I wanted to write a post about perfectionism in my confidence series because it’s one of the biggest confidence killers there is. You know how I’ve been droning on and on about how essential action is to building confidence? Well it’s true. Action is critical. And nothing will throw a wrench in intentions to take action like the paralysis caused by perfectionism.
Perfectionists don’t want to do anything until they’re sure all the details are perfectly ironed out. Plan, plan, plan… and all that planning sets us up to lose our effing minds when, inevitably, the details don’t work out the way we imagined.
Worse, perfectionists perceive anything less than perfect as failure (which is like, the worse thing imaginable). For a perfectionist, failure can serve as a permanent block. Figuring out how to navigate around self-perceived failures is hard for perfectionists. It’s can also be difficult for perfectionists to recognize that so-called failure may not be a sign of inadequacy, but a nudge from the universe that there’s a better path laid out – one that’s more aligned with their innate talents and purpose.
In the next couple posts, I’m going to share my experiences as a perfectionist in different areas of my life (school, body, career). I’m going to talk about how I wrestled many of my perfectionist tendencies to the ground – and how I still sometimes struggle with them. I’ll also share some strategies you can use to shift from being a stagnant perfectionist to a bold, action-oriented badass.
The Perfect Student
Let’s start at the beginning, where my perfectionism really began to emerge: in school. From the day I meekly wandered into my kindergarten classroom with my frilly dress and side ponytail, I dove headfirst into perfectionism. It took no time for me to become the quintessential overachieving student. I quickly developed a knack for beating myself up for anything less than academic perfection.
The summer after I finished kindergarten, I was recommended to take an IQ test to see if I was smart enough for gifted classes. I was six years old.
Six. Taking an IQ test.
Well, I failed the IQ the test. That’s right. I was a stupid loser at the ripe age of 6. I remember overhearing the test facilitator gently explain to my mother that I was not, in fact, as smart as everyone had hoped. On the car ride home, I racked my deficient brain to figure out where I had gone wrong. Which question was the question I incorrectly answered, forever slating myself as an ignoramus?
I knew it had to be the question about cartography. The facilitator had pulled out a map of the United States and asked me which direction was north. I knew that north was always designated with an ” ↑ ” – so I took my tiny index finger and pointed to the sky. “Up,” I told her. “North is up.”
I could tell from the disappointed look on the test facilitator’s face that I was wrong.
The next year, since I wasn’t smart enough for gifted but I was too smart for the reading assignments in first grade, I was sent to a third grade class for reading. I remember marching across the elementary school campus each afternoon and awkwardly entering another classroom of much older kids to read chapter books and periodically have my reading comprehension quizzed. I did this for two years before another teacher insisted I be re-tested for gifted. I went in this time, ready to correctly answer the north question (it was not asked). Somehow, I managed to slip in. I was officially “gifted” now. But let’s be clear, I barely made it
Gifted classes were the best thing that could have happened for me because they fostered creative thinking – to this day, I am absolutely convinced that the gifted model shouldn’t be reserved just for kids who can eke out a certain score on a fallible IQ test, but for all kids. My gifted teachers knew they were dealing with a bunch of overachieving weirdos, so perfectionism was de-emphasized; rather, creativity and critical thinking skills were the name of the game.
Throughout school, good grades came easy for me. That is, until I decided I wanted to be a biology major in college. The inferior left side of my brain was put to the test in classes like calculus and organic chemistry. Of course, I didn’t want to major in something I was naturally gifted in, like English or communications. That would have been too easy. I wanted to take on something that didn’t come easy (like math and science) and work to become perfect at it. Perfectionist engaged.
I remember sitting at a picnic table in the middle of a big grassy field on campus. It was finals week during the second semester of my junior year and I was about to fail my exams. I knew it. Organic chemistry, especially, was eating me alive because I was a total idiot. I mean, it was amazing I knew how to feed myself.
That year, I’d studied until my eyes crossed. I’d spent time way too much time in the tutoring labs. I’d purchased additional books to try to grasp the concepts I wasn’t getting, like maybe my textbooks were just defunct. But despite my best efforts, I was barely clinging to a C.
I could hear that familiar perfectionist voice chanting in my head, reminding me how stupid I was, what a fool I had been to take on something light years away from my natural strengths. Part of me wanted to switch majors despite having two years of math and science classes under my belt. But who majors in English? Losers, I told myself. That’s who. Losers who want to be broke for the rest of their lives because everyone knows you can’t make a living from writing. To me, majoring in English was akin to studying music or theater – the arts were for people who had no ambition. And that was not me.
Well, after finals week (I bombed), I decided to become a loser English major. Trying to force myself into a field (medicine) that wasn’t right for me was making me miserable. Maybe I’d be broke for the rest of my life, but at least I’d be using my God-given strengths. Calculus and organic chemistry had beaten my inner perfectionist to a bloody pulp. I realized I couldn’t be perfect in those classes, no matter how hard I tried (and to reiterate, I tried hard).
I began thriving in my literature and writing classes after switching majors. I got A’s with ease. But the thing is, earning perfect grades was no longer my focus. I really enjoyed the classes – the good grades were an effortless side effect of my engagement with the material and a willingness to work with my natural gifts.
I know I talk a lot about the comfort zone and how important it is step out of it to take on new challenges; however, you should also be willing to leverage your innate talents and abilities. We all come pre-packaged with different gifts, and rejecting those gifts (especially if it’s because we don’t recognize their potential economic value) is a slap in the face to the universe. I’ll never be a whiz at math. Numbers aren’t my thing. But words are. Overcoming perfectionism in school took identifying my natural talents and being willing to use them. More importantly, it took allowing myself to enjoy using those gifts.
Do I have a natural tendency to strive for perfection in my writing? You betcha. And I have to muzzle the perfectionist chatter in my head every time I sit down to write. The truth is, I could sweat over every word, every comma, every anecdote and metaphor, writing and rewriting until I literally went insane. And if I did that, none of my stuff would ever make it out into the world. What’s the use of a gift if you don’t share it?
One way to move past perfectionism is to practice embracing your talents. Accept what you’re good at and don’t badger your gifts. Be thankful for them. Once you can sort of sink into your natural talents, you can relax and begin to enjoy working on your craft – whatever it may be – rather than obsessing over perfection. Shoot for good enough, and always keep working — that’s the key, keep doing. Keep taking action. Accept that you’re an innately flawed and imperfect human being and that inevitably, some of the stuff you create will be flawed from time to time. Embrace that. Don’t take your mistakes or self-perceived failures as signs that you’re a pathetic loser who should really be working in a button factory.
Next post, I’m going to talk about physical (body-related) perfectionism. Boy has that been a doozie in my life.