Learning to Let Go of Perfectionism

Last night, as I was talking with my wife about what I should post on my blog today, the topic of perfectionism came up. I have struggled with perfection since I was a child. I recall teachers and other respected leaders saying “Nobody’s perfect,” but I never internalized that as a kid. As a gifted child, I scored in the 98th and 99th percentiles on almost everything, except for reading comprehension (83rd percentile) and listening (46th percentile — this makes me wonder why I was not diagnosed with ADHD much sooner in life, but that is a different topic for an upcoming blog post). When I was a kid, I did not understand the concept of percentile ranking, so I thought “Wow, I scored 99 percent! Why didn’t I score 100 percent?” I probably did score 100 percent, but 99th percentile means that I scored better than 99 percent of the kids in my age cohort. I never understood, as a child, why adults and even other kids were so impressed with me, although I was told all the time that I was smart. I think I equated intelligence with perfection.

Because I was told that I was smart a lot, I expected to get perfect scores on everything. I was a good speller; I rarely scored anything below 100 percent on my spelling tests. I was good at math, too. I think perfectionism really ate away at me when I was in high school and endured undiagnosed bipolar disorder. I was depressed a lot of the time. In my head, I said to myself “If I can’t do something perfectly, then it isn’t worth doing.” So I didn’t do a lot of my homework, and I brought home C’s and even one D. I received F’s on progress reports. I felt like a failure because a piece of paper said I was.

I took on a different tack in college. I strove for perfection again. I received B’s in five lower division courses and the rest of my grades were A’s, so I received highest honors when I received my Associate in Arts degree. When I transferred to a university, I wanted to do better — perfectly — so I studied long and hard in all of my courses. I think I averaged six hours of sleep a night; some nights I only got four. On paper, all of that hard work paid off. I received a mishmash of A’s and A-’s, and one B+. Thus, I graduated summa cum laude. When I received that B+ in abnormal psychology, I told myself that it was because I slacked off in that course. And how could I have possibly received a lower grade in abnormal psychology? I’m their poster child! Alas, I got the personality disorders confused.

As a result of my perfectionism, I became exhausted. Even now, I want to heavily edit this post because I feel that I went on too many tangents. But I won’t do it because if I do, then this post may never see the light of day. Lately, the only editing I do on these posts is reading through once, checking for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and typos. At my job, I do the same thing and turn my work around to management quickly. Usually, I am praised for my work. Sometimes, I completely miss the mark and I have to redo the work. I feel like a failure when I miss the mark.

I must not be a failure, though, because I was promoted two weeks after I passed probation as a Staff Services Analyst. That’s almost unheard of in state service. I am the exception to the norm. It’s difficult to think that I am exceptional because I’m not perfect. But by admitting to myself, and now to the world, that I am an exceptional human being, I am fueled by the desire not to be perfect. If I had heavily edited my work, then I would have produced less, and I might not have been considered for a promotion.

I can handle being exceptional. Exceptional is not perfect, but it is still off the charts. There are areas where I have average ability, but I don’t develop those areas well. I now realize that I have the ability to excel in areas where I am average, but it would take a lot of hard work. And I might not do it perfectly.

Something I want to do is learn how to speak and write in Spanish. I know very little of the language. I have below average skills. But if I develop skills to succeed in learning the Spanish language, then I would be able to have conversations in Spanish. I would probably not be perfect at the accents and inflections, but people would understand what I am saying. Sometimes, passable is better than perfect. If I try to become perfect in Spanish, then I may never have a conversation with someone in that language because I am worried that I will say something incorrectly. In this case, proficient is better than perfect.

I was scared to start a blog. I was worried about creating the perfect posts, and getting the website design perfect. So I didn’t even try, even though I wanted to author creative content for years. But now, I realize that I just need practice. This is my practice. I will eventually write better and more thoroughly thought-out content. But for now, I just need to put myself out there, and to hell with perfect blog posts. Done is better than perfect.

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