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?


What I Didn’t Say on My Job Questionnaire

I applied to a job sometime last week and received a follow-up questionnaire via e-mail asking some basic interview-type questions.  One of these questions is one we get all the time in interviews: Where do you see yourself in 3-5 years?

I was immediately frustrated–nay, infuriated.  I might have had a different reaction straight out of college, when I was still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but today is a different horse altogether.  Here is what I didn’t say:

How unfair is this question?!  I mean, obviously if I get this job, I’ll picture my life a lot differently than if I’m still stuck in a dead-end job.  Here I am, scraping by, barely keeping myself afloat, and you want me to construct some fantasy life that I may or, most likely, may not be living in 3-5 years?

Let’s go back 3-5 years from today.  Did I picture myself living in my hometown, having spent half of my time since graduation unemployed and the other half of the time earning barely a poverty-level income?  Absolutely not.  I had huge dreams.  I wanted to go to grad school.  I wanted to move far, far away–someplace like Colorado, or Tennessee, or Oregon.  I wanted to be independent, to prove myself as a “real” adult.  I wanted to get married or at least have someone I loved who loved me back.  I thought, least of all, that I might have a job that used my basic skills.

After nine grad school rejections, after moving away, getting laid off, and having to return home broke and with my figurative tail between my legs, after three soul-crushing jobs and the prospect of moving back into the house I grew up in, after all of my friends have spread out to every corner of the world, I have watched each aspect of the dream for my future break apart and disintegrate in front of my eyes.

Needless to say, I have learned that plans don’t work out.  Life is one crazy, chaotic ride, and to think you have any control over it whatsoever is just a joke.  So this job wants me to construct a vision for 3-5 years from now?  Here it is:

I picture myself dating someone, or maybe married, or still single.  I picture myself still in Chicago.  Or, maybe in Nashville or Portland or Boulder.  Or, hell, who’s to say it won’t be Duluth, Quebec City, or Hong Kong?  I picture myself in management or owning my own business or as a stay-at-home mom.  I picture myself as a lottery winner.  I picture myself as a grad student.  I picture myself at church, on my knees, or living in a box, covered in dirt.  I picture teaching, learning, reading books.  Painting, climbing, digging, running, running, running, running…

The fact of the matter is that I’m afraid to picture anything, honestly, for fear of it being nothing but a reflection that will ripple away in the waves.  But, in 3-5 years I sure hope I’m at least happy.

Do you have a vision for your future?  How has a vision for your future not worked out?  How has a vision worked out?

Why I’m So Mad

I am a rule follower.

I wait in line.  I pay my taxes.  I return library books on time.  I don’t interrupt.

Yes, I am a rule follower, and I was raised by a rule follower to be a rule follower.  My whole life has been built around following rules.  If I follow the rules, I’m a good, obedient girl.  If I follow the rules, I won’t get in trouble (on a related note, I have always been terrified of getting in trouble–I got sent to the principal’s office once in third grade for cutting a boy’s finger with a pair of scissors.  It was all a big misunderstanding, but I still remember it to this day and how awful it felt to be unjustly accused of NOT FOLLOWING THE RULES, this specific, unspoken rule being “Do Not Cut People”).  And this is key: I will get what I think I deserve or what has been promised to me for following the rules.

I’m hope you’re following me here.

I don’t speed, I don’t enter doors labeled “EXIT,” I don’t sneak into movies, and I don’t bother people who are on vacation when I have specifically been asked not to bother people who are on vacation.

So I’ve been doing this my whole life.  And as I got into high school, the rules became about my future.  Get good grades and participate in good extracurriculars, and get into a good college.  Get good grades and participate in good extracurriculars and get a good ACT score and write a winner of an essay, and get into a great college.  Study hard in college, graduate with a superb GPA and do an unpaid internship (or several) and get a good job.

But that’s where following the rules have failed me.

So the reason I’m so mad is because I followed the rules.  I held up my end of the cosmic bargain.  I do not have even a sliver of the life I thought I would, and I feel that familiar feeling of injustice–the same one I felt waiting outside of the principal’s office in third grade.

I understand that the world doesn’t work the same as it did a generation ago.  I understand that “life isn’t fair” and doesn’t necessarily adhere to the same rules I do.  But aren’t I allowed to mourn for a future that has died as nothing more than a vision?  Aren’t I allowed to be mad, at least for a little while?