Note from a Recovering Perfectionist

Hello fellow perfectionist! I know you spend your free time planning your life out to a tee. I know you think your entire fate depends on how well you do on that one assignment next Monday. And I know that you secretly love being called a perfectionist. I mean, it’s not the worst name in the world and it has your favorite word, “perfect,” in it.

But remember, a perfectionist is not a perfect person. (Pssst! They don’t exist!) It is instead someone who chooses to spend their life walking on eggshells and in constant fear.

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Throughout grade school I never made a single B. In fact, I don’t think I ever made an A-minus. If I didn’t excel, then I had failed. And failure meant that my I was on the fast track to an empty life, full of regret. If I hadn’t misspelled “definitely” in the fifth-grade spelling bee, who knows what kind of success I could have now?! So I avoided trial-and-error like the plague. There was no room for error in the spotless life I was building.

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with a strong work ethic, overachievement and perfection became an unhealthy obsession of mine. In high school I spent many sleepless nights cramming information into my brain that seemed direly crucial at the time. By senior year I had cut out all afterschool activities, other than honor societies, to focus on all the studying, studying and more studying I had to do. (Can you guess which rung of the social ladder I was on?) I surrounded myself with other perfectionists, which, by the way, is a horrible idea. We are a dangerous breed and should not be left alone in our monstrously competitive state. We would frantically obsess about how to get 100s on all of our homework assignments, quizzes, midterms, essays and even busy work. Yes, you read that correctly. Perfect 100s because A’s were not good enough. A 99 meant that I had failed by one percent.  I was so consumed by this habit that when a concerned teacher actually confronted me about my unhealthy perfectionist tendencies, I broke down crying at her desk because I only heard one thing, which was that I had a problem. And as you can guess, I processed this as, PROBLEM = FAILURE. Needless to say, I missed the point.

[FUN FACT] If you ever want to see a perfectionist lose their mind, give them a pop quiz. Just watch! They’ll sweat profusely, shed a tear, and possibly *report you to an administrator for being “unethical.” 

*I never did this, but a friend did.

Not only did I miss my teacher’s point but I also missed out on that whole “living life” thing. In college I definitely loosened up but still carried along the belief that if I tried hard enough, I could gracefully enter the adult world without encountering any drawbacks or difficulties.

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What I’ve learned since is this: life is meant to be lived, not tip-toed across. Difficulties are unavoidable. Spending precious time obsessing over perfection means you have inevitably failed yourself. It’s proven that perfect people can’t exist on this planet (*we are still waiting on Beyonce’s lab results), so what’s the point? Modern Family actress, Julie Bowen, shared that she wishes she had failed more as a young adult and learned “to pick myself up from embarrassment rather than becoming an expert at avoiding it.” Successful people don’t practice perfection, but rather strategic risk-taking and failure-recovery.

As a former gymnast, I understand the importance of falling. For too long my fear of attempting a back-handspring kept me from advancing so I decided I was going to stay at my then-current level until…forever. Months passed until I mustered up enough courage to try it. Low and behold, I fell on my face. I didn’t hurt anything other than a bit of pride but I quickly realized that all I needed to do was keep my arms straighter. Within the day I could perform the skill without falling on my face and was eligible to move up to the competition team. Even though I wasn’t always able to learn a new skill in a single day, I figured out that the hardest part about progressing was mustering the courage to attempt something new. During my gymnastics career I fell a lot…and I mean a lot…but it was the only way to advance, so I never questioned whether it was worth it.

I’m FINALLY learning that the real world works similarly. I have tried for years to plan everything and avoid faltering any steps. But despite my best efforts, not everything in my life has gone according to my original plan. Shockingly, I’m not crumbling apart, but rather thriving in a great place and have been led on some pretty amazing experiences by seizing the opportunity. Sometimes you can’t do anything about setbacks, obstacles or detours other than embrace them. I’m trying to live by the philosophy, “do something everyday that scares you.” Now, my proudest moments are when I pick the challenging route, especially if it causes discomfort. For instance, when I say to myself, “This is scary, this is risky, this goes against my exact calculations, I’m uncertain of the outcome, but I’m going for it anyways!” Those moments don’t come easy because the perfectionist in the back of my mind still screams, “No! Play it safe! You might fail!” It’s a constant struggle to remind myself that making mistakes isn’t the worst thing in the world.

So to all the perfectionists out there, I have given you a fair warning about the dangers of your habit but if you’re anything like me, this concept will take time. More than anything I hope this note brings you some relief. Know that the fate of your future does not rest on you being perfect, but rather courageous enough to fail and try again. Stop tip-toeing through life and start sprinting, skipping, cartwheeling, dancing–I don’t care, just go for it!

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