This year, I’m teaching my students out of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens. Basically, every Thursday (usually), my kids will read a small section out of the book and then talk about it as a class. Last week, we were reading the part about “life-centers,” which basically means the things or people that we center our life around. The book makes the point that life-centers that revolve around things or people are inherently unstable and that we should instead focus our lives around principles (because principles never change).
To help my students grasp how even life-centers centered around relatively positive things can become unhealthy, I had them do a little group activity—basically, one of the people in the group had to be the “patient” who was obsessed with a certain life-center (like school or work or a boyfriend/girlfriend), and everyone else in the group was a “counselor.” The patient then presented his/her case before the counselors, and the counselors had to try and help the patient using examples and evidence from the book.
To help the students grasp what I wanted them to do, I myself took on the role of “patient” first and played a student who was completely obsessed with school—I described how I stayed up until 2 AM every night so that I could get my homework done perfectly, and I explained the enormous pressure I often felt to maintain the high standard of achievement I’d always set for myself. As my story got crazier and crazier, more and more students’ hands went up, eager to give me advice and help about why my life-center was so unhealthy.
The kids had a blast with the activity.
Little did they know, however, that the reason I was so effectively able to portray a grades-obsessed student was because I used to be one. Not only that, I consider myself to be what I’ve termed as “a recovering perfectionist.”
When asked to describe myself in three words, one of the first words that always comes to mind is “motivated”—from a young age, I’ve always had exorbitant amounts of self-motivation to set goals and get things done. As a whole, this is a quality I am proud of, but like anything else, too much of a good thing can be debilitating.
I don’t know when I first realized I had a problem with perfectionism—I for sure know that I recognized it by 7th grade, which is the age my students are at right now. I remember even checking out a book from the public library all about perfectionism and how to overcome it. Despite the book’s suggestions, however, perfectionism seemed to be a habit that I wasn’t likely to kick anytime soon, not while I had high school to ace and college to prepare for. The problem only got worse as I found myself continually attracted to boyfriends who were either very motivated themselves (which often translated to competition in the relationship) or who were self-deprecating (which translated to a lot of criticism of me and my habits).
There was one point in my sophomore year of college that it got so bad that I was almost paralyzed by my perfectionism—I was hesitant to try new things because I knew I couldn’t be perfect at them, and I hated to share my real feelings with people because I was afraid of how much they would see “the imperfect me” and not like it.
Surprisingly, my mission in El Salvador only seemed to make the problem worse—I seemed to be in a constant competition with myself and others to see who could be the most good and the most giving and the most productive, and I felt the familiar feelings of crippling fear weighing me down.
It wasn’t until I married Matt that I really started to finally shift into “recovery” mode—it was so refreshing to be with someone who had found a balance between being motivated and being perfectionistic, and it was such a relief to really know, deep down, that I was loved despite all my imperfections.
I went on a run this morning, and I had to walk about 30 feet during a particularly difficult uphill stretch. I started to beat myself up about it, but then I heard Matt’s voice in my head—“It’s all right to walk. The great thing is that you’re out exercising.”
Before I went out on my run, I was getting down on myself about my blog—I’ve had these grand expectations for it for a long time now, few of which have come to fruition. It’s made me question my writing ability as well as my ability to produce content that people are really interested in. But then I heard my own voice reassuring me that I don’t need to continue abusing myself about not being where I want to be yet—I simply need to take life one day at a time.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever be free from the grasp of perfectionism, but I’m still trying.
And for now, that’s got to be good enough.
Are you a perfectionist?