly perfect. Sometimes that old saying,” if you’re going to do it, do it right,” keeps us from doing it at all.
As always, becoming aware is the beginning to making change, then redirecting ourselves without judgment. I still have to challenge myself to let go of this mental clutter years after becoming aware of it. You may have watched my Breather videos and noticed that they are not perfect. Some may say they are not very professional. But I knew that if I waited until I thought they were perfect, I would never post one. So there I am, scratching my leg and all, and actually very happy that I can put something out in the world without worrying about being perfect. Not pretending to be perfect is great progress. Elaine, I’ve come a long way from chipped toenail polish making me crazy!
So how is the mental clutter of perfect showing up in your life? What are you not doing because you don’t have the time to “do it right?” Find some task or project at work or at home and just start, and quiet this harsh critic in your head. Any progress is good, getting unstuck is even better.
Question: I collect magazine articles and have files upon files of them. What should I do with them?
It sounds to me that you like collecting information. Maybe you like to “know” things and pass information along to others. Or you like to have the info “in case” you might need it. Maybe it’s a bit of both.
Clutter is defined as something you do not love, that is not useful and that you do not have room for in your space. With that in mind, I have some questions for you:
· Do you actually refer to the articles? If not, is it because you can’t find anything or you never actually need to use the info?
· Do you have room for your articles or is your collection outgrowing or has already outgrown its space?
I once worked with someone who had an extensive magazine collection. Someone asked her for place card ideas for a party, and she brought in a stack of ideas culled from her collection. I was blown away. I have never had the patience to maintain magazines articles to any extent. For me, they were clutter; to her they were very useful.
Be honest with yourself about how useful your articles are to you. If you can’t find what you’re looking for but have actually needed the info, it’s time to set up a system that works for you. By asking me your question, I’m guessing that the collection is either not useful to you or you have too much of it.
“In case” are code words for fear. You just might be collecting information to make you feel like you are safe, “If I ever need to know this, I’m covered!” It would be ideal to address the emotion and not collect the stuff, or you set yourself up for needing more and more stuff to cover the fear.
To start clearing and set up a system that works for you, I would suggest this approach:
Cranberry Walnut Bars
This is my favorite dessert going right now, and that's saying something. It's not even chocolate!
1 ½ sticks butter, cut into pieces
2 cups flour
½ cup packed brown sugar (I always use dark brown)
½ tsp salt
1 stick butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/3 cup maple syrup (use good stuff)
2 cups walnuts
1 cup cranberries, rinsed and sorted (I use frozen)
To make the shortbread:
In a medium bowl, toss together the 1 ½ stick butter pieces, flout, ½ cup brown sugar, and salt, cutting the butter into the sugar with a pastry knife until it reaches the consistency of small peas. Place into a 9 x 13 ungreased baking pan and pat down with your hands or a spatula to make a firm base. Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown, about 20 minutes.
To make the topping:
While the crust is baking, in a heavy saucepan set over medium low heat, cook together 1 stick butter, 1 cup brown sugar and maple syrup, and simmer for about 1 minute. Stir in the walnuts and cranberries. Pour this over the baked shortbread crust and spread evenly.
Put bake into the oven and bake until bubbling, about 20-25 minutes. Remove and cool completely in the pan before cutting into bars.
I often see the words, “once and for all” noted on magazine covers and blog posts when it comes to getting organized and clearing clutter. It’s irksome. It’s so misleading and sets people up for feelings of failure. It reminds me of too-good-to-be-true weight loss solutions. You don’t eat your fruits and vegetables once and for all; you start over every day.
I think it’s good news that you cannot get organized once and for all. It takes the pressure off. You can set up systems that work for you, a filing system for instance, and not reinvent the wheel every time you need to file paperwork. But you still have to file the papers. There is no “once and for all” about that. No amount of pretty folders and nice bins are going to get the job done for you.
