As a recovering perfectionist, I can recall many times when I chose endless revisions to an email or school paper over sanity. Through the illusion of polished prose, safeguarding my respectability drove me towards a critique-proof performance. A+++ Even today, ‘Tell me I’m good,’ and ‘Please don’t tell me I’m bad,’ still whisper. I labored with the awareness that assessment by others filled or emptied my cup. I considered framing the paper embossed with a long and thoughtful comment from an admired professor. Ephemeral proof of my existence in the world. A jab of shame interred an alternate, B+ paper, to a box in the basement, vacating any possible constructive criticism to my hopeless irredeemability. My intelligence was fake.
Like sunshine on a burn, I resisted all feedback for a long time. Comments, even the growth-supporting feedback of constructive criticism, became floodlights to my eyes. I heard all feedback as destructive. Though I could recall no actual occurrences, I braced myself for feedback as if it was a slap to the face: NOT GOOD ENOUGH. Academically advanced, I excelled until high school when attendance became an issue. My concerned parents were supportive. As my grades declined, the school exhaled an oft-repeated refrain: “Grades don’t reflect her ability if she’d only applied herself.” A simplified and effortless interpretation, the determination became that the smart kid ceased to perform in the only way measured: grades.
My teachers and parents made an unspoken, logical leap to I must not want to “apply myself.” Perhaps I was lazy or selfish. Other issues accumulated, developing into a full-blown school phobia – a junior high teacher‘s attempt to block my acceptance to an AP English class, my Dad’s two heart attacks in my sophomore year, languishing depression, and, being an outsider in a rich kid’s high school. Experiences filtered and distilled down by the lens of a mere academic metric. When all you assess is school performance, it becomes the only mechanism for improvement. All their ideas to help did not stick and therefore the problem had to be me.
Making the Grade
A few years later, on a walk to my college classes, a cascade of thoughts absorbed me, pivoting my views on perfectionism. Letter grades translated to adjectives, a “C” is, therefore ‘average’; the expected performance on most tasks. To carry this forward, a “B” equaled ‘above average’ and I would define “A” as ‘excellent’ – rare and precious gems. Duped by the cultural script: “more is better,” it had taught me to reach for the unattainable brass ring all this time.
The grading system in school, as in life, sets us up to rely on the subjective assessment from others as a way of knowing our own value. But this is a moving target. The rules are always changing, shifting the bar on the seesaw of outside opinion. When we rely on others, there are no constants against which to measure ourselves. Some validation is necessary for connection and social order. However, uncommon is the encouragement to reflect and build on our own appraisals. Later, as a professor, I’d understand the true, arbitrary nature of grading when I became the assessor. Successive corrections to this skew from reality lead me to accept the principle of ‘good enough.’
Failure is NOT an Option
When I propose the ‘good enough’ idea to my perfectionistic clients, the initial interpretation is that messiness is FAILURE. But I persist; we have a limited amount of time, energy and attention to devote to tasks and cannot be an expert (A+ student) in everything. Therefore, we must specialize. This specialization creates a diverse web of subject-matter experts. Priorities allow room for expertise but require that we de-emphasize other tasks to make room. If we strive for perfection, the limits of time, effort and attention will degrade singular excellence and result in overall mediocrity. I recommend the following categorical percentages: 10% excellence, 30% above average, 50% good enough, and 10% growing edge. Here’s how I prioritize my efforts (subject to revision):
Excellence (10%): Wife, Mother, Psychologist to my Clients
Above Average (30%): Best friend duties, Household, business and administrative obligations
Good Enough (50%): Household chores, finances, cooking, remembering things, cleaning, exercise and eating right
Growing Edge (10%): Better care of my health, intellectual and emotional evolution, challenging and educating myself, meeting the next stage of demand in parenting
Whatever you call it – messy, good enough, failure, imperfect – seems unacceptable and chaotic at first. Given a chance, freedom and order are possible. My cup is almost always full these days and not because I’ve proven to others how awesome I am or getting a regular supply positive critiques. I made a shift; the first person to impress is myself. If my product passes my personal quality checks, I can take or leave any critique, constructive or otherwise. I trust myself and my opinion; I would read and enjoy what I wrote.
Others may have suggestions that would teach me and improve my writing. That makes sense with different writing styles and levels of experience. I welcome solicited feedback with an open mind and heart. However, I hold a healthy skepticism of others’ agendas. Most agendas are sweet, coming from a good place, and the feedback giver feels generous. Unsolicited comments more likely contain landmines. Passive aggressive agendas smuggle words as well-coded daggers laced in legitimacy. Beware of these Trojan Horses.
Imperfection is already a reality for every single person. Claiming and expressing your own legitimacy, sometimes in the face of rejection, is the most difficult first step. I promise you are not alone and acceptance is there waiting for you. Perhaps imperfection is a positive and preferred state. I’d argue that we need messiness like we need a junk drawer in our house. As long you can still close the drawer, it maintains a purpose. Useful for the unsorted and uncategorized, this drawer holds odds and ends of uncertain value. It requires periodic drawer cleaning. You need resources and space to grow into things because, despite yourself, you’re always growing.
Also published on Medium.