Monday, September 19, 2016

Enthusiastic Perfectionism

Last Sunday night, as I was cranky because I took the "day of rest" very seriously and did more napping than schoolwork, my husband told me that he thought perhaps the goals I'd set for myself were too high.


The timing of this conversation was interesting. I'd just finished teaching a unit on time management and goal-setting with my freshmen, and was about to launch into our discussions on perfectionism.

Perfectionism is a funny thing, and it's very good at hiding. If you took a look at my house, you'd never believe I could be afflicted with it. And, generally speaking, I don't expect it from other people. But more and more, when things don't go according to plan, or, more accurately, I don't accomplish what I set out to accomplish, that ugly p-word makes an appearance. I become disheartened. Grouchy. Defeated.

Tons of fun to be around.

This type of all-or-nothing thinking is a hallmark of perfectionism -- and not the good kind of Hallmark, with cheery verses and flowery covers either. Instead, it's the kind of thinking that leads us to dismiss our accomplishments as trivial, even when they're anything but.

Being aware of this counterproductive mindset isn't enough, and often, it takes observations from others to nudge us toward doing something about it. Next week, as I simultaneously free my freshmen from the pressure to be perfect in my class and beat myself up when I don't finish grading their papers in the (possibly unrealistic) time frame I've assigned myself, I need to step back with my husband's observation in mind. I need to ask myself whether my enthusiasm for what I'm doing has overwhelmed my realism.

And yes, enthusiasm can put us on the path to perfectionism. New ideas and new discoveries lead to new possibilities that collide with realities like calendars and time constraints and the need to do things like sleep, eat and live in a semi-clean environment. Suddenly, that thing we were previously doing seems hugely inferior and, rushing in to change things -- to perfect them, if you will -- we skip the process and, instead, race toward the result. Painting the dining room in a rush of weekend energy. Cooking a gourmet meal when we're really more about takeout. Laboring away at a project until it's just right, no matter how long it takes. Then, we feel frustrated when we arrive at the finish line and the result is sub-par.


But we can change the way we manage the race. Enthusiasm and conscientiousness are good things, and we can harness them with the use of one very simple word, a word that often gathers dust in the corners of the vocabularies of recovering perfectionists.


No, I can't do that right now. No, it's not reasonable to let a part-time project become an all-consuming endeavor.

No. More is not always better.

Oh, but it's hard to say "no" guilt-free. We often need to cloak it in apologies and explanations and rationalizations.

Even when we're saying it to ourselves.

No. There simply aren't enough hours in the day.

And, yes. Conscientiousness is better than perfectionism. Something is better than nothing. Sleep is better than exhaustion. Balance is better than running full-tilt until we hit the wall and wonder why it hurts so much.

When I put it that way, it makes so much sense. Perhaps I should give it a try.

Won't you join me?

If your calendar is full, feel free to say no.

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