Life After 50: The Trap of Perfectionism

From a successful Washington, D.C. lawyer, community volunteer, author, and mother.


I am a recovering perfectionist. The perfectionism I practiced for decades of my life nearly killed me. It was as if the sudden realization, following the death of my father, that perfection is an elusive and impossible goal plunged me into a months-long depression.

My brand of perfectionism started at an early age. I won academic awards, even early in elementary school. I graduated with honors from high school and college. I went to one of the best law schools in the nation, worked at one of the biggest law firms in Washington, D.C., made gobs of money in the flush early-80s, and got a political appointment to the Clinton Justice Department. The accolades and recognition became almost like a drug. I strove for outside affirmations. It took me years to find affirmations from within and to realize my self-worth for who I am, and not for what I have accomplished.

When I was blessed with children, I strove to be the “best” mother. I read every parenting book I could find. My children were enrolled in any enrichment activity I could fit in. They went to top schools. I attended every school function and sports event, and a healthy dinner was on the table at 6:00 pm. I was an uber-volunteer, who had difficulty saying no. Their childhood flew by.

I thought I was providing my children with every item and opportunity I wish I had had when I was young. I was moving so quickly, however, that I was rarely wholly present. I was constantly making lists and planning.

What I would give to have my sweet son ask me to read to him, or for my beautiful daughter to let me choose her outfit and do her hair, or for either of them to choose to spend their free time with me! They are in their 20s now and, if we parents do our jobs correctly, they need us less and less. I was not prepared for that reality.

I spent years decorating my home in a well-to-do D.C. suburb, hosting parties and other events, chairing school and club activities, serving on boards and generally spreading myself too thinly in the pursuit of being the “perfect” mom, spouse, community organizer and more. When I became an empty nester, I felt rudderless. I had willingly left a successful law practice to raise my children. I do not regret that. I do regret not allowing myself to pause and enjoy the precious moments along the way.

“You wander from room to room hunting for the diamond necklace that is already around your neck.”

Perfectionism can rob you of time, the one resource none of us can buy or restore if spent unwisely. Most of us guard our financial resources with more vigilance than we protect our time.

No one said on their deathbed, “I wish I had worked more,” or “I wish I had renovated my house to perfection” or “mastered the art of the perfect souffle.” We learn, as we age, what really is of most value in life. It is not the things we have in our lives that count, it is the people. If we are always looking ahead or focusing on minutiae of no real import, we can miss the richness of life’s experiences that are right in front of us.

In the profound words of the poet Rumi, “You wander from room to room hunting for the diamond necklace that is already around your neck.” I know I did. But I do not anymore.

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