Hi. My name is Kiki Clark, and I’m a perfectionist.Perfectionism is one of those two-edged traits. On the one hand, it can motivate you to try harder, learn from your mistakes, and revise that manuscript one more time. On the other, it can stop you from even trying, because you won’t be happy if you can’t be the best. According to the University of Illinois’s counseling website, “Perfectionism is often mistakenly seen in our society as desirable or even necessary for success. However, recent studies have shown that perfectionistic attitudes actually interfere with success. The desire to be perfect can both rob you of a sense of personal satisfaction and cause you to fail to achieve as much as people who have more realistic strivings.”
I’m not that far gone, but my personal satisfaction is definitely being compromised. Take the tap class Joe and I attend every Saturday morning. I dread going to it, because I don’t usually practice in between and I know I won’t be as good as I could be. But when we get there, I’m not a rank failure. I do better than some people on some steps, and worse on others. And it’s great exercise, which is why we started going in the first place. So once I’m there, I have fun. If I could get rid of the dread beforehand, it would be a completely positive experience.
Even the phrase, “a completely positive experience,” seems somewhat nonsensical to me. My inner perfectionist insists that there’s always room for improvement, and that if I’m not dissatisfied on some level, I’m not trying hard enough. That attitude may be responsible for my binge cycle of doing things. I’m the kind of person who sometimes involves herself completely in a project, hobby, or chore, and other times lets it fall completely by the wayside. It’s not depression, because I don’t give up everything. It’s just that I only have the energy to do so many things perfectly, and I rotate those things. So if some deadline is keeping me from cleaning the house to my specified level, I don’t do any cleaning at all. What’s the point, if I can only do so much? Hello! The point is that at least something is getting done, and it won’t sink into the mire.
Then there’s the way perfectionism affects my relations with people. I know my chorale director appreciates me, because I work like a dog on the music. On the other hand, whenever he asks me how I think a rehearsal went, the first thing I do is start reeling off the ways in which we failed. This can’t be pleasant for him. It’s a little weird, too, because I’m an optimist when it comes to the potential for success. Want to know if I think you can do something? My response is likely to be, “Absolutely! What a great idea!” or “That’s perfect for you!” Ask my opinion on the completed task and I’m likely to say, “Everything was great except for…” and “Maybe that one section could have been a little more…” My assumption is that everyone wants to know where they didn’t achieve perfection, so they can fix it. But that’s not true. Many people (lucky people) are happy that they tried something; happy they were able to achieve some level of competency and enjoyed the process of learning. What a concept.
Recently I was reading a book that talked about fear of success and the way it interferes with finding what we like to do. This book suggested asking yourself, “What would I do if I knew I couldn’t fail?” Well, I’m lucky, because the answer to that question was that I’d write books. But today I had an epiphany. Not to be negative, but a more useful question for me might be, “What would I still do, even if I knew I wouldn’t succeed?” If there were no chance of me being a world-famous tap dancer, or a singer with perfect pitch, or a Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist, would I still dance, even though I occasionally stumbled? Would I still sing, even though my voice sometimes cracked and I ran out of breath? Would I still write, even if no one read the results but me? The answer, thankfully, is yes, because while perfection is a destination I may never reach, there are lots of things to enjoy during the trip.
Note to self: Enjoy the scenery and stop asking, “Are we there yet?”