Recently I read the difference between perfectionism and excellence. Although I thought I had finally gotten myself on the right track, I saw that I’m still working towards it. My learning to be a perfectionist started innocently, though I didn’t know what it was called at the time. What I learned was: If you do anything less than perfection, its not seen.
Mom knocked herself out making a wonderful meal. The aroma from the kitchen tantalized us for hours until we were finally called for dinner. We may or may not have expressed gratitude for that meal, unless you counted the fact we barely came up for air. But the approval she sought would have come from the head of the table.
What words of did she hear on that day, or any other day for that matter? Well, I can tell you this, it wasn’t praise. Instead, it was expertise on things she could have done to improve the meal.
If I had a quarter for every time I heard, “It could have used just a little more salt,” Well, let’s just say, I’d have a ton of quarters.
When you’re a kid you focus little on conversations, and yet, you do notice body language. How can you miss someone getting deflated? This happened at every meal I remember. The message came through loud and clear: If it’s not perfect, it’s not seen, just not good enough.
As kids we were promised $5.00 if we got a report card with all E’s, (equivalent to A’s today). Every semester I’d start out hoping it would be my time to earn that $5.00. Semester after semester, I watched my younger sister proudly display her report card and smugly lighten Dad’s wallet.
Surely, my turn would come, and alas it did. Giddy from finally making it to the top, I remember turning around to the boy behind me and writing on his report card, “Bob is bad.” I had never done anything like that before, but neither had I experienced such great success.
Next thing I knew, Mrs. Aachen summoned me up to the front of our 2nd grade classroom. She asked for my report card and after making a couple of scratches handed it back to me.
Stunned, I saw one of my grades had been changed. Arbitrarily she chose one and magically the E became a lowly G. I went from Excellent to Good with one fell swoop of her pen.
Defeated, I returned to my seat as tears started streaming down my reddened face. There were no words to say.
Later, when it came time to present our parents with our report cards, I watched Peggy receive her regular prize money. As I handed my dad my card I blurted out,
“Dad, I really did get all E’s and then Mrs. Aachen changed one of them. See, right there?”
“Sorry,” he said with a smile. “You didn’t get all E’s, so don’t get the $5.00.”
I lost again. But on that day I lost more than the money and satisfaction of equalling my sisters accomplishment. I lost confidence in my abilities. I had let myself believe if I tried really hard I could achieve my goal. And though I tried my best, still I didn’t make it.
What good was it to put all that effort forth just to end up losing anyway? After a while you try a little less.
Fast forward a lifetime and you’ll see some early lessons withstand time.
I did learn I could achieve goals I had set, an Associate Degree, a Bachelor’s degree, graduating with honors, all done as a returning student. I found that goals are achievable. But, I also learned it’s possible to feel good when you don’t hit the mark.
I remember sharing with one of my aunts when I had graduated. Hoping to hear “good job,” or something of that nature.
Instead, she pursed her lips and replied, “You could have done that a long time ago.”
Fortunately, I had not counted too much on her praise. I have learned you can feel good about things you accomplish, no matter what goes on outside of you. When we wait for acceptance from those around us we may find we will be waiting indefinitely.
I learned I can make a meal and know it’s good whether or not I receive any compliments.
I can feel good about something I’ve written even when no one comments or hits the “like” button.
I can even take criticism, without shriveling up inside.
And what about A’s, are they still important to me?
You better believe it! I said I was a recovering perfectionist, I didn’t say I had arrived.