Perfectionism: noun. According to Dictionary.com, “A personal standard, attitude, or philosophy that demands perfection and rejects anything less.”
Dear authors of Dictionary.com: You have a nice start, but I have a few things to add to this definition. Trust me, I’m an expert here.
Perfectionism. It’s a suffocating pressure to meet every single expectation of every single person you know. It’s the devil on the shoulder whispering that you might fail if things aren’t flawless, smoothed over with shiny paint masking any imperfections. It’s the mental censoring that goes into every communication that secretly urges for constant and perpetual seamless sentences, witty phrases, and soft-spoken grace, fearing that one wrong word will alienate forever.
Can you tell that this has been my lifelong battle?
When I was learning to talk, my mom claims that I refused to say a word if I didn’t know that I could say it perfectly. When I asked my grandma for a brownie but wouldn’t say “Grandma” because my two-year-old mind was freaked out about stumbling over clustered consonants, Grandma refused to hand over the chocolate until I said her name. We can learn a few things from this: chocolate solves everything, and I’ve had this problem since I could barely talk. And as I got older, things didn’t improve much.
In second grade, I remember being frustrated by a particularly puzzling word find that we were required to finish. My teacher refused to give me any hints and wouldn’t let me move on to the next project until I was done, so I prayed desperately at bedtime that God would help me find the remaining words so I could catch up to my friends and stop feeling like a failure. In fifth grade, I got a D on a math test and had to leave the room so I could be distraught without the judgmental, questioning stares of my classmates who would wonder why the smart kid almost flunked and why she was crying about it. In tenth grade, I played on the varsity basketball team and blamed myself for every loss, adding up the shots I missed and the turnovers I made and rebounds I didn’t snag to see if the outcome would have changed had I done my job better.
If you can’t tell, my childhood involved a lot of stress and and a lot of tears.
Now, years later, I like to think I’ve changed. I don’t cry as much as I used to, thank the Lord. I don’t freak out as much about things like unfinished word finds. But on some days, I really don’t feel like I’ve grown that much. On those days, perfectionism lurks just under the surface, waiting to latch on to the nearest mistake and throw me into confusion and shame because I messed up and showed the world that I am not seamless and spotless and shiny. Take, for instance, this little blog. It’s newborn and rough and vulnerable, a venture that I have told approximately one person about. And it scares me.
Maybe this is because my perfectionism is bleeding into my writing, too. According to Mastin Kipp (I have no idea who he is, but he seems wise), “Perfectionism is a dream killer, because it’s just fear disguised as trying to do your best. It just is.” And in this case, I think he’s right.
Let’s look at the evidence: I’ve written one post because I can’t decide on the best topic to write about next and I’m afraid I’ll pick the wrong thing. I’m worried that my fried, end-of-the-semester brain isn’t coherent enough to compose anything worth publishing. I’m terrified to post links on Facebook for fear that people will read my words and think “Eh. This stupid and not written that well and a waste of my time.” Which would mean that I too am stupid and not a good writer and a waste of time. This fear paralyzes, stifles possibility under the guise of not good enough, grinds potential words to dust. It empties my words of life, leaving a hollow plastic Barbie with a painted smile rather than a breathing, klutzy, messy human bursting with joy and passion and color.
This is not what I want. I do not want hollowness, silence, worry, and fear. I don’t want to muffle words, or silence ideas, or kill dreams. After all, my identity is not grounded in what other people think. My worth is not based on my meeting the expectations of myself and everyone else. So I have decided to be real. Yes, I will still revise and edit what I write. But I will not be silenced because I fear that my voice is not good enough. I will not pretend that I am seamless and flawless. I will not write for other people. I will not kill my dream of creating something beautiful.
And maybe one day, when these statements are living realities and not just vows inked on a screen, I’ll realize that I’ve failed at being an expert in perfectionism. And I can promise you that failure won’t bother me one bit.