Perfectionist Tendencies

A few years ago, I began a meditation practice. Whatever I do is not super-fancy and I can’t exactly even identify what sort of meditation I do. I was inspired to begin when I read Dan Harris’ book, 10% Happier. What I love about his book is that he’s a skeptical sort of sarcastic guy and I can relate to that. My meditation practice has ebbed and flowed over the years and I can say that I’ve seen a great deal of payoff from it. I love meditation so much that when I’m not able to do it, I yearn for it, almost like being hungry. That sounds so dumb, but I love it like food.

But the point of this post isn’t necessarily about meditation. It’s about perfection.

I listen to podcasts when I have long drives to make, which is fairly frequent due to my work as a freelance church organist. Playing on weekends or for funerals during the week, I can drive upwards of 100 miles in one day. Dan Harris’ podcast is one of my favorites for many reasons. He has a great speaking voice, is a generous interviewer, and has a way of getting people to speak about all sorts of things. I also always have various news crushes (Dan is on ABC, though I rarely see him.) and he is among the select few I adore. This afternoon, I listened to an episode where he interviews his wife, Bianca, who plays a role in Dan’s new book because of her own circuitous journey into a meditation practice.

Why her interview struck me so much is that she identified herself as having “perfectionist tendencies”. Here is a woman, likely younger than me, who has a successful career as a doctor and has been served well, in some ways, by being a perfectionist.

I have a mixed relationship with being perfect. It played a big role in my early childhood when I was recognized for academic stuff that my peers weren’t yet doing. Spelling unusually large words in first grade. Playing Mass on a large pipe organ without an adult present with me by sixth grade. Eventually, my behavior normalized and there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary about it.

I knew being perfect – playing all the right notes and getting really good grades – was my ticket out of a town where I never felt like I fit in.

By the time I got to high school, anything resembling perfection was impossible. A great deal of instability in my family interfered with my ability to do much of anything. I learned shame very quickly and that has been very hard to shake. Shame for not having a seemingly functional life. Shame for all sorts of dirty secrets I was pretty sure that other girls my age weren’t keeping. I knew I had to keep on a brave face, keep showing up at school (even though by senior year, I was a chronic school-skipper, forging excuses and disguising my voice when the school called to ask where I was), even though I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb among my peers. Peers who seemed to have a much smoother life than I did with parents who cared about their day, or came to see your shitty concerts or school plays without telling you how terribly boring they are.

Sometime during my college career, I realized I was not perfect. It’s not something I gave up on due to a revelation or sense of enlightenment. I’m ambivalent about perfection: I want to be someone who cares about perfection; or do I? I gave up because I don’t feel capable of it. I often have an expectation that I can’t hit the mark and I’m simply not going to necessarily excel. I know exactly how that sounds, having been through my own therapy as well as working with clients on this issue. It’s not easy to concisely talk about or write about in a way that still allows me a small modicum of privacy surrounding it. I had very little support or encouragement growing up, other than the amazing teachers in my life and they probably didn’t realize how troubled my life really was. It’s humbling to be in touch with a number of them now as an adult and more fully share with them how important they were to me. More than they ever knew they were.

Maybe perfection itself really isn’t that important because it’s not humanly possible. There’s a lot of “messy” in my life. Complicated relationships with my family, questions I have about what I’m doing with my life, pressures both from within and outside about becoming a parent at an advanced age, working two busy jobs (as the owner of my own private psychotherapy practice and as a freelance church organist) that, to many people, seem like “fun” and not actually a very busy work schedule, and coordinating child care with a husband whose work also has its own demands. Life seems like it’s in free-fall all the time. Even typing all that feels like a whole load of crazy. And much of the time, I am fine with that and I am proud of my life, especially in all the crazy ways I got here. But occasionally, when someone makes a remark about how the pressures in my life are no different from anyone else, it makes me want to curl up into a ball and call it a day.

What I know about myself is I’m not someone who thrives in chaos. I think most people do not, but many people like to think they do…and they let everyone know it. I can stew in my juices a little and beat myself up about why I’m not Dr. Bianca Harris, a successful doctor in the big city I still dream of calling home someday. Of course I have larger dreams that I am also working behind the scenes to achieve and hope I can bring them to fruition.

Sometimes it’s very easy for me to say that somehow I’m “less than” because I’m not a doctor or a career woman or a world traveler or a skinny person or whatever garbage other women think has value. But if I just take the time, and slow down the tape, I can look at my life and say that I arrived here by sheer tenacity and belief in myself that, for me, I do not function in structure or in cubicles and I fought for years to escape both. This year will signal a full decade not answering someone’s phone or managing someone’s calendar. Now I’m in a position to need someone to help me manage my own life.

I don’t know how to wrap this up. Just to say, I guess, that I think all of us have a mixed relationship with our desire and ability to be perfect. And being imperfect doesn’t make us “less than”, it makes us human.

1 thought on “Perfectionist Tendencies

  1. I love “sheer tenacity.” It’s so much sexier than “nude” or “fishnet” tenacity. 🙂

    This is a great article! I’m proud of all you have achieved!

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