Hi, my name is Lillian, and I’m a recovering perfectionist.
Perfectionism has been my public enemy number one for as long as I can remember. (Y’know, insofar as something can be a public enemy for one person…thus making it not public at all, but that’s not the point.)
To wit: when I was in first grade, I came in third for a handful of events at my school’s track and field day — and I was a close third behind two boys whose athletic prowess was already busting at the seams at the tender age of seven — but instead of being happy, I wept bitterly at the end of the day.
My mom couldn’t figure out why I was upset, since a gaggle of third place ribbons seemed pretty darn good. Awesome mom that she is, she pulled me onto her lap, gave me a hug, and gently asked why I was so upset. I distinctly remember saying (between heaving sobs, since I’m a champion of the ugly cry) “Because they’re not good enough! Third place means I lost to two people! Only first place is any good!” She tried valiantly to explain that, actually, they were awesome things that I could be proud of, but I was having none of it.
When I was in school, anything other than an A was cause for the kind of mourning generally reserved for abused war orphans or victims of horrific tragedies. If (God forbid!) I got a B, there’d be gnashing of teeth and rending of garments.
Every time I did or produced something that was less than perfect, I took it as a personal failure. I’m not sure where this deeply embedded perfectionism came from, since my parents never once did anything to foster it — but deeply embedded it was, and it turned me into one twitchy, miserable cowgirl for a very long time.
I’d been trying to overcome my perfectionism for ages, but my big breakthrough came over the course of the last year.
The first step in this process came last spring, when I was a particularly unhappy camper: I was deeply unhappy in the career I’ve worked towards my entire adult life, and I felt like a total failure. All that education, all that money, all that hard work: I was wasting it all by wanting to do something else with my life. I felt like an epic failure and a total waste, and I was kicking myself — hard — for my perceived failure.
Around that time, my mom came to my rescue when she dug up a whole series of articles about perfectionism and the importance of seeing perceived failures as opportunities for learning and growth.
One article in particular — “Next Time, Fail Better,” from the Chronicle of Higher Education — hit the nail on the head. When I read this portion, I felt like the author had been hanging out in my head and recording my inner monologue:
Humanities students are not used to failure. They want to get it right the first time. When they are new to the game, they want to get good grades on what are essentially first drafts. Once they learn how much work it is to write and edit a really good essay, their goals shift—from getting A’s on papers written the night before to getting A’s and making the difficult process look effortless. Because it’s embarrassing to have to admit that you had to throw away two drafts before you got to your thesis. They feel silly admitting to spending three days researching a topic that just didn’t pan out. How could they have been so stupid? Surely the other English majors found their topics right away and then turned out beautifully coherent papers.
Yes, yes, and yes. This has been my MO for…like…the entirety of my existence. The author’s end point was spot-on, though: it’s not about failure, it’s about what you learn. Failures don’t mean that all is lost — they mean that you know where to start from next time. Failures build the foundation for future successes.
In a superbly shocking (by which I mean not the least bit surprising) turn of events, I quickly found that this approach makes me feel a whole lot more warm and fuzzy than endlessly berating myself for not being perfect or getting something exactly right on my first try. (You’re stunned, I’m sure.)
Once I started putting this into practice, I saw a dramatic shift in my perspective. Ok, so I want to do something different than the field for which I went to school. When I was looking at this as a failure, I was stuck — and there I sat, spinning my wheels and stewing in a toxic cocktail of perfectionism and self-inflicted derision.
Once I started seeing it as a learning experience, though, two things happened: first, I stopped treating myself like I was the the poster child for failure. Secondly, I got un-stuck and was able to move forward in figuring out what I do want to do.
By looking at my situation as an opportunity to learn something about myself and to then use what I learned as a sort of GPS for taking my life in a more satisfying direction, I began to feel a lot better.
Not surprisingly, this has made a huge difference for me — and it has improved more than one area of my life. Instead of kicking myself when I have a few days in which I can’t seem to get my shiz together, I’ve started looking at it as an opportunity to figure out what I can do differently in the future. Instead of berating myself when I don’t get to the gym as often as I’d like, I started seeing it as an opportunity to learn about how I manage my time and how I might change things up to make life flow a bit better.
And with all that in mind, now I’d like to hear from you!
Are you a perfectionist? If so, do you think this approach to failure and perfectionism would help you feel better and put less pressure on yourself?