A Tale of a Recovering Perfectionist

A Tale of a Recovering Perfectionist

in which Jo Horton acts like a brat

 

If you haven’t noticed by now, on this blog I talk about me. A lot. I’m sorry. Today’s story is a way for me to get out some of the annoyance I feel, and hopefully by the end I’ll have said something that’s worth my while and the reader’s.

This is the story.

In class today we got back an assignment that involved compiling a list of terms to study. We were given very specific instructions on how to format the list and how many terms we should include. I thought I’d done everything required; I’d completed it early and even gone by the professor’s office (as he’d advised) to have him check over it before I turned it in. I expected an A. I got a B.

That’s the story, folks, and some of you might choose to stop reading, you’re so turned off by my pompousness, my audacity to complain about getting a B on an assignment. If you feel that way, it’s okay—I understand. You’re not alone—I am confused by my own response. So I’m going to try to figure out why: why is it such a big deal for me to be “not perfect,” and why do I let things like this affect my attitude so much? I think it probably reflects a deeper issue that has nothing to do with grades at all.

And therein lies the tale.

Maybe I should clarify that the reason I got the B was because my list of terms fell short of the required number by 4. My professor and I have since decided that Microsoft Word probably counted all the tabs, so whether I had a term on a “line” or not, it counted it. [If that made absolutely zero sense to you, it’s okay. It’s really not important]. The important thing is that when I turned in the assignment, I genuinely believed I’d gotten all the terms I needed. My professor pointed out (probably rightly) that I shouldn’t have relied on the computer, but was responsible for confirming that I’d done the assignment correctly. Then he said that the grade would serve as a “kick in the pants” that would ensure I followed the directions exactly, next time. I smiled, said “ok, thanks,” and went directly to the practice room (cause I was about to cry) and I…

Threw. A. Fit.

I mean, you can call it whatever you want—a meltdown, a pity party, a tantrum—but I was in there for about ten minutes, crying, sniffing, glaring in the general direction of Professor__’s office. I even took out my pencil and marked each term, just to see if I could prove him wrong. He was right, though. I hadn’t gotten enough words.

Once I calmed down somewhat, I read George Herbert for my English Lit class, and the poetry was on themes that were strangely fitting. At any rate, what I read got me thinking about my motivations, which maybe lent a little more significance to an episode that I might otherwise have blamed on not much sleep and too much studying. That’s not what it was, really.

I want to do things really well. I’m also a perfectionist. If you’ve been wondering what the distinction is between those two statements, then let me enlighten you. Wanting to do things really well means you want to do things really well. Being a perfectionist means there’s a chance that, if you don’t succeed, you might go throw a fit in a practice room.

One means that you want to do your best, and the other means you want to be the best. That’s what it seems like to me, anyway. I’m absolutely a fan of the first one—often the people I find most inspiring are those that live and breathe missionary Jim Eliot’s advice. “Wherever you are,” he said, ”be all there!” “Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.” I like this and I want this; this is the sort of person I want to be.

I’m not sure about this compulsion to be the best at things, though. I’m not sure it’s ever really helped me out, when it’s been distinct from trying my best. In some ways it feels like a corruption of something good: I had to be taught to work hard and do my best, but once I learned it I never had to learn how to be competitive. Nobody taught me how to be a perfectionist—I learned it all on my own.

This is why I say I am a struggling perfectionist—because I’m not sure I want it anymore. Yes, I want to do my best always, but I don’t want to define myself with how I measure up or with how I think I appear to others. What I am discovering more and more and more is that I am not and cannot be perfect. It’s exhausting, trying.

If you couldn’t tell, I’m not talking about grades anymore. It’s funny—when I began writing this post I was still pretty upset, but since then I’ve been to a wonderful 11-year-old’s birthday party and eaten my mom’s cooking, and suddenly Professor­­­­__’s message in red ink doesn’t make me mad or sad or anything at all. If anything, it’s gotten me thinking about something I probably should have considered more before now.

Although I really believe one way of honoring God is to use your talents or gifts wholeheartedly and without apathy, I’m realizing how many times my actions are motivated by pride. Somebody asked me, the other day, what motivates my “sweet” behavior (this person obviously has never seen me having a pity party in a locked room with a piano in the corner). I gave a pretty durn good (righteous) answer. But the honest truth is that mostly, I just want to be liked. I want to be remembered—I want to be known as perfect.

And what I’m learning is, one, that it’s exhausting trying to be perfect, and two, that I’m kind of missing the point. I never was, nor will I ever be, perfect on my own. One of the poems I was reading (“The Holdfast” by George Herbert) illustrated this key part of the Christian faith that explains humanity’s tendency toward perfectionism (and therefore frustration). We are capable of nothing without God’s grace. Nothing. But since He has offered us grace, then we praise. Now we sing and give glory to our Creator and live without fear and rejoice in all things. We have been invited to rest in Jesus Christ.

 

On this day in history…(3/3/14)

Today, everything was (sort of) white outside! It reminded me of a thing I wrote for class last year, which was fun to read again:) It’s kinda poetical, sorta.

 

3 March 2014

“How’s the Weather?”  “Mean.”

In my dad’s words, “March is a mean old cuss.” Like the idiomatic lion, March rages in every year to throttle my father’s February golds. My father watches the bright, sunshine flowers emerge in the waning days of spring-hopeful February, only to see the fool-hardy early bloomers prostrate on the hard ground. In the face of apoplectic March, we confident, self-sufficient humans quaver, chased back into bulky coats and tired boots. Going outside is like leaving the freezer door open too long: I almost expect a warning light to chime, insisting that I am letting all the cold air escape. The thin, sharp air does not escape so much as seek heat, finding refuge in my open jacket, the tops of my boots, and my quivering, tender nostrils. Perhaps March wind mimics misery, loving company and seeking to change all warmth to its own persuasion.

Last night, my town was presented with a saucy, taunting gift by the third month: a torrential, icy downpour which in turn left expansive, clear-cold lakes covering the sidewalks. Overnight, the lakes turned to cloudy-white ice, the exact color of a paint-pan washed out carelessly. Furry snow grew in the cracks of cement, gathering especially on the stairs. The cracks were already green with sickly rye grass and moss; now, they resembled a science experiment gone wrong, or an old, humid bathroom in disrepair.

The glaringly-bright overcast sky promised snow, but never delivered.  As I walked out of campus for my next class, two or three specks of snow tingled and melted on my exposed cheeks and nose, but they were tragically devoid of companions. Having class at my professor’s house, with tea and coffee and cake, I left the distilled, knife-like wind outdoors and almost forgot about it. I spent a full, happy hour fellowshipping with new friends over words and essays before remembering that I would have to leave early to get to my next class on time. During the final ten minutes, I alternated reluctant glances at my phone and the frozen-glass window. At exactly 3:15, the official end of the class and beginning of my next one, I rose and shrugged on my jacket.

Walking quickly on short legs does not get one as far or as fast as one might like to go. So although I hurried, I knew I would be late to piano seminar, especially since I hadn’t left the previous class early as planned on my official class schedule. The wind was just as bitter coming back to campus as it was leaving, and the sidewalks still looked for all the world like dry ice, waiting to freeze-dry any moisture that might dare to fall. Even my hair, blown wild by the frosty wind, was stimulated to alertness, if that’s possible. My scalp itself felt on edge, as if goose pimples were making my skin pores act like goldfish, opening and closing their mouths in a sort of excitement.

I was excited, because on the way back I had begun thinking of my unconscious behavior in leaving my English class late over getting to my piano class early. I thought it must show something about what motivates me, and what I give priority to. Now that might be English, or it might be Texas sheet cake. You have my permission to choose.

 

 

On Loneliness

[I wrote most of this a couple weeks ago, but I wanted to wait and publish it in February, just because. It’s still not exactly how I want it, but here goes anyway:)]

 

Loneliness shouldn’t be a thing.

Before you read further (and in case you are my parents reading this;), please know that I’m not writing this tonight because I feel particularly sad or lonely, though—like everyone—I get that way a fair amount. It’s something I have struggled with (and will probably continue to); tonight it’s what was on my mind. A friend and I were talking about how hard it is, sometimes, to be patient regarding our relationships in college, especially when it feels like everyone else has a person, and we don’t. What’s equally confusing is that sometimes I am perfectly fine with how things are, and I feel strongly that I am not at that part of my life right now. My friend suggested that what makes her feel intuitively that she might not be ready for a dating relationship is, oddly enough, her (sometimes acute) longing for it. I think maybe my friend was on to something—but I’ll get to that another time.

We both agreed that loneliness—not to be confused with being alone (which is often a good chance to be still and reflect)—doesn’t seem like it’s good at all. Not simply the desire to “have a person,[1]” I think the loneliness we were thinking of (here I speak more for myself) is the feeling that can come anytime, anywhere—even if a person is in the midst of good friends or family. Those occasions confuse me most: while my desire to be married someday doesn’t surprise me, the fact that I can feel lonely in the very situations where I have least apparent reason is a little disturbing. Even more disturbing is the assurance I’ve gotten from married couples that even their committed relationship hasn’t erased their feelings of loneliness—a person could be in the happiest family, with the most successful of careers and the most beloved of spouses, and still feel miserably alone sometimes.

Loneliness shouldn’t be a thing, but it is a thing, most definitely. If you look at the beginning of the Story, though, you can see that it wasn’t always a thing. Genesis 1 and 2 describe a good and great God creating all things, reflecting on them, seeing that everything was good. He makes man in His own image, and says of His creation that it is very good. However, the one man is not complete by himself—“And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone…[2]” God forms a woman and institutes marriage—and for a little while, humans are not lonely. Not only do they have one another, but they have a beautiful, pure relationship with their Creator. God himself walks in their garden “in the cool of the day,” and they have neither anything to fear nor anything to hide.

Things change, though. If you know the story, you know that humans break their relationship with their Father, Creator, and God, and that, as a result, all other of their relationships are broken as well. Husbands and wives don’t go as perfectly together as they were intended; people fight and become disappointed in one another, all the while yearning to be fulfilled by “their person.” People are broken.

People are lonely.

The first time I heard the analogy of “the God-shaped hole” I was going into the seventh grade. The gist of the analogy, for anyone who hasn’t heard it, is this: we, the people, are missing something—and it’s something that the very best parts of our lives cannot replace. The loneliness we can feel at the very times we should not be lonely, is evidence of an inherent need for something outside ourselves and outside of natural explanation. As a seventh grader, I was assured that there was a reason for the emptiness that nothing else seemed to fill—it was only that my heart had a hole—a missing space for a  piece of a jigsaw puzzle, if you will—that only its Maker could fill.

Maybe it’s not a good analogy, I don’t know. I’ve heard it mocked and described as annoying or trite, and that may be for some people. I do know it lines up with what I’ve been thinking here lately—namely, that as much as I might idly wonder if a boyfriend would make me happy (and gosh darn it I am happy mostly!), I know that my longing for a whole relationship is ultimately fulfilled in Christ.

I don’t know if others have experienced this, but I know what it’s like to have a relationship changed or slightly broken in some way, and feel as if there’s nothing you can do to fix things. If there were a hope that someday, that relationship would be made new and fresh and as it was intended to be, I would be so glad.

What I’m trying to say is that to trust Christ is to know that loneliness will not always be a thing. God has already done everything needed to mend our relationship with him. Once we acknowledge what Jesus Christ has done, our other relationships are given new meaning and new hope that someday—someday—they will be better and lovelier and more what they were meant to be than we could have ever dreamed.

[1] That’s an odd phrase, I know, but it’s how I think of boyfriend/girlfriend relationships sometimes.

[2]From Genesis 2, vs. 8