“All that time I thought I did well because I wanted to, but what if I only did well because I was supposed to? Should those two things–desire and duty–feel different? What do I, Mary Davies, actually, independently, organically want?”
While this isn’t a self help book, The Year I Stopped Trying is worth talking about as it relates to perfectionism, success, and navigating identity and intentionality. I think this book can be a great place for recovering perfectionists to start if they prefer fiction over non-fiction.
The Year I Stopped Trying is written by Katie Heaney and follows Mary Davies who is a textbook overachieving perfectionist: someone who finds validation, approval, acceptance through achievements, success, and essentially perfection. One day she accidentally forgets a homework assignment and what follows is a shattering domino effect of her expectations and beliefs of the world and herself.
There are so many moments Heaney captures so well and so beautifully that I kept having those “aha! someone put it into words” moments. Some of these moments included:
The “gifted child no longer feels gifted because they’re surrounded by peers on the same level” self perceived discomfort (or disappointment reinforced by caregivers/teachers/etc)
That breath-caught-in-throat anticipation when Mary forgets the assignment and expects something bad to happen. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t
The resentment Mary feels toward people who don’t seem to be trying as hard as her
The “righteous pleasure” she feels when her brother is being scolded for poor grades and she feels validated for trying so hard because her parents are proud of her
The mix of excitement and dread realizing that her life is HERS to live
Separating a conditioned sense of duty with true desire
Now not knowing what she wants to do now that perfection and people pleasing isn’t her guiding compass
And ultimately, leaning into the unknown and allowing herself to try and fail
“I used to enjoy these interrogations…. It meant there was a reason I did what I did the way I did it. It meant he was on the wrong path and I was on the right one. Now I wonder: What’s at the end of it, anyway? What if all this effort turns out to not matter at all? Who’d be humiliated then?”
If you relate to any of those points above, I highly recommend reading this book (and then follow it up with Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown). It’s validating and comforting and reminds me that I’m not alone and also that my perfectionism served me for a time — it made other people happy which in turn kept me safe from punishment, judgment, or criticism.
Reading this book also reminded me why addressing those inner narratives and limiting beliefs with intentionality, curiosity, and compassion can be so important, so liberating. We spend so much of our lives learning how to live for other people, so we don’t disappoint anyone (teachers, parents, friends, future significant others, kids, etc.). But it’s not often we learn how to live for us, how to set boundaries and honor our own needs, and in turn how to navigate the possible discomfort of disappointing others when doing so.
I think my only complaint (and I use that word quite loosely) was the overcorrection from “I’m trying so hard” to “I’m completely giving up.” It felt like she went from doing her best to prove a point (that she’s good enough and worthy) to intentionally failing to prove /another/ point (that she’s now this cool, unbothered person) to get someone else’s recognition, praise, and approval.
I even made a note in the book that says, “she needs to do things for herself—not in reaction to something or someone else.”
But that complaint was pretty much gone by the end of the book because Heaney beautifully reminds us that we don’t have to have it all figured out, but we can keep trying our best, even if our best may change from one moment to the next.
This “overcorrection” is not uncommon, especially when we begin wondering why we’re trying so hard when either 1) we’re not getting the response/validation/acceptance/approval/praise back or 2) we feel other people are trying half as hard and are still ‘getting by.’ (In my own experience, I started becoming resentful of past coworkers who I felt weren’t doing enough because I was going above and beyond to prove my worth. We could have a whole other discussion about good work ethic, but that’s a conversation for another time.)
The bottom line is: Recovering from perfectionism isn’t about not trying our best, but being okay with our effort regardless of the outcome.
Can you identify spaces or places in your life where you can ease up just a little bit? Where you don’t necessarily “stop trying,” but you allow yourself to pull back, set boundaries, and give what you can without overextending or overwhelming yourself? (As my therapist once said to me, “sometimes you gotta sit on your hands and wait it out.”)
Grab your copy here (your purchase will not only help local bookstores but I also get a little kickback!)
Hi there, my name is Marisa! I'm a life coach + trauma survivor + avid book reader! Want to keep up with what I'm reading or want to be notified when the next little book talk comes out? Follow me on Instagram or sign up for my email list!
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