An Examination Of Perfectionism

21 Oct

A contemplative moment at 21

I have a problem.

I’m ready to admit it and begin a dialogue because at this point, I know that I’m not alone in this. I’m an overachiever. I’ve been this way probably since I was about eight years old. I can blame my parents (although they aren’t entirely to blame as they did the best they could at the time). I could blame the school system for telling me that I was smart and in effect pitting me against all the other kids in my class so that we became ranks and GPAs instead of 14 year olds. Or I could blame my peers but how would they have known?

However, I tend to blame myself most of the time. Someone once said that sometimes our greatest attributes can be our biggest downfalls. I am a smart woman who knows what it takes to succeed academically but as an effect to this day, I’m afraid of failure.

So how did it start? Somehow in my life I learned to equate achievement and “being productive” with being happy. I learned that by getting good grades and being “the best the I could be,” I would earn approval, accolades, and most importantly– love. On the surface that doesn’t seem that strange. In fact, productivity is encouraged in our culture. After all, isn’t America all about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps? It’s about getting  ahead so that we can provide for our families and grow into productive people who contribute to society.

But what if, in the process, we forget who we are? Or worse, never let ourselves learn?

I told myself when I was 12 that I would do whatever it took to get into Harvard. I remember because I wrote it in red pen (which I only used when I was serious) and I put it in a letter to myself. I set insane expectations for myself. I didn’t even really want to go to Harvard, I just thought it was the best school out there so I thought that would be a real achievement and people would love me for it. For as long as I can remember it was all about my grades and being involved so that I could get into college. When I was told by my high school counselor that I could get into the 5.0 GPA bracket and stand with most of my AP/honors friends at graduation if I passed the semester with only one B plus, I did just that. I returned only to find out that the counselor had screwed up and I needed an A- because I was .02 away. If only I had worked a little harder. I was devastated. Crushed. I ended high school on that sour note, disappointing myself because it seemed that I wasn’t good enough.

I realized at some point that Harvard wasn’t for me so I did the next best thing: I applied to 10 different film schools and decided on USC, the oldest and one of the most prestigious. I was upset that I didn’t first get into the actual film school, but after working diligently, I was accepted. I worked harder in college than I did in high school because that’s all that I knew how to do. I graduated and decided to enter into one of the hardest industries that people who fear failure could possibly get themselves into: entertainment.

Okay so here’s the problem: As an overachiever, I want things to fall into place and in my way. I’m not afraid to work for them but what if I’ve worked my whole life and come to realize that maybe overachieving isn’t what it’s all about? What if it’s about being and not doing? Loving people in amazing ways until it hurts? Giving hope to others? Loving yourself first? Sharing the love and spreading faith?

So how do I change my mindset now? How do I recognize that the black and white thinking I’ve always relied on may actually be hurting me? Yes, I’ve had success. Yes, people may think highly of me. Yes, I’ve achieved a lot. But I always feel like there’s more to do. I always feel like no one will ever be pleased. Worse yet, I believe I have to earn everything I get, including grace and love.

I’m reading an amazing book right now by a friend, Kristin Ritzau. It’s called “A Beautiful Mess” and it’s about self-care for a recovering perfectionist. I’m on a journey to start telling myself the truth about who I am and I refuse to any longer buy into the lie that I have to DO something and EARN something in order to be worthy. Where is the grace? If I have no grace for myself, how can I have grace for others?

It’s the process. Perfectionism. Overachievement. That’s a disease. They don’t tell you, but it is. And one day you wake up and realize that you’re not happy living like that. The things you bought into in high school– the whole “be good at everything, fail at nothing, and no matter what you do STAY IN CONTROL.” It’s not true. Life is unpredictable. It’s scary. It’s hard. It’s full of good and bad surprises.

Sometimes you end up where you never thought you would. I’m in process on the journey.  As part of my job, I hang out with high schoolers and they remind me of me. It feels like yesterday that I was that age. I want to tell my former self to not worry so much. To chill out. To LIVE LIFE! It’s not too late for me to tell myself that now.

One of the scariest and most freeing moments of my life. Letting go while suspended over a crazy drop with rushing water while canyoning

So I do what I can and I’ll let go. I might try to control things in a few minutes. My counselor says this is going to get easier–telling myself the truth. He said it’s like starting to work out after being sedentary for a long time. It’s going to hurt a lot at first. You might even faint from overdoing it. But the next day you won’t. The day after you’ll have more stamina. And it will continue…and so will I. I don’t expect to “arrive” but someday in the near future and celebrate that I am believing the truth and not succumbing to the be all that you can be (which is really do all that you can do) mentality.

Please leave your thoughts and comments about this. As I mentioned, I want this to be a dialogue.




3 Responses to “An Examination Of Perfectionism”

  1. Jay P October 22, 2010 at 9:14 am #

    Nice work Ms. Mills. Perfect. 😉

  2. Kevin October 23, 2010 at 12:18 am #

    This is always a tough thing to get used to…dealing with failure. I think one of the greatest things to have around you are family and friends to tell you that what happens in life as failure does not define you…in fact, our success should not define use. That is the true freedom and beauty of grace given freely to us. We have been defined, and that definition sets us free from failure or success as a means of sadness or happiness.

    • purpleambrosia October 23, 2010 at 9:40 am #

      Yes, I totally agree. That definitely helps. I’m in the process of learning to combat my negative thoughts so that when the black and white thinking comes, I can stop and realize it and say that it is not true. I am not defined by what I do or do not do.

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