We are all tempted to get the “perfect” supplies for our organizational projects only to be disappointed that they don’t work. That’s because it’s work to do the work. I know, that sounds obvious. Just like eating healthy and exercising are also obvious. We resist the obvious solution. It’s work to lose and maintain a healthy weight. It’s also work to get and stay organized.
The key is getting systems in place that work for you, having a home for everything, and spending time every day, yes, religiously every day, putting things where they belong. It does not save time to let things accumulate; it only drains your energy as an undone thing. And if you have too much stuff, it’s impossible to put things away. No one I know doesn’t keep acquiring stuff, myself included, so clearing out the old can never be done once and for all either. So, go deal with your mail or your clean clothes that aren’t put away yet, and while you’re at it, eat a carrot or two. You’ll feel much better.
Here is a tasty, healthy, quick meal. I served it with buttermilk biscuits. In full disclosure, my teenagers ate it, but didn't rave about it. We had the neighbors over for dinner, and one of their teenagers had seconds. You never know.
Quinoa Vegetable Stew
½ cup. quinoa, rinsed well
2 Tb oil (I use coconut oil)
1 medium onion, chopped
½ tsp salt
1 large carrot, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 14.5 oz can tomatoes (I used diced)
1 cup vegetable stock
1/2 can black beans (garbanzo beans would work, too)
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 small zucchini, cubed
½ cup corn, frozen or fresh
½ cup peas, frozen or fresh
2 tsp cumin
1 tsp coriander
1 tsp oregano
½ tsp chili powder
pinch cayenne pepper
1 Tb fresh lemon juice
Fresh ground pepper
Grated cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese (optional)
Chopped cilantro (optional)
Bring 1 cup water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the quinoa, reduce the heat to very low, cover, and simmer until the water is completely absorbed and the quinoa is tender, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and salt and saute’, stirring occasionally, until the onion begins to soften, about 2 minutes. Stir in the carrot and garlic, cover and cook, stirring occasionally until the carrot is crisp-tender, about 6 minutes more.
Add the tomatoes, and their juice, vegetable stock, bell pepper, zucchini, corn, peas and seasonings. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until the vegetables are cooked to the desired doneness, 10-20 minutes. Stir in the quinoa and lemon juice, season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot, garnished with the cheese and/or cilantro, if desired.
Make ahead tip: you could chop all of the vegetables the night before and store in the frig.
From 3 Bowls: Vegetarian Recipes from an American Zen Buddhist Monastery, by Seppo Ed Farrey
This is an easy, tasty snack that will make your house smell amazing! Caution: They are deadly good. You can make half a batch in case you don't want too many around the house. They make a great gift, too, but you won't want to share them.
2 lbs. pecans
2 egg whites
1 tablespoon water
Mix together in a small bowl: (you can play with the spices – add more or less to taste)
1 c. sugar
1 tsp+ cinnamon
1 ½ tsp salt
½ tsp cardamom
½ tsp cayenne pepper
1 stick butter
In a large bowl, beat egg whites and water with a whisk until frothy. Add nuts & stir. Add sugar & spice mixture & stir.
Pour on to one or two parchment lined cookie sheets. Divide the butter into tiny pieces & put over nuts. Bake at 300 degrees for 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes. Cool. Devour.
I came across a crotched piano runner my Grandmother made for me when I was sorting through my linen closet a few weeks ago. I don't love the piano runner now and never did. But yet I kept it in my special linens bin because I love my Grandma, and she handmade this for me.
What a tripe whammy: gift, homemade, Grandma. Guilt from three angles. Any one of these can make getting rid of something difficult. But three of them? What’s a girl to do?
One of my favorite methods is to try to find a good home for the item. I think many of us wish that what we have a hard time parting with will be enjoyed by someone else.
Some things are just too hard to donate. Maybe it’s because we never really know what happens to them. I donate many things, most of the time without a second thought, probably because they don’t have any feelings associated with them.
So each month that I go to my book club I bring a bag of things that I want to find a good home. Many times I have great success with this and feel a bit like the matchmaker. My friends take home something they love, and I get the satisfaction of seeing my things appreciated again or maybe for the first time.
I just sent a note out to the family to see if anyone wants the piano runner. If not, to book club it goes next month. And if no one wants it, I feel better for at least trying to find it a good home, and that makes the guilt go away, triple whammy or not.
Clearing Memorabilia Clutter
Until this past weekend, I had pockets of memorabilia throughout my house. All of it was contained, nothing I considered out of hand, but I hadn’t looked at some of it in years. I decided I wanted to pull it all into one place and go through it to see what still had meaning. Key concept here: Still had meaning, not meaningful years ago.
So what did I find? I found the very first real, store-bought -from-Hallmark valentine I got from a boy in 4th grade. It gave me loads of smiles then. And I’m sure the basketball tournament ticket stub from 8th grade was once very meaningful. I’m guessing someone significant made meaningful eye contact with me at one, or maybe two, games.
What did I feel for both things now? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Why did I still have them (and more of their brothers and sisters)? Because I hadn’t looked through the spiral-bound School Record pockets since… I honestly can’t remember. Or the jewelry boxes in deep storage. Or the baby clothes I thought I had already given away.
It was great fun to do this with a friend. She brought bins of cards, letters, pictures, and we hooted with each other over some really funny stuff. We lit a roaring fire and burned some things, recycled, pitched, and packed other things for goodwill.
It wasn't easy. Some things were very sticky. When in doubt I kept some things and got rid of others. There are no right answers.
At the end of the night as we were sipping gin and tonics in front of the mound of burning ash, we thought these things were worth keeping in mind:
Of all the things we keep, I think memorabilia is the most ripe for feelings of guilt. I truly believe that we are most restored and at peace in our homes when we are surrounded by things we use or love, and we cannot be if we are keeping things out of obligation. The more we release and let go of these things, the more free we will feel, and the less sticky everything becomes.
My husband and I both enjoy cooking, so it’s easy for condiments to accumulate, hot sauces, oils, Thai flavors, you name it. I decided to go through them yet again not long ago, thinking I could make a pretty quick job of it since it hadn’t been very long. “Very” is quite subjective though, is it not? I think it had been about six months, which didn’t seem that long to me.
Once I got started it didn’t take long to find things to clear out. I was actually quite surprised that I found as much as I did (six or seven things, or so). As I shut the frig, after clearing and wiping down the door shelves, I wondered why I still had so many that either we didn’t use or had expired.
I realized that I was living in “just in case.” What if we need or want______(fill in the blank)? Also, so many of us have been taught that it’s a shame to waste food. That gets in the way, too. When I was growing up, and we were putting leftovers away, my dad would say, “Shall I throw it now or later?”
But throwing it now or later – what’s the difference? We sometimes use the crutch of wanting something to be spoiled beyond use before we give ourselves permission to get rid of it. Let’s save ourselves the guilt and energy drain and deal with it now. And maybe not buy any more condiments (or, fill in the blank) for awhile.
I opened that frig right back up and threw out three more things, things I just felt guilty I wasn’t using, and things that I was just going to throw out six months from now. Who knew what oyster sauce could teach us?
Making Room for the Good Stuff
Two years ago I read that purpose is where deep gladness meets the world's needs and knew that I had to unearth this gladness. This summer I got a chance to make a wholehearted effort at this when my 13-year job in Human Resources came to an end.
My big dragon to slay was thinking that my talents weren't tangible, marketable, a "real job." I have spent the last five months "unmaking a living," as my favorite poet David Whyte has put it. This time has been such a gift. I've cleared, sorted, reflected, completed undone things, and reconnected with family and friends.
Now, I am ready to offer to the world what I do best: help people clear the clutter in their lives to make room for the good stuff. I've been doing it all my life. Turns out my gladness has been there all along. I just needed to make room for it.
I love sharing what I've learned, improving things, food, books and being a mom.