I have an ugly problem I don’t like to admit to. It’s not pretty, it’s unfriendly, and its something I will probably battle for the rest of my life. Hi, my name is Carrie and I’m a perfectionist.
Society celebrates perfectionism. (How so?)
I can remember countless times growing up hearing people and myself say things like, “Yeah, I’m so perfectionist…” as if it were something to brag about, that I hold myself to such high standards, as if that made me better than everyone else. Now, I would say being a perfectionist is perhaps one of the absolute worst things that someone can aim to be. Absolutely awful idea. And as an educator I see a system that is broken in part because of the perfectionism it encourages and celebrates.
Why do I feel so strongly about this? Because perfectionism destroys creative endeavor.
I use to write poetry. Lots of it. And I was starting to get pretty good at it, until I quit. Why did I give up on something I love so much? Because someone I thought was worse at our shared English class got a better grade on a poetry analysis paper than I did. What was my grade, you ask? An A minus. I’m embarrassed to write this and I’m sure some of you won’t understand (you had an A, why is that bad?). But at the heart of this is that I reneged on this part of myself. I read through my old poetry and I feel so guilty and awful I actually feel grief over it now whenever I think about it. Thankfully, it is NEVER too late to return to a love, passion or begin to learn something new. But that is something I never understood as a young person because of my perfectionist nature. How many poems have I lost, have we all lost, because someone told you, or you told yourself, you could never be good enough?
I see this prevalent in schools as well, across generations. In my high school, many students would cheat together to get through a tough class to ensure they still earned their over 4.0 GPA. I found out people had elaborate cheating systems for a particular chemistry class we took. Our teacher was tenured and checked out. He read from the textbook for most of our lessons. I struggled at home trying to teach myself and that was the worst grade I got in high school. Being a perfectionist, I thought it was a failure on my part if I couldn’t teach myself, that going to his extra help lessons wouldn’t help me any and meant I was dumb. And while I punished and beat up on myself for not getting it, other students were coping with cheating. All of these coping strategies are a means of dealing with perfectionist goals.
I see this in schools with students who are driven to achieve as well. Achievement is the only goal because of this perfectionist view and celebration. I taught some students who helped me create the rubric with which they would be evaluated and they always self-assessed prior to my final assessment. Two of the students came to me after reports cards came out saying this elective was hurting their GPA by .01 and that I should reconsider their mark (can I remind you they self-assessed and helped me make the rubric to begin with?). It’s about the number, the success from the label of being an achiever rather than about learning.
And despite this culture of achievement and perfectionism, there are teachers who can cultivate a culture of risk taking and belief in exploration. The reason I feel saved and have enough awareness today to know to battle this affliction is because of a middle school teacher I had. He required all students to keep a journal. We received marks for it, but the grades were more for our commitment to the task. There were no clear objectives beyond sharing our thoughts in them, in addition to any assignments we were to reflect on in it. And it was in those journals that I found my voice and realized someone cared enough to listen to it rather than the writing or academic commitment. Let’s say it one more time, I had a teacher make me feel valued as a human being for who I was, not what I could achieve. And that was a pivotal moment of identifying what it really means to have self-worth. Perfectionism does everything in its power to destroy that feeling because no matter what you do, it is never enough. You can never be good enough.
I see it in loved ones as well. A young person in my life chooses to leave activities when they don’t feel they are good enough as they should be. How many what ifs will they face in their adulthood because right now it’s scarier to be bad at something than to try at all?
So, what can we do about it?
Celebrate the risk takers. Encourage a culture of trial and error. Be reminded of people like Edison who trialled different ideas THOUSANDS of times before something worked. What if he