On Being a Perfectionist

I’ve never liked trying new things. I’m not sure at what point in my life it started, but I have strong memories of being a kid and shying away from things I had never done before. Playing a new game was never fun for me because I was too worried about not knowing the rules or being just plain bad at it. So at some point, I stopped even trying. When I was faced with something new, something I wasn’t sure I could be good at, I just chose not to do it. What if I tried playing Steal the Bacon and didn’t get to the bacon first? Oh, the shame!!!

I wish I could say that it ended in elementary school. But it didn’t. After Rob and I got married, he convinced me that I needed to learn how to golf. I hesitantly agreed, thinking that it could be fun to share a hobby. But it didn’t last long. He patiently and lovingly tried to instruct me, while I shanked balls, threw clubs and yelled at him in frustration because I couldn’t do it right the first time. Was it a realistic expectation that I could walk onto the links and hit a beautiful 200-yard shot off the tee and onto the green on the first try? Um, no. But I didn’t care. I didn’t feel free to fail, even if it was in order to learn and grow.

Or there was the time we were in Guatemala for 5 weeks. We did language school for the whole first week, and were immersed in a culture where most of the people we interacted with only spoke Spanish. What a great opportunity to learn the language! But for perfectionist me, it was an opportunity lost. I was so afraid of saying it wrong that I never really even tried. I watched those around me practice and soak in the culture, while I let my fear keep me on the sidelines. For me, the appearance of perfection had become more important than anything else. It was perfectionism at it’s ugliest.

Five years ago, when I first started trying to write children’s books, I didn’t tell anyone. I thought if I told people, then they would ask me how it was going (the horror!) and I would have to tell them that my work continued to be rejected. But as I delved deeper into the craft of writing, I realized that if I ever wanted to truly grow and have success as a writer, I had to be willing to fail. I had to be willing to write that terrible first draft. I had to be willing to hold my work out in front of other writers and have it critiqued. And I had to be willing to rack up rejections and wear them like the badges of honor they are.

Writing has helped me silence the big ‘ol ugly perfectionist.

The last few weeks have been spent doing revisions on Marathon Mouse with my editor. It has been pushing my perfectionist buttons in a big way. I have this vision in my head of the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, each one-half of my perfectionist self, each whispering things to me about my writing. The angel pushes me to excellence, doesn’t allow me to be satisfied until the words are just right. The devil tells me that I am a poser who can’t form a coherent sentence, pretending to be a writer when really I am just a bored housewife who got lucky. Okay, so maybe the big ‘ol ugly isn’t always so silent.

In her amazing book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says this, ““Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life…I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” Boy, does she nail it or what? Not only are those people going to have more fun, they are going to be less tired. Because trying to be the perfect writer, the perfect mom, the perfect wife, the perfect Christian…well, it’s freaking exhausting.

So for now, I will allow my perfectionist self to speak when I’m writing and it tells me my opening line is not strong enough, or my ending not satisfying enough. I will listen with open ears when I’m out running and it tells me that under no circumstances will I walk until I have reached my goal. And I will greet it with a warm embrace when it pushes me to close my laptop and play a game or read a book with my kids.

But I will continue to try to turn the volume all the way down when it tells me not to post this, not to admit my faults, not to try to grow. And now if you’ll excuse me, I have some Spanish to learn, some golf balls to hit, and some bacon to steal. And I’m going to have fun doing it.

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