The following is an excerpt from my work-in-progress self-help book, Moldy Lemons: Finding Happiness Despite Pain.
Each chapter of the book focuses on one element that can contribute to pain in one's life--be it chronic illness, mental illness, stress, and more. Each chapter talks a bit about the topic, my experience with it, and then explains to readers how we can "turn moldy lemons into lemonade" or in other words, make the best of our lives despite how much they can suck. This is the chapter titled "on perfectionism".
When I was just six years old I remember stressing out immensely when the digital clock on my father’s car read “7:55” and we were just barely pulling out of the driveway. You see, the first bell, signaling that we were to walk to our classroom, rang at 7:50. The second bell, signaling that we had better get our butts in our seats, rang at 7:55. The last bell rang at 8:00, and if you weren’t in your seat by then you were marked tardy.
TARDY. A word that piqued my anxiety. A word that teachers used to refer to the bad kids—the kids who thought it was okay to wear pajama pants and have toothpaste stains on their chins. The kids that never properly (or in a timely manner) covered their books to prevent water damage. The kids that certainly didn’t decorate those properly covered books with felt pens to reflect their shining personalities like I did. Tardy was a word that I would never let anyone use in the same sentence as Annie Mishler—a tiny but mighty little first grader.
The clock read 7:55. My father was running slightly behind schedule to get together the lunches for my sisters and I, and my little six year-old heart was racing. I didn’t know it at the time, but that feeling of sheer panic, powerlessness, and despair would later get me a nice shiny diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
7:57. Okay, we only live three minutes from my elementary school. If dad drops me off at the closest gate to the playground, I can run really fast and try to make it in the door of room 8 by 7:59. Then I won’t be tardy. No, no, no...I’ll never make it. I’m going to burst through the door at 8:01 and it will be too late. My perfect record of being on time every day will be ruined. I’ll be so embarrassed and then my face will turn red and everyone will know that I’m embarrassed.
Tales of a Self-Proclaimed Perfectionist
My parents never forced me to be perfect. I was never told that I had to get straight A’s or perfect attendance or be valedictorian. Those were just things that I did because I knew I had to. Because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. Because if I didn’t, the world would obviously end.
My parents actually encouraged me to care less about all of those things. They encouraged me to just focus on doing my best. Um, hello? I am doing my best. My best just happens to be perfection, and if I fall short of perfection then I am not doing my best. Why can’t you understand that? Why am I the only one that gets that?
It wasn’t just school. I went to my first ballet class when I was three years old, and from that point forward I had to be the best dancer. Ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical, hip-hop...I had to be the best. I tried out for my high school’s dance team as an 8th grader so that I could be the only freshman on the team the following year. All throughout my career of dancing I had to make sure I was the best. Front and center. Always on count. Never missing a beat, forgetting a move or falling out of a turn. Until my resignation from formal dance lessons at age 18 you better believe I made sure I was the best. Thankfully, for the sake of my psyche, I was naturally gifted as a dancer. I can’t imagine how things would have ended up if I had two left feet.
I started piano lessons when I was six. Much like dance, I had to be the best. I was given a few pieces to practice each week at my lesson, and the next week I would play the pieces for my teacher. The other students would repeat this process a number of times until they finally had the songs down. Me? I made sure I had them perfect by the next lesson, so that I could get more songs. Then, I made sure those were perfect because if I messed up while playing a song for my teacher the world would obviously end. Much like dancing, playing the piano came naturally to me. Again, I cannot imagine the inner turmoil I would have faced if I was tone deaf or if my brain didn’t double as a metronome.
Soccer. Volleyball. Running. The spelling bee. (First place reigning champion every year...just saying.) Art class. These are all things I had to be the best at or it wasn’t even worth trying.
Track and field. Singing. Girl’s wrestling. Three things that I was not the best at, and so I simply quit. (To be fair, there was no one else in my weight class so I never really got a chance to be the best wrestler.)
The point I’m trying to illustrate is that all my life I legitimately thought that I had to be the best. It was not even that I wanted to be the best—I had to be. There was no part of my brain that told me that simply trying was enough. It was all or nothing. (If you ever wondered how I ended up with an eating disorder...)
Perfectionism is Evil
The word ‘perfectionist’ is sometimes used, and viewed, in a positive light. Folks will describe themselves as a perfectionist, say, in a job interview, in order to convince the interviewer that they will get the job done and be the best choice for said job. Here’s why that’s not a good thing.
Perfectionism is evil. Anyone who attaches the word ‘perfectionist’ to themselves and doesn’t also struggle with extreme stress, guilt, and rigidity is simply using the word incorrectly. That person probably is very hardworking and driven—anal, even—but not a perfectionist.
Perfectionism only leads to anxiety. It will not motivate you. It will not reward you. It does not make you perfect or better than anyone else. It will never satisfy you. It will leave you constantly grasping for air, but you’ll never be able to take a full, deep breath.
Those of us with GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) typically struggle with perfectionism. If we’re not being the best, we are overcome with anxiety. Oddly enough, even when we are, in our minds, being the best, we are still overcome with anxiety. Because there’s always something that we’re not doing well enough. The next thing is already in our minds and we’re formulating 6,000 different reasons why we are likely to fail.
I cannot speak to social anxiety because despite my anxiety-ridden brain I am a social butterfly. Somehow, all throughout my childhood and adolescence I still had fantastic friendships and relationships despite my drive to be the best. Maybe I also had to be the best friend? The best girlfriend? The most bubbly and outgoing? Who knows.
Let’s Make Some Lemonade
In striving for happiness and peace in our lives we must let go of the notion that everything can be perfect. We must realize that we simply cannot always be the best and that is okay. Sometimes we may not even try to do our best! Guess what? That’s okay, too! Everyone gets lazy. We are only human, after all.
I know it is easier said than done to tell a perfectionist to ‘just loosen up’. But I’m going to tell you anyway. Just loosen up. How do you expect to make sweet lemonade if you’re not even allowing yourself to taste it? Are you just trusting everyone else that says it tastes sweet and delicious?
There is life out there to be lived, and you cannot fully experience life if you are so wrapped up in being the best at everything.
Maybe you feel like this doesn’t apply to you because you only feel that you are the best in one area of your life. Maybe you’re the most fit person you know. Maybe you devote your life to fitness and claim it is your passion. Maybe you actually believe that it is your calling to diet for weeks and flaunt your body on a stage wearing 2 square inches of fabric. Maybe you have literally fooled yourself into thinking that fitness is life.
Maybe it’s your business. Or running. Or pole dancing. Or baking. Whatever it is that you think you have to be the BEST at—stop thinking that! There is more to life than just one thing, and you will never understand that until you just loosen up.
So please, don’t use ‘perfectionist’ as a trait on your resume. If anything—use it as a descriptor of your weakness when you’re inevitably asked that question in a job interview. (That question is the worst for a true perfectionist. What’s my weakness? Um, I have none. Move along.)
Oh, and if you’re wondering—I made it on time to class that day. And every other day for the rest of my student life.
I can't wait to get this book published and on bookshelves! For now, this is all ya get ;)