Confession: I have a problem with perfectionism.
And I think I am only just now realizing the depths of this noxious weed in my soul. Perfectionism is easy to portray well and make it seem like a good thing, rather than the lie that it is. It can actually be stifling. While I know this theoretically, it is entirely another thing to believe it with my actions.
One memory I have of perfectionism having the upper hand is when my dad was teaching me how to drive. I was pretty resistant. Every teenager seems to yearn for the day when they can take the keys and drive to places on their own. I wanted to drive, but I didn’t want to learn to drive on the manual transmission car that my dad had for me. With an automatic car, you just drive. You focus on the road, on the signs, on the other cars, but the rest is condensed to brake and gas pedals. Manuals will stall and quit at the most inconvenient times: like a small town stop sign after the high school graduation and everyone is behind you on their way to open houses. If I had any hopes that my dad would give in, I would have tried to avoid learning how to drive that car and wait for him to get me an automatic. However, I understood the stubbornness of the person with whom I was dealing; he was adamant: learn to drive this car or ride the bus.
The first time he took me out to drive, I probably sat in the car for twenty minutes before we even moved. My younger sister was sprawled out on the deck, eagerly awaiting my driving experience. After a few minutes, she went into the house and told my mom, “I would have been long gone by now.” My mom said that was what she feared.
My dad had demonstrated driving the car, so I could watch him shift. I was cautious and made him go over what I was supposed to do several times. Then I repeated it back to him because I wanted to get it right the first time. I didn’t want the car to start moving and then die, only to have to start the process all over again. Eventually, I put the clutch to the floor, eased off the brake and onto the gas pedal, and we moved forward slowly. And then it died. The process happened over and over again. I drove up the driveway and out onto the gravel road, running the car in first gear when second would have been kinder to it.
One time while I was still in the early learning stages, my dad asked if I wanted to drive to our property on the other side of the creek. I said no because I didn’t want to practice. So he asked my younger sister if she wanted to and, of course, she said yes.
I was furious. I wanted to get out of the car and walk home. She was seemingly unafraid to try and fail. At this point, I found a sudden desire to drive, but it was too late. I was riding with my 11-year-old sister at the wheel. To my young melodramatic heart, it was an injustice. My desire to do it perfectly or not at all was shot to pieces by my sister volunteering to take on the challenge.
I have never actually thought that I could be perfect or that I was perfect. My flaws (or some of them) are well-known to me. Perfectionism doesn’t mean I have a room that is always tidy, a desk that is clean and orderly, or that I’m always pulled together. I have simply tried to avoid making mistakes. Some of this is a good desire. We are to strive for excellence. Other times, it makes the mistakes feel so much more burdensome or weighty then they actually are. It can lead to feeling hemmed in since any option could result in failure.
Nobody likes to fail, I get it. But some do it better than others. I read an article about Stephen Colbert and he had an interesting “motto,” if you will: Learn to love the bomb. In the midst of failing, learn to love it and not be afraid of it.
To me, that is a crazy notion, one that I want to let him run with into a nice little box of, “Well, he is a comedian, of course that would be helpful in his profession.” But, in truth, I cannot stand by that. My mental picture of his motto is like skydiving…without a parachute. Or one that you don’t know if it will open. And you are loving the drop, the racing heart, the pit in your stomach that tells you: This. Is. Crazy.
I prefer to be in control. I’ve never thought of myself as needing to be charge, because most of the time I don’t want to lead anything, ever. Yet I do love my ability to say no or to not do what others are doing. Sometimes, I am stubborn simply to be stubborn. Perhaps it is so that I won’t be seen as just “nice” or a push-over. I learned the “don’t give in to peer pressure” thing really well. Few can make me do something I don’t want to do. I’ll maybe even do the opposite of what you want me to do. For some reason, I like it to be known that if I’m complying with requests, it is because it is my choice, since I could very well do the opposite.
So what does this have to do with perfectionism? I spend much of my life refusing to put myself in positions where I might fail. Activities, relationships, conversations, new experiences: all things that could potentially not end perfectly or require failure in the process of learning are less than palatable to me. Yes, I know what you are thinking, “But you can’t succeed if you don’t risk something.” I chalk it all up to logic: why make mistakes when you can avoid them?
Which is all fine until you find yourself in a position that requires a risk. If you don’t risk, you will definitely lose and maybe God doesn’t want you to just pray it out. Maybe He wants an action. Maybe the lesson is in trusting yourself less and trusting more that He can and will pick you up when you fall. Maybe you are supposed to fail. Yet the very idea of the risk makes my heart threaten self-eviction. I want to think of every possible outcome before I take that first step, so I can be prepared if things come crashing down.
Or the risk might turn out to be a successful leap. It might be worth it, there might be joy, there might be happiness and peace. What if the risk turned out to produce the best type of reward?
This quote comes to mind:
My melancholic pessimism sneaks up again and whispers, “But, seriously, what if you fall?”
As I’ve been writing this, I’ve been trying to think of a way out of a perfectionism that can feel a bit stifling at times. How do you move beyond it?
“Be OK with failing.” Sure–but how?
“Put yourself out there.” Out where? And when?
This is where the head and the heart are in utter conflict again.
This imperfect soul has no neat conclusion to this dilemma. I have no solution that can be quickly applied, no wisdom to pull me out of the mire, and no lesson to contrive from these words.
In an attempt to combat this perfectionism, I’m going to end this post imperfectly.
I’m going to be striving for Heaven, but I’m going to fall on my face many, many times. But Jesus knows that and so I’m trying to be okay with that.
***And, in unexpected irony, of all my blog posts, this post on perfectionism was the most difficult to get to the point where I wanted to publish it.
Because I wanted to at least phrase it perfectly…