The (Slow) Recovery of a Perfectionist
I am a recovering perfectionist and competition addict. I was raised in a family that cultivated a high level of competition. There were five children and I was smack in the middle. Two older sisters. Two little brothers. I was torn between being a high academic achiever (compete with my smarty-pants sisters) and being a highly-driven competitive athlete (compete in the sporty world of my brothers). Instead of choosing one, I chose both.
I strived for perfection in everything. Straight A’s in school were a given. Winning district-wide spelling bees and geography bees were a must. Be the best player on my soccer team, always start, never sub was my goal. Be faster, better, smarter than everyone. Always.
Don’t show your emotions. Be tough.
Have a problem? Keep it to yourself.
Struggling with something? Figure it out.
I love my family. I love them ALL, which is strange I’m told. In fact, I’m writing this post at my parents’ house, sitting at the same dining room table I used to do my math homework at, talking with my little brother and kind-of, sort-of watching “Flip or Flop”, which is most definitely why this is taking me so long…
And while I love my large family, I am sure that it was this environment that made me a neurotic perfectionist.
I was so scared of failing, that I would avoid doing certain things if I wasn’t positive I would win. I remember winning the math game “Around The World” in the second grade so many times that kids started to call me “unbeatable”, a “genius”. Oh man did I love that. So the moment I knew Paul Kruchoski was going to beat me, I cried. I pretended to be sick. Feeling “dizzy” and “weak”. Yeah, he beat me, I would say, but I was sick…
Flash forward to high school. I was really fast. Running was always easy for me and I could win track events with little to no training at all. I was riding a perfectionist high, being unbeaten in the 800 meters all freshman year and losing only once in the 400 meters. My relay team won State that year and I was awarded Gatorade Rookie of the Year.
Sophomore year the pressure was on. People knew me. My name was in the newspaper. I was ranked one of the top runners in the state. I was invited to exclusive meets in New Mexico and around the country. Slowly I started to crack. The nerves I had before each race would make me physically ill. I would cry almost before every event, thinking I don’t want to do this! What if I lose? My coach would persuade me to run and I would win. But I hated the feeling before the race, the pressure I felt, so much that I started skipping races.
I would pretend to be really sick.
I would invent “family events” that prevented me from going.
I got really involved with the school’s Senate and other activities, jumping at the chance to “unfortunately” be unable to run.
And then I quit.
(Actually, first I got kicked off the team for being at a party with alcohol… then I quit.)
It was too much pressure for me I realize now. Running and competing at that high level required me to be very vulnerable. It required me to admit that I needed help.
In my mind, the only option was to keep winning, which would require a lot of training and is, of course, completely impossible (Ronda Rousey can explain that well… TEAM HOLLY HOLM! 505 REPRESENT!)
So in order to avoid failure, I avoided track altogether.
My sixteen year-old self thought I was a genius.
Soon, I started avoiding a lot of things altogether in order to prevent failure.
As a kid my dream was to win an Olympic gold medal for soccer. As the competition increased in high school and I started encountering better and better players, I began to struggle. I definitely was no longer the best player on the field. Could I have chosen to work hard and keep trying? Of course. Would that have meant risking failure? Definitely. So what did I do? I stopped pretending to care. I would drink a lot, partying with my friends through the night, show up to summer training at 7:00am and do what I could. I no longer had dreams of going pro - that was much too risky.
I graduated high school with straight A’s in the Top Twenty of my class. I received a full-ride scholarship to the University of New Mexico. My sisters paved the way at college, never bringing home anything less than a 4.0 GPA (and, yes, we all lived at home during college… again, we are oddly close.)
The bar was set and I did not want to be anything less than my sisters. So rather than challenging myself, taking difficult classes in order to receive a degree in science or law or to be prepared to apply for medical school (all of which were interests of mine), I took the safest route I saw: Education.
I love teaching. I love being in the classroom. And I love everything I learned majoring in Education and Spanish. But I would be lying if I said that part of my decision-making process was factoring in which classes would be easiest for me to get A’s in.
As you can imagine, I’m not good at receiving criticism. I take it very personally, a direct attack on who I am. Even if I would get a good grade on something, if there were any critiques I would stay after class to argue with my professor (who quickly learned to avoid me, leaving me to whine and bitch to the TA).
I could go on and on.
And being the recovering perfectionist that I am, I really don’t want to leave out any detail. Then again, I could get into my people-pleasing mode and decide that I should just stop right now because, really, does anyone want to keep reading this?
Or, I could scrap this blog post altogether. What is my point really? Why does anyone care? I haven’t done a very good job writing this… better just not risk having anyone tell me I didn’t do well, place this in my trash folder, and eat another cookie…
But, like I said, I’m a recovering perfectionist and people-pleaser.
I figured out a few years ago that being caught up in being a perfectionist is not only exhausting, but it keeps me from enjoying life and doing what I love.
Becoming a mom definitely helped to snap me out of the perfectionist trap. To be a perfectionist as a mom is not only impossible (hello, unexpected and unwanted bodily fluids), but, I quickly learned, makes you miss out on the awesome stuff. I can’t count how many times I would tell my son or daughter I would play with them, only to start cleaning their rooms or doing the laundry or vacuuming the floor, while they would shout, “Mommy! Pay attention! Play with me!”
That, breaks your heart.
It can only happen so many times before you just scream, “WHAT THE FUCK AM I DOING!” (of course, I shouted something like “GAH! Why am I so gosh darn silly!” … perfectionism dies hard.)
I was recently re-reading Brene Brown’s incredible Daring Greatly and I came across this definition of perfectionism:
“Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.”
Yes. Fuck Yes.
“Perfectionism is more about perception than internal motivation, and there is no way to control perception, no matter how much time and energy we spend trying.”
Preach it, sister!
“Perfectionism actually sets us up to feel shame, judgment, and blame, which then leads to even more shame and self-blame… Rather than questioning the faulty logic of perfectionism, we become even more entrenched in our quest to look and do everything just right.”
For me, it was like I was reading my secrets on the page. Like she had taken everything that I was trying to hide, trying to disguise, and was reflecting it back to me, publicly.
I felt exposed.
And yet, I wasn’t mad or angry. I wasn’t upset that she called me out.
I felt relieved.
I felt like I wasn’t weird. Like I wasn’t alone. Like there was hope.
So while I’m a work in progress, I am working hard to just own who I am. Own my weaknesses, my faults, my stories. To, as Brene Brown says, “Be kinder and gentler… to be willing to give ourselves a break and appreciate the beauty of our cracks or imperfections.”
So here I go. On a new path of celebrating humanness. I’m going to press “publish” and move on, ready to enjoy getting messy outside with my kids, dancing in all of life’s imperfections.