The pleasures and perils of perfectionism

“14 Signs Your Perfectionism Has Gotten Out of Control,” the article headline read. Oh boy. There’s something innocuous, I’ve always thought, to my self-diagnosis as a perfectionist. It only manifests itself in limited ways, it comes and goes in waves, it doesn’t really hurt me. Right?

So I read. You’ve always been eager to please was number one. Well, that’s certainly true. You’re a big procrastinator followed. Guilty again. (Although I don’t know if perfectionism can always be blamed for that one.) You know there’s no use crying over spilt milk…but you do anyway. Well, maybe I don’t actually cry, and maybe not spilled milk exactly, but little mistakes can feel awfully troublesome. But what really got me was number 13.

“You get secretly nostalgic for your school days. Some people hated school, but you loved it, because success was quantifiable—you had assignments, grades, feedback, and a teacher whose job it was to provide positive feedback and a pat on the back for a job well done. You might have been a teacher’s pet…” (Might have been. Ha.) “In the real world, success is measured differently. Everything is structured differently. And while you might not ever tell anyone,” (or maybe I will, in fact maybe I am) “there’s a part of you that misses that world where it was possible to get an A+ and call it a day.” Yes, yes, and yes. It’s all true. I miss the days of gold stars and report cards and scribbled comments on my polished essays. I can immediately recall the feeling of triumph when getting called on, when asked to write on the board, when receiving teachers’ affirmations. It all made this perfectionist’s heart just swell.

This sneaking characteristic of mine came flooding back last week, when I went to a pottery class. I sat at my wheel, elbows on my knees, wet hands at the ready. I watched my smocked instructor intently, wanting to follow her every move. The whirling ball of clay before me became an object to subjugate into precision and beauty. As Alex, our instructor, walked around, with her pigtails and patience and warmth, it gave me a secret thrill when she leaned over my work with a “That looks great!” and carried on to attend to the others. When I’d receive her affirmation, I’d stop in my tracks and leave my piece be, unwilling to risk even a minor change that could compromise its seeming flawlessness. And later, when my fellow students were marking their pieces with rubber stamps and freehanded patterns, I practiced my signature for the bottom of my bowl. “Are you a perfectionist?” Alex asked with a smile. “Maybe a little,” I confessed, both sheepish and proud.

I was pleased with how my bowl came out. I was happy to hang back and watch while the others experimented. I was buoyed by Alex’s praise. But as my identity as teacher’s pet flashed again through my mind, it made me wonder. Is this truly how I want to live? Who knows how many risks I’ve rejected in favor of comfort. How many days I’ve wasted worrying over inconsequential failures. How many times I’ve failed to love, to reach out, to sympathize, all for the sake of perfection. For fleeting, misleading perfection. Instead, I want to fail. I want to be bold and to learn from my mistakes and live in freedom.

Forget gold stars, I want an imperishable crown.




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