The Perils of Perfectionism

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At the gym, the substitute Zumba teacher called out new steps with a determined cheerfulness. From the back of the room I peered through three lines of shuffling, swaying bodies to catch sight of the moves. I was not thrilled with this teacher; she tended to stray just enough from the music’s rhythm to make it hard to watch her, harder to follow. My neurological and emotional instincts were to move right with the beat, not miss it by even a smidgen. I knew the others also had complaints yet they remained attentive to directives. They looked good from where I was moving along a bit haphazardly. I felt frustration mount until I veered off the proscribed steps, modifying a couple, throwing in a spin. Think I will slide my feet instead of bouncing, swing hips side to side instead of back and forth–more natural to me and becoming. Then I came to a standstill as I tried to figure out where everyone else was.

Irritation with the class had given way to a need to correct the choreography, to hit my beat, not the teacher’s. I was right, after all. I loved to dance and embraced Zumba’s vigorous fun. (A goal of mine is to be in good enough condition by summer to take a yearned-for flamenco class at a dance studio.) But now the old sass I’ve had to often quell all my life took over until the urge to break out and dance my own rhythmically attuned dance was pushing me toward….well, I closed my eyes a moment. Imagined the room transformed by low lights and live music, people dancing with lovely abandon. I was jolted from that brief reverie when I jostled a man next to me. He was keeping close to the metered measure but also all instructions. And no stumbling. He knew the value of sticking with the group, staying in line. I took a water break, stifling the desire to walk out as a few already had.

I’ve begun to count on Zumba to help keep my heart in good working order. It’s a prescription, part of a broader regimen my cardiologist and I agreed upon nearly twelve years ago: if I maintain my health with daily cardio and practice diligent self-care, I get a chance to live a few more years. Maybe many more. So what was my complaint? Why couldn’t I just do what was expected this time? Why did I think I could diverge from the norm when the benefit in this case came from following along? I felt I was different. I needed things to be exacting, correct as well as fun and that led to ignoring the exercise mandates Zumba provided.

The truth was, I was not doing so well; was the beat off or was I? Maybe I thought I deserved more for the money and time. But I forgot my real intentions. Did I think I was on Broadway? Who had made me soloist, leader or critic? 

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I learned early that it was important to do things the best I possibly could. The American way, at least where I lived. Mediocrity was never good enough, was, in fact, equal to failure. “Excellence Above All” was a favored motto as a youth. My school notebooks were covered with those words, as though noting it multiple times would make me impervious to the possibility of imperfection in all I undertook. It succeeded in that I worked hard and was confident much of the time. Feedback regarding various endeavors assured me I had some intelligence and talent. But I was on more deeply intimate terms with my flaws and weaknesses. As a young cellist and vocalist I despaired some days of ever completing a certain measure of music just as my teacher or my musician father required. Demanded. I worried I would not get the awards I strove to achieve. Everything I attempted had to fulfill a goal set highest. It meant everything to excel. It meant I was good enough. Acceptable. Pleasing to others. If I didn’t think I could manage to achieve something I didn’t try or gave up quickly. 

Like sewing, for example, a talent at which my mother excelled. Her seamstress work was actually art; I wore her often custom-designed clothing proudly. But my seeming lack of feel for the mechanics of creating with fabric only brought anxiety. My mother sat beside me correcting errors, her voice soft but insistent that I try, try again. I couldn’t get beyond tangled thread, a crooked seam or hem to resurrect the vision of a beautifully completed dress. I just saw failures. So I gave up, except for a few things years later made of necessity–simplest shorts for my children, basic curtains. I sometimes had ideas for a sewing project to create–but only if like my mother. Years ago my children bought me a sewing machine for Christmas. When I unwrapped it I burst into tears–because they knew I yet dreamed of being good at it and were cheering me on. But also because the very sight of that machine daunted me. It had defeated me. Could I even bother to try again when it brought mediocrity at best, poor results at worst?

Sewing is one thing. But a desire for perfection as a human being is another. I had that urge, as well. I suspected if I tried hard enough spiritual prowess would be attainable and once that occurred, I would be all set. Foolish mistakes would not happen. Tragedy would be averted. I would be the sort of girl who the sort of guy I wholly desired would instantly be mine, utterly beloved. I would set to my tasks and find them far easier. Since I had a powerful faith in Jesus’ uncommon wisdom, it seemed reasonable. It was clear that such Divine Love deserved full attention to the expectations: kindness, patience, courage, tolerance, compassion, forgiveness, fortitude and so on. But lo and behold, I was not able to succeed for long before my attitude would slip a little here and there. My personality and will seemed governed by moods, impulses and defects–those aggravations that would not help bring me anywhere close to a state semi-holiness. How did the great sainted souls of eons manage it? Trying and praying very hard weren’t nearly enough to get a good foothold on spiritual bliss. I had to content myself with random mystical moments and a sustaining belief.

So I despaired while growing up, youth being a time of great hope and misery. Despite medals and awards and honor roll and opportunities to do what I loved–the arts, athletics, academics–I felt the terror of failure like a gaping chasm between me and my dreams of fulfillment. I worried about missing the other side when I lept. If I could not be who I believed I should and wanted to be, then why even bother? There were things I ceased doing because of this. Like music. It was more than perfectionism that waylaid me but the joy of it was lost somewhere on a stage. Even, or maybe because, the applause came–but also could evaporate. When I lost my edge for many reasons, grief followed. I thought the price paid might kill me but it was that need to be perfect that threatened my well being. Despite giving it up, music has breathed its magic into every day in countless ways–even in a Zumba class. Even as I whistle, hum or sing along to a CD.

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It took some years to realize I was not very unique. I would have both triumphs and wipe-outs, just like everyone else. I have what I was born with to help or hinder me, but I’ve also had chances to garner insight, knowledge, self-acceptance and mercy. Mercy is key here. For others, yes. But when we live without consistent kindness towards ourselves we court disaster. Holding ourselves responsible for our actions is crucial. Perseveration regarding our mistakes, not even necessary. That creates an irascible, angry and fatigued person. Or a self-righteous one. Another side effect is that nothing anyone else does is good enough, either. And if we get to the point where we are tough as nails and no one should get in our way of achieving, we’ve become blind to the freedom of self-forgiveness. God already embraces and carries us when we are fighting for a better life but running in circles. Only for love. We can help by waking up and slowing down. By being gratefully equalized by life. Being perfect has nothing to do with it.

Perfectionism determines that there is no worthiness save for those who achieve one hundred percent, every single time. How does this help me, and you, to experience the diversity and richness of being on earth, to appreciate the manifold wonders of ordinary life? What is exquisite is whatever, whoever dwells and moves in love. What is acceptable is becoming one’s true self. What is perfection is that we are necessary components of the cosmos, a connecting thread of the universal symmetry. That we overlap one another in spirit on earth and beyond. All we have to do is be willing to give all we can, be ready to do what we can barely imagine. Not perfectly but with commitment.

I stayed for the full Zumba class. I fell into place, then changed up steps a couple times, discreetly. I joined in the fun. And the fact is humility has to teach me things the days my health is not feeling like a win. I practice acceptance, but still give things a shot. It’s also my nature to experiment with rules. Taking a small risk is more fun than doing things the same way every time, perfectly. What matters most is jumping–or walking–into life’s bold yet tender core, right where I belong. This way I honor myself; it helps me honor you. There is no failure in this, only freedom. This, I can do.

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7 thoughts on “The Perils of Perfectionism

    1. Absolutely. Perfectionism is not a healthy characteristioc, no–too many experience this in our very competitive society in the U.S. If we were truly perfect, what would we have left to learn? Thanks for reading and taking time to comment!

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