Combating Perfectionist Purgatory

Confession: I am a perfectionist.  Always have been…probably always will be.  In high school, a friend coined the phrase “HSC” which stood for “Honors Student Complex”.  It was the disorder that possessed us all–the idea that a B was considered “failing” and that you couldn’t be involved in too many after-school activities.  We took all of the hardest classes (with the exception of one friend who dropped down from honors to regular biology because she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to get an A in it–a super case of HSC!), and I was in all of the top auditioned choirs, even making it all the way to All State Jazz Choir.  We graduated with GPAs over 5 points on a 4 point scale.  Give us a task, and we excelled.

That was the positive side of perfectionism–hard workers getting excellent results.  But there was another side, too.  The side that threw outrageous tantrums because I couldn’t play an etude on my cello correctly the first time.  The side that mentally beat myself up when I got the wrong answer to math problem.  It’s this side that held me back and made me ask, if I couldn’t do something right the first time, was it worth doing at all?

Nowadays it’s this dark side of perfectionism that has its hold on me.  It has me anxiety-ridden, thinking that I’m going to pick the wrong career, the wrong grad program, and I’ll be trapped in something that I hate.  And so I’m stuck in a different way–paralyzed by my fear of choosing the wrong path.  So I’m stagnant, paused in the place before I take the leap, before I get too invested.  It keeps me from taking a risk, any risk, for fear that it might not be the “right one”.

I know that sounds completely ridiculous.  My fear of ending up trapped has me trapped in a purgatory of my own making.  And I find that the side I most want to develop, the creative, artist side of me, is in direct opposition to this very demanding and ugly personality trait.  Art is all about risk.  It’s about vulnerability, and it’s the opposite of people-pleasing.  It’s practicing, and failing, and doing it anyway.  Art is an exercise of the soul, and perfectionism is a soul-killer.

I’m not sure yet how to wrap up this blog entry because I haven’t found the answer to this reconciling this dichotomy yet (what a perfectionist way of putting that).  But I thought I’d just throw this out there and see if anyone else struggles with this same thing, and if so, what do you do about it?  Is there a way these two two attributes can work together?


7 thoughts on “Combating Perfectionist Purgatory

  1. That’s a tough one. I might have had a mild case of HSC, once. The Atlanic Monthly wrote an article about how today’s children are guarded from failure in their upbringing and then when they finally meet conflict in their adult lives, they have a hard time coping with it. I think I don’t have as much HSC as much as the next person because I experienced failure early in life. It might not have been my intent, but I definitely learned from the experiences. As a teacher, I think there’s a hell of a lot more learning value in our failures than our successes. Success is that much sweeter when you know you went through so much to achieve it.
    It’s hard to allow failure to happen as life actions and decisions become bigger and more impacting, though. Perhaps that’s why it’s so stressful on us twenty-somethings.
    Maybe we allow HSC to happen too easily. Maybe we shouldn’t give honors kids the weighted GPAs or allow them to drop out of a class because it would make their transcipt look bad (two things I personally took advantage of in high school). Maybe parents should be more comfortable saying “I’m sorry, that’s tough, but I can’t help you out much; you’ll understand later on in life”. Maybe we need to expect as much as we do of ourselves, but also learn to accept when we fall short.
    Shoot, I don’t know how to conclusively wrap this comment up, either. BAP. end.

  2. I experience pressure with both teaching and music. And I tirelessly compare myself to others, which is unfortunate. When I compare my educational and artistic worth to others, I usually lose myself in thought over it, or over-research online, or make up excuses as to why I can’t be that good (I don’t have enough time, I had different plans, I’m not good enough, etc).
    My mantra this year should simply be ‘just DO it’. I should feel inspired by the excellence around me. I should pick up the guitar and just hit record and not care if I’m playing commonplace chords. I should be inventing lesson plans that may not totally work but reach the one student in my classroom I’ve had trouble connecting with all year. Less procrastinate, more do. And less time on Facebook.

  3. Pingback: Forging a Hero’s Life | The Get-a-Life Project

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