Although people may pride themselves on being a 'perfectionist' in job interviews and at work, the reality of being one blows.
I didn’t expect this week’s entry to be so dour. I planned to write something fun. But, since deciding to write a new post every week, I thought I should write whatever first comes to mind, demanding to be written. The reason I’m sticking with this rule is connected to the very subject I ended up writing about—perfectionism.
(Wait. I think I need a bigger build-up. That didn’t have the same impact I thought it would. It needs sound effects or something—something to heighten the drama. Let me try again… Lights. Rolling.)
A starkly furnished room. A man staring at his computer. His face is pained. He taps out a few words on the keyboard, and quickly erases them. He loosens up his hands, shaking them in the air in front of him, mutters a few expletives, and starts afresh.
INSERT – COMPUTER SCREEN (where, letter-by-letter, the following appears…)
This week’s Rabbit Hole is about something very close to me. This week is about… PERFECTIONISM!
CUE – ORGAN
Duh, Duh, DUNNN!!
(Was the computer screen thing a little Doogie Howser? Oh my god! I’m Doogie Howser! You know, the guy from How I Met … Ah, forget it.)
Perfectionism sucks. Perfectionism is bullshit. I wish perfectionism would f*ck off so I could live in peace with the rest of the ‘normals.’ I think I’ve suffered from it in various forms most my life. But over the years, I’ve also learnt to put it aside now and then, and lately I've been doing so more often.
Again, for the record, I’m a PhD student and I teach at (a) uni, which is funny to me. As part of my job I often have to counsel and advise students sometimes, even though I’ve struggled with those exact same things they're having trouble with, especially perfectionism. I often find myself saying to students something like…
I’m so glad you came to start working on this. The truth is, I had exactly the same problem when I was an undergrad, and as an honours student, and as a postgrad. This might be hard at times, but maybe we can come up with something that might help you shift those oppressive feelings—maybe see if we can dislodge them a little so we can create some space around them—some room to move.
Sometimes, if they're really stuck and need a little reassurance that they're not alone, I might hint at how after my first year at uni things became, well, a little more than tricky for me. (I talk about it freely, though not in detail like I’m going to here).
I was in second semester of my first year, and so far had been getting Ds and HDs. I was pretty chuffed because I had no idea what I was doing. But it all seemed to all be happening naturally, and the marks I was getting seemed to magically match the long hours I was putting in.
Then I got a C and 60% on an essay, and for some reason it hit me pretty hard. I know it's sounds like I'm over-dramatising it—and I am in a way—but there was this emotional intensity to that whole period... Well, perfectionism is a hard to shake, and it's so easy to lose perspective. The mark stung, but it was the tone and language of the comments—at least how I read them—that left me with my insides hanging out.
I’ve kept all my essays, so, (gulp), maybe I should dig it out and read exactly what it said. Hang on. I’ll just go see …
...Ok… Umm… So funny. I haven't read this in years, though I've thought about it a lot...
"Although you write well, this essay is rather fragmented and tends to present a pastiche of ideas without any clear organisation. Your analysis is a little superficial in that it touches on a variety of points, but these are often not fully explored..."
And so it goes on for half a page.
I remember having to look up what 'pastiche' meant. It was the same as that time when someone called me a 'dilettante.' I hate that feeling of my vocabulary expanding while my ego is deflating.
To some students, comments like this are nothing. They might have only spent a short time on their essay, read a comment like this, go ‘Meh’, and move on. For me, it was a knife in my chest. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it was a shock.
I feel a little embarrassed telling you this story because it sounds like I want to be perfect. But, I don’t want that. I made a joke about ‘normals’ earlier, but in my heart that's precisely what I want—to be normal, not to stand out. No one likes a perfectionist, mostly because it puts unnecessary pressure on them to perform too.
However, the drive towards ‘perfection’ is understandable, and in some contexts it’s useful because it motivates you towards greater achievement and self-realisation. But, it has a dark side. It's not useful when your world starts constricting—when your heart races and you can't breathe, and you feel that everyone will be disappointed and angry with you because you didn’t live up to their, your, your perception of their, expectations. I yearn to be imperfect and happy, but at the same time I like making nice, pretty, useful, attention-grabbing, praise-winning, ovation-standing things too. Who wouldn’t?
So, anyway, I got a bad mark and, at the same time, I had another essay due. I’d already got an extension, and now it was two days past that because I felt it wasn't good-enough to hand in. (As an undergrad, I never handed in one essay on time for the same reason.) I’d spent hours on it, shifting words around and sanctimoniously deleting stuff. I took a break to get a drink of water and, as it happens, bumped into the tutor who had given me the extension.
“Hey! When am I going to see your essay?” he asked. “When was your extension till?”
I couldn’t help it. It just came out of my mouth. I saw a chance for more time, some more breathing space, and lied. “At the end of the week,” I said.
“Great! He said. “Look forward to reading it,” and walked off.
I felt an instant pang of shame. I liked that lecturer—he was awesome. I appreciated the extension and now I had taken advantage of the situation. I felt so bad, and frankly I was scared the lie would come out, so I took a deep breath, said "F*ck! F*ck! F*ck!" a few times, and went to go find him.
I knocked on his door. “Hey, sorry. When you asked me just now when my essay was due... I lied. It was two days ago.” I felt so humiliated. A cascade of self-recriminations soon followed.
He stopped me, smiled and said, “Yeah, it’s ok. I suffer from an overactive sense of morals too. Everything needs to be perfect. Don’t sweat it.”
Him being so nice made me feel even shittier, and it must have showed.
“Are you ok?” he asked.
I told him about the other essay and the bad mark and how I had no idea what I was doing at uni. I told him I wasn’t ok—that I was having trouble. He gave me another week to write my essay, and suggested I go see someone where they look after students' well-being.
I did. It was embarrassing. I saw a counselor for six months.
Flash forward ten years, and things are pretty good. The perfectionism is still there—like a broken bottle in the middle of the floor at a childcare centre, but I know to step around it now, and know how to keep others from stepping on it too (most of the time).
‘Norms’ and ‘Mals’
Lately I’ve been feeling uncomfortable with that descriptor ‘perfectionism.’ It just doesn't seem to describe it. We all, deep down, want some level of perfection and the rewards, and the security, and the feeling of belonging we think comes along with it.
After doing a little research (i.e. looking it up on Wikipedia) I saw there are two forms of perfectionism—‘normal’ and ‘maladaptive’. Mine, at times, has definitely been maladaptive, playing havoc with my studies, my work, my relationships, sexuality and self-image. Maladaptive perfectionism, at least in my experience, is tied to feelings of self-worth, deeply rooted a few childhood ‘missed opportunities,’ and manifests itself in a lot of areas of my life, even those that seem to speak to the complete opposite.
For instance, for a long time, the way I dressed was really messy. Baggy, ill-fitting jeans and well-worn over-sized shirts were the uniform. I guess the stereotype would be that perfectionists dress immaculately. Well, it’s funny, but no. The desire for perfection can be so overwhelming that to not be even close to achieving it can send you in the opposite direction in order to overtly and spectacularly fail at something in order to prove that ‘You don’t care about such things anyway.’
So, at times, I was a perfectionist masquerading as an imperfectionist.
And it’s funny, since I’ve been advising others while also coming to terms with why I have these tendencies, I’ve been noticing signs of it all around me. But although I thought I was getting better at spotting perfectionism, after thinking about it, I'm not so sure I've been seeing the whole picture.
What about those who are camouflaging themselves in imperfection as well? Are there more 'norms' out there who are actually 'mals' in disguise?