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.