The Unlikely Perfectionist

I have the privilege of contributing on Over The Big Moon each third Sunday.  I decided to publish a post of mine, each week preceding the third Sunday, that was originally featured on Over The Big Moon.  I was actually quite excited to re-read this post, as I had forgotten the little bits of wisdom I had gained from the book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Areby Brene Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W. mentioned in this post.  I hope you get as much enlightenment as I did when I learned about the unlikely perfectionist.

During my senior year of high school, my BFF and I were both in the same ceramics class.  Every couple weeks, our teacher would give us a new assignment. I would produce a ceramic piece that fit the assigned criteria and call it a day.  My friend would carefully create a masterpiece.  She would perfect her artwork daily.  As a result, she would be behind on the projects we were assigned.  I recall our teacher walking by our table and commenting on how my friend did not need to keep up with the assignments since she was clearly still productive in class.  Looking back, I think about how inspired our teacher was to recognize that productivity is the goal, in whatever form that means to each of us, not quantity.  She and I each went about our work in polar opposite ways but we both got an A in the course.  Watching my BFF that semester was the year that I realized that I was not a perfectionist.  I held on to that truth, and felt grateful in it, for quite some time.  It seemed like tough work to be a perfectionist.  In my eyes, it seemed like the perfectionist was so hard on themselves.  Then, one day I realized that not only am I a perfectionist, I’m the worst kind there is.

That day of discovery was a few years ago in one of those eye-opening therapy sessions. The conversation started as an “I don’t have any passion or hobbies” topic and then it turned in to a discussion as to why that is.  I must have then given my therapist a laundry list of reasons why I don’t nurture the activities that I enjoy the most.  For example, while I very much enjoy writing, I was not actively engaging in that hobby or passion at the time.  I told her this was because I’m really not that good at it.  In case she had a rebuttal for that, I continued that I don’t write because there is nothing new that I have to share that the world hasn’t already heard.  And just in case that was not enough for her to be convinced that writing is a hopeless cause for me, I told her that even IF there is something I know that’s worth writing about, someone else has already said it better.  I was certain the case was closed and she would see it my way.  I have no hobbies and therefore I am a loser (and, yes, this is the thought process my primitive mind takes).  Her response, “You’re a perfectionist.”  My response, “Um.  No, I’m not.  Perfectionists do stuff over and over PERFECTING the art until it suits their expectations.”  I know, I saw my BFF do it in ceramics with her projects.  SHE is a perfectionist.  Not me.  However, as with most everything learned in therapy, my therapist was right.  I am a perfectionist.  She explained that I’m the perfectionist that is SO worried about it being perfect that I don’t even try.  If I can’t do it perfectly, then why do it at all?  This knowledge opened my eyes to so many opportunities lost because I simply felt that I had nothing to offer that would be good enough.  Even in times where I was assigned to do something, I wouldn’t try to excel at it, because there would always be my BFF who had a better project in front of me.  Of course it’s not the productive perfectionist’s fault that I don’t even attempt it, it’s a setback I’ve placed upon myself.

The best part of this story is that the BFF and I are still the best of friends AND we both have hung on to some of our ceramic pieces from that class.  I’ll let you figure out whose is whose.

I recently read this book called The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Areby Brene Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W..  The book speaks perfectly, pun intended, on the matter of perfectionism and all of it’s effects.  Perfectionism can lead to depression, anxiety, addiction, and, in my case, life-paralysis.  Life-paralysis, as noted by Brown, “refers to all of the opportunities we miss because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect.  It’s also all of the dreams that we don’t follow because of our deep fear of failing, making mistakes, and disappointing others.  It’s terrifying to risk when you’re a perfectionist; your self-worth is on the line.”  And there it is, the answer to why I don’t want to try: If I fail, then I’ve deduced that I’m a failure.  My self-worth is shattered.

You know the saying, “It’s better to have tried and not succeeded, then never to try at all.”?  I never agreed with it.  I still struggle with it.  For me, it’s easier to just not try.  In my mind it saves me from pain.  If I don’t try it, then I’m “safe.”  I’m not a failure because I didn’t fail at anything.  If I try and it doesn’t work, then, in my eyes, I’ve become the failure.

It’s not a healthy way to be, but, sadly, it’s been my way for years.  It’s hard to refrain from quoting the entire section on perfectionism from Brown’s book, but I wanted to share one last thought of hers that I plan to use when I need little reminders, “Healthy striving is self-focused – How can I improve?  Perfectionism is other-focused – What will they think?”  This thought has left me wondering if my BFF is even a perfectionist at all.  She seems to always accomplish projects for her own edification.  As a result, she produces amazing things because she has never been afraid to try and practice.

Only in the past year have I allowed myself to write and share my more vulnerable thoughts at the risk of people seeing my insecurities and imperfect writing.  It’s taken a lot of supportive friends and family to help remind me that my self-worth is not based on what I produce or achieve, it’s based on being me and allowing myself to be loved just as I am.  Without that support, I would have never started this blog.  The whole premise of my blog is to simply begin achieving whatever it is you long for, whether it be a passion, a goal, or a healthier way of life.  For the unlikely perfectionist, beginning is often the hardest part.

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