A Perfectionist Circle: How I Became Attracted to Work Ethic

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Image by JD Hancock / CC BY

I don’t know how it happened, but I seem to have become someone that is attracted primarily to ambition. Passion. Work ethic.

And completely turned off by laziness.

The Lazy One

I’m the child of two perfectionists. No matter what I did, it was never good enough. My parents were very quick to point out my mistakes and very quiet about my successes.

I don’t know how many times I heard the words, “Don’t be so lazy” growing up when I was reluctant to do something. It was our household’s blanket motivational insult. Ranking right up there with “don’t be so queer” when I said something embarrassing. Well, “don’t be so quee-ah,” since I’m from Maine.

I had it drilled into my head that lazy was just about the worst thing in the world to be and that I was always on the verge of becoming it.

I couldn’t ever relax without feeling like I was committing a minor crime.

When I Was Gravely Ill, He Assumed I Was Being Lazy

Living with my boyfriend Kurt intensified this. “Grown ups go to work when they have a tummy ache,” he told me, one morning when I woke up feeling sick to my stomach.

He was 32, and I was 19, so insinuations that I was immature or acting like a baby always stung.

So I dragged myself into my job cleaning hotel rooms. About an hour into my shift, I vomited in the toilet I was cleaning.

It turns out I had tonsillitis. I ended up admitted to the hospital because the abscess started to constrict my airway.

Work ethic was important to Kurt, and I admired that about him, but his attitudes towards me reminded me so much of my parents. When I was gravely ill, Kurt assumed that I was being lazy.

The Next Guy Never Called Me Lazy

The next guy I dated was, hands down, the laziest person I ever dated. So lazy that it caused problems. Seth never cleaned. Had problems holding down a job. Shied away from anything that was challenging or stressful.

But there was one big upside: He never called me lazy.

It was a welcome reprieve from constantly feeling less than. From feeling like a disappointment.

Even at my most slacktastic, I was the clear workhorse in that relationship. And I relished that role.

We married.

I’d always assumed that he’d eventually get more motivated as he grew older. Become more responsible. But as the years wore on, Seth got worse.  He did less. And rather than enjoying a life that was free of obligation, he instead grew depressed and began to resent me.

“You only do things so you can hold them over my head,” he said one day, near the end of our marriage. It shook me because there was a kernel of truth there, albeit less venomous. I had found solace in comparing myself to him and never coming up in my mental calculations as “the lazy one.”

But I never spoke of that  process aloud, and besides, it wasn’t the only reason.

“No, I do them so that we won’t be homeless,” I replied.

It didn’t go well.

A Perfectionist Circle

We divorced amicably. These days he holds down several part-time jobs. Doing things he loves. I’m genuinely happy for him, but part of me feels bad that he couldn’t do that while we were together. And wonders if there was something about me that turned him into the worst version of himself (he didn’t work or do chores for four years when we were married).

But I went and remarried…a man with huge ambition. A hard worker. And yes, Justin is a person with perfectionist qualities.

It definitely caused some friction early in our relationship as I would find myself in situations where it felt like, for all intents and purposes, I was talking to my parents again.

But somehow this time, things went a little differently. I internalized those values in a way I never had before. I reached for things I would have been scared to try before. And I figured out how to self-motivate without insulting myself all the time.

I’m still leery of perfectionism (and research has shown it’s bad for your mental health), but work ethic? It’s become one of my core values. And something that I need in romantic partners.

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My new book is out!

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching: Advice for Couples Seeking Another Partner 

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