Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Recovering Perfectionist and The Pursuit of Excellence

As we're systematically working through all of our "stuff", we have pretty much touched every.single.item. that we own--or we will, before all is said and done. We're not deciding what to get rid of, so much as we're deciding what to keep. It sounds so similar, but the two are polar opposites. The former asks the question, "What can I live without?" and removes that from your home. The latter asks the question, "What can I not live without?" and brings that back into your home. See the difference?

So, while it's mostly been more tedious that challenging, I ran into a roadblock last night.

For the first time in at least 7 years I opened the box of things I have saved from high school. First I looked through scrapbooks and photos (mid-90's mega-huge-hair and grunge styles were totally rad, right?!). Then I pulled out a notebook that my best friend and I used to pass notes--way back before smart phones and texting. Then I glanced at some awards and my high school diploma buried in the middle of the box. Excellent place to store that, no doubt. And then I found it. The file passed to me from my parents full of my report cards, standardized test scores, college admission and scholarship letters. And I didn't like what came next.

Memories of who I was, earlier on this journey, came back full force. See, I was a pretty good student, scored better than average on those SATs and ACTs that no one tells you how little they mean after graduation anyway, and earned several scholarships to help finance my way through 4 years at a private university. And I took way too much pride in that when I was a teenager. I was a perfectionist and 15 years ago, these papers represented who I was. 30-Something Stephanie was suddenly transported back to Teenage Stephanie and it was hard to face who I once was, in light of who I am today.

I strongly believe that the pursuit of excellent is both a worthwhile and holy endeavor. I've never been disappointed that I gave my best effort, but have been sheepish more than once when I gave less than my best. However, pursuing excellence is very different from perfection, which I have never seen positive results from. God alone is perfect, and striving for perfection will always leave you empty and hollow. It's a results-driven mindset that sets yourself up for failure, more times than not. It's the student who studies hard for a test, gives their best effort and earns a 98% on the exam--only to be disappointed that they didn't get the other 2%.

In college I finally started to work through my perfectionism, as a student, when the proudest that I've ever been about a grade in a course in my entire life was a C in Chemistry. I worked my butt off for that C and wanted to shout about it from the rooftops. It meant more than the dozens of A's I had received in my career as a student, and even if it kept me from the Dean's List that semester, that mattered so much less than the fact that I did my best in a class that was so far beyond where my natural abilities lie.

I will also fully admit that perfectionism is as much of a disease as alcoholism or any other psychological addiction. In the same way that alcoholism takes the consumption of alcohol to an unhealthy point, perfectionism takes the pursuit of excellence to an unhealthy point. I say that I'm a recovering perfectionist, because I have to make the choice every day to fall back into the trap of perfectionism or to decide to give my best and that my best is good enough. And sorting through the box that takes me back to a time when my focus was off-course. A time when my best wasn't good enough. A time when the best was all that mattered to me.

With four children of my own now to raise, I see how ingrained this confusion of perfection with excellence is. Every day we talk about their days at school with our older girls, and in Kindergarten and Prep-K, it's mostly behavior that comes up and how they measured up on their classroom behavior charts. Without fail--and it doesn't matter if she was on "Terrific Tiger" or "Right-On Rabbit" or anything in between, I ask my daughter if she did her best. When she answers 'Yes', I tell her how proud that I am of her and thank her for choosing to do her best. If she answers 'No', then we talk about how to make different choices the next time. We always turn the focus back on her actions and choices. It's easy now that there aren't grades to figure into the equation. That will definitely make things more challenging, to eliminate the focus on grades and emphasize effort. Will we get it all right? Absolutely not! That's part of parenting. You give it your best and still don't get it just right. I don't even want to imagine trying to be a perfectionist parent. Talk about setting yourself up for failure! However, I am determined to save my children--particularly my daughters who perfectionism is so much more dangerous for--from walking that road. They'll have their own struggles in life, but this is one that I hope to spare them from.

So, what about that box from high school? I purged a few items near the top, but quickly repacked the rest. If I only return a handful of boxes to storage, this one needs to be one of them. At this point, it's a box that I cannot live without. In part, because the memories of who I once was are still too fresh and too raw to appropriately sort through the box. In part, because there's a piece of me that still needs that reminder, on the days when perfectionism seems to win, that the fight to tip the balance toward excellence is worth it. However, mostly because someday--maybe 7 more years from now--I'll pull out this box and see how much further down this road of being a recovering perfectionist that I am, that it finally means nothing to me. On that day, whenever that may be, I cannot wait to send that file to the recycling center along with yesterday's newspaper and the pile of junk mail. Someday.

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