Ask Amy: Perfectionist Needs Some Sleep

By Amy Dickinson | May 26th, 2021

It's hard to snooze when you can't let yourself relax


Perfectionist woman can't sleep Image

Dear Amy: I have such a strong drive to be productive, to take action, to keep things organized, and to stay perfectly on top of everything.

This is good to a certain extent, but I am past that borderline.

I suffer from sleep issues — falling and staying asleep. Plus, constantly thinking about what needs to be done makes it difficult for me to enjoy being present in the moment.

I can’t relax unless things are put away and mostly everything that needs to be done is done. My mom was like this, so I know I get it from her!

Years of being an operations manager further honed this trait.

Besides wanting to improve my health by getting better rest, I’m also concerned that if my husband and I have children, I may be constantly stressed out because it’ll be impossible to keep things clean and organized and keep on top of what needs to be done.

In my current job, my work-life balance is pretty good, and during weekends or vacations, I don’t think about work much, so — things could be worse.

I’ve tried meditation, but it didn’t connect well with me. I’ve seen a therapist for years, but he hasn’t been much help with this particular issue.

How do I learn to become OK with being still and to rest better?

— Just Like Mom


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Dear Just Like: Perfectionism is often inherited, and this trait can have real, lasting and unhealthy consequences. You don’t mention what your childhood was like, but I assume that your desire to change might be a product of the insight you’ve gained from your mother’s experience.

Did your mother hold a high-stress job similar to yours? If not, her lifestyle might have left more room for making things perfect at home.

You don’t mention what led you to therapy; but — in my view — if your therapist isn’t able to work with you successfully on some of these core issues, you should consider changing therapists. You might see some success with a form of “exposure therapy;” this is where you deliberately leave things undone, and gradually learn to cope with your reaction when life gets messy.

Also, you should see a sleep specialist. Being rested will help you to stop spinning.

I applaud your insight concerning the impact your tendencies would have on a family. Being a parent is the ultimate in “operations management.” It is a 24/7 rollercoaster of challenges, joys, emotional swings, and — yes — the unique pain of stepping on Lego pieces in the middle of the night.

The parenting experience can lead high-strung people into a beautiful softening; but you can’t count on that.

Your kids would be the first to notice how hard you are on yourself, and they could inherit the high-strung anxiety that goes along with that. One root cause of perfectionism is the belief that you aren’t good enough, as you are.

Here’s a quote from Brene Brown’s book, “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You Are Supposed to be and Embrace Who You Are”: “Understanding the difference between healthy striving [that’s you at work] and perfectionism [you at home] is the key to laying down the shield and picking up your life.”


In the tradition of the great personal advice columnists, Chicago Tribune’s Amy Dickinson is a plainspoken straight shooter who relates to readers of all ages. She answers personal questions by addressing issues from both her head and her heart. A solid reporter, Dickinson researches her topics to provide readers with informed opinions and answers. Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068

© 2021 by Amy Dickinson

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