This weekend, Andrew is cleaning his flat. This is more momentous than it sounds.
It’s partly a consequence of me giving him some tough love, earlier in the week. His place has been gradually getting worse, since we met, and now, it looks like something you’d see on a Channel 4 documentary.
There’s stuff absolutely everywhere. It’s hard to walk from one side of a room to the other, because the floor is covered with clothes, pieces of paper (everything from post, receipts, documents from work, rubbish) and random carrier bags of objects.
It will sound the opposite of what you’d expect, but this actually because he’s a perfectionist.
He bought his flat a few months before I bought mine, so he’s been there about a year. He bought new furniture, but didn’t want to assemble it until he’d finished decorating. But he hasn’t finished decorating, because he’s too much of a perfectionist. So he’s got nowhere to put anything, so he just puts it on the floor.
He’s painted the walls in his bedroom, and on our first date, I noticed how perfectly straight his lines were, as soon as we went into his room.
But that’s as far as he’s got. He needs to paint the woodwork, but he hasn’t bought the gloss paint. He can’t decide what paint to buy, so he’s stopped. He also wants to get new carpet (although the existing carpet is new, as the flat is a new build, and it seems fine to me) but he can’t decide what carpet to get.
He bought a wardrobe and chest of drawers, but he hasn’t assembled them. He thinks the perfect order is to finish the painting, and then buy the carpet, then assemble the wardrobe and chest of drawers, because otherwise, he would have to move them when the new carpet comes.
So, he has the unassembled wardrobe and chest of drawers still in their flat-packs, in the living room, and nowhere to put his clothes. So his clothes are all over the place.
The first time I went to his flat, he was worried about what I’d think of the state of it, but it wasn’t so bad then. It’s got worse, over the months. More and more of the floor has disappeared under a sea of things, as time has gone on.
A few months ago, he was away at a wedding. He phoned me when he got home, on the Sunday afternoon. He was really hungover and feeling down.
“I lost my contact lenses at some point last night, and do you think the state of my flat is ridiculous?”
“What? How is the state of your flat connected to your contact lenses?”
“It’s not, I was just looking at the state of the flat.”
We had a good talk, on the phone, about why it was like that.
He’s such a perfectionist, he can’t trust himself to make the right decision about what paint to buy, to finish his bedroom.
“It’s quite debilitating, actually,” he said.
I told him how I understand perfectionism through CBT, the type of therapy I do.
(Shafran 2010, Overcoming Perfectionism, Robinson Publishing.)
“What can happen, is your sense of self-worth is too dependant on achievement. That leads to inflexible standards, and that leads to behaviour which actually gets in the way of doing things well, like putting off doing a task until you think you’ve got the perfect conditions to do it perfectly, or spending excessive time checking things. Then, either you don’t actually meet your super-high standards, because you procrastinated too much or took too long on things, or got too exhausted, and there’s lots of self-criticism. Or you’re too scared to even try and meet your standards, like not trying new things, in case you can’t do them perfectly, which also leads to self-criticism. Or, you do meet your super-high standards, in spite of everything, and then you decide your standards weren’t quite high enough.”
He said he understood.
I said about how people think they’ve got to where they are today because of their perfectionism, but actually, they’ve got there in spite of it. What leads to more success, is being a healthy striver – trying to do things well but not aiming for perfection. It means you get more done – you don’t put things off until you can do them perfectly, because you don’t mind if they’re not perfect. You aren’t scared of trying new things because you don’t mind if you’re not great while you’re learning.
Later that day, I went to his place. I had printed out the perfectionism diagram and some more information about healthy striving. I wasn’t sure how he’d take it.
After a while, I got them out my bag. We lay on his bed. He read one page, then the other, and then went back to the first one, and then the second one.
Oh god, what is he thinking? Is he annoyed?
I’m cautious about slipping into therapist mode with him, but I also feel like, if I’ve got some gold, I want to share it. My therapist friends and I are always sharing things from Psychology that we think will help each other with our problems, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. With Andrew, I feel like the support is really mutual. He’s shared helpful police information with me loads of times, and also, been emotionally supportive, so it felt like this was part of that.
But what did he think of what I was saying about his perfectionism? Did he mind? Did he agree?
He read each page for a third time, and then said, “this is exactly what I do!”
We talked about what he needs to do next – the first step towards getting his flat how he wants it to be.
We thought about all the different stages of the process.
“I mean, could you just assemble the wardrobe now, so you can put your clothes away? I know it would mean moving it a couple of times, to paint behind it and put the carpet down, but surely that would be less inconvenient overall than not having a wardrobe all this time?”
He couldn’t imagine doing that.
“Maybe what I need to do is paint the walls I’ve already done again, to get the lines even straighter.”
“No. Normally, I’d say, ‘I don’t agree but do whatever you think is best, it’s your thing’ but DO NOT DO THAT. You ABSOLUTELY CANNOT do that.”
He decided he needs to buy the gloss paint, so he can paint the woodwork next, then choose the carpet.
He said he would try and buy the paint by the end of that week.
That was in August. He still hasn’t bought it.
It’s partly because he works such long hours. He’s often doesn’t get home until midnight, so on a practical level, it is understandable.
But there are lots of people who do shift work who have managed to decorate their homes.
A few weeks ago, he got as far as going to Homebase, but he couldn’t make a decision, so he just came home with more colour charts.
One of the ways his perfectionism gets in the way, is not being able to make a decision, and not being to progress with unpacking.
Another problem, is putting off doing tasks until he can do them perfectly.
That day, I couldn’t even walk round to my side of the bed, because there was so much stuff everywhere. A lot of it was pieces of paper.
I started picking them up.
“Where would you like the Official Place for your Pieces of Paper to be, while we wait for everything to get finished? What about in this corner?” I started piling up pieces of paper in the corner, so there was a clear path from the door to the bed.
“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll do that when I’ve got a bit more time to sort it out properly,” he replied.
“Well, yes, but you haven’t so far, and I want to be able to walk across the room,” I said, continuing undeterred.
This is the thing. He was waiting for the perfect day to sort out all of his paperwork perfectly, but that day was just never going to come. Again, when he often works 14 hour days, there’s less Potential Perfect Admin Time. But also, the longer you wait for something like that, the more perfect it has to be, to justify the wait.
- waiting until he can create the most perfect filing system in the world
- complete inaction.
Actually, it’s on more of a spectrum. Having a pile of post and folders in the corner of the room was not perfect, but it was a hell of a lot better than having everything fucking everywhere.
Another problem is that his super-high, inflexible standards are mutually exclusive. He can’t possibly attain all of them, because some of them cancel each other out.
One of the reasons his flat is such a state, is because he’s always either at work or asleep (or sometimes at my place).
He’s always at work, because he’s a perfectionist. The other day, he went into work on his day off, to till in a form. Apparently it couldn’t wait a day. Maybe it couldn’t.
He said he thought it would take about an hour or two. He spent several hours on it, then he had to leave, to meet a friend for a drink.
Then, he after he’d finished seeing his friend, he went back to work and spent a few more hours on it, until about midnight.
He recently told me that he was working at about 2am, and he spent ten minutes trying to decide which still image from some CCTV to put into a document, until he realised they were exactly the same.
He has recently had a really big case on – probably one of the biggest of his career – so all of this has been particularly bad. He told me, weeks ago, that he’d done pretty much everything he can on it, but then he spent the next few weeks working until midnight every night, doing more.
Then, when everything had been submitted to court there was nothing left that he could possibly do, except get his suit dry-cleaned, ready for the court case, I said, “what are you going to do with the rest of your weekend?”
“I think I might just go through all the CCTV again and make sure I haven’t missed anything.”
“I mean, you know your job better than I do, but that sounds like a massive waste of time.”
Despite my excellent advice, he did go back through all the evidence again, and found a tiny detail where it looked like two pieces of evidence contradicted each other. They actually didn’t, and it was all fine, but the barrister he was working with was so pissed off with him that they threatened to pull out of the case.
So, his standards for work probably get in the way at work, and also mean that it’s impossible for him to achieve his standards at home. How is he going to find the time to buy paint, paint perfectly straight lines and do perfect filing if he’s always at work, fannying about, going back over and over things to make sure they’re perfect?
He had CBT before, about a year ago, for depression. We haven’t talked about it that much, as I want him to be able to keep it private, but he’s told me he found it really helpful, and this is probably the most balanced he’s ever felt.
However, one of his biggest take home messages was that exercise really improves his mood. He loves running. So, he has another unachieveable standard about exercise, and being healthy.
He’s always talking about feeling bad, because he hasn’t had time to exercise or eat more healthily.
The other day, he said, “I should have been running this week.”
“WHEN? Literally when could you possibly have been running this week? You’ve worked from 9am to midnight every day!”
He thought about it and said, “maybe if I’ve slept less?”
“How much sleep have you been having?”
“About 5-6 hours.”
I started to reach the end of my tether with all of this, a few weeks ago. It was the week that my brother was in hospital, seriously ill. I’d also been to a funeral that week, to support my friend.
By Friday, I was completely exhausted. The plan for Friday night was to go to Andrew’s, and for him to cook dinner. I was looking forward to a decent dinner, as I hadn’t eaten properly all week, and I was looking forward to being looked after, as I’d spent the whole week worrying about other people.
When I was waiting for the train to his, he phoned me and asked if we could meet at a station between his work and his home, as he hadn’t left work yet. He was worried I’d get to his place before him.
“OK,” I agreed. I had thought he wasn’t going to be at work that day.
“Also, I know I was supposed to be cooking, but I’ve lost my bank card so I can’t buy the ingredients. However, I have found a gift voucher for Marks and Spencer, so I thought if we meet there, we can go to the Marks and Spencer and get some nice ready meals instead.”
So, I went the train station he suggested.
“Sorry, I left work late, I’ll be another 20 minutes.” He texted me, when I arrived.
“Fuck sake.” I replied. I was pissed off that I had to stand around for 20 minutes.
Eventually, he arrived, then we went round Marks and Spencer.
I had imagined that it would then be quite quick to get back to his house, as he’d suggested meeting there, but actually, we had to get another two buses and two trains.
I’d left my house just after 7pm. By the time we got to his flat, it was twenty to 10pm. I was absolutely exhausted.
I looked around his flat, which was an absolute state. There was nowhere to sit, because the sofa was covered with a mountain of clothes, bedding and pieces of paper. There is a table and chairs, but there was inexplicably a bike in the way.
“Well, I’ve had a shit evening so far,” I said.
I told him why I was pissed off.
I created space on the sofa and then sat down, and he anxiously stroked my arm.
Later that evening, he found his bank card. It was in the kitchen all along, but it was buried under a sea of food, crockery and post.
He also found two separate carrier bags on the floor that had red peppers in, that he had forgotten he had. Some of them were rotting as they’d out of the fridge for days.
Another time, I was at his flat and asked for a towel, so I could have a shower. He couldn’t find a clean one, but gave me the one he’d been using. Later on, I found a bag full of clean towels on the floor of the living room.
I think that some of what I’ve said about perfectionism and his work is starting to sink in. He said he’d been thinking about what I said, about people being successful in spite of perfectionism, and not because of it.
We talked about what would happen if he brought the most wrong paint there is, and whether it would actually matter.
“Often, choosing the most wrong option is still better than not choosing anything at all,” I said.
On Wednesday, we went out for dinner, and then had a few drinks in the pub.
When we got back to his, he seemed more sheepish about the mess than usual, for some reason. I was in a bit of a rowdy mood.
“It is ridiculous, isn’t it?” he said.
“This is not the home of a well-adjusted adult,” I said.
Then I asked, “what do you want me to say?”
“Is that a trick question?” he asked.
“No, seriously. What do you need?”
“Well, that’s what I’ve been going for, but I’m not sure it’s working. It seems to be worse than ever, and you still haven’t bought that bloody paint.”
We had a nice but frank chat.
“You don’t deserve this. You deserve to live somewhere nicer than this. And if you’re going to work 100 hours a day, you need really efficient systems at home, not losing things all the time because it’s chaos.”
In a way, I don’t care that much what his flat is like, but I do want somewhere to sit, the in living room, and I want to be able to walk from the door to my side of the bed.
I’m optimistic that things can get better with his perfectionism, both at work and at home. He does seem to understand that aiming for perfection is disabling him and making him achieve less – it’s just that it’s hard to start changing the behaviours of a lifetime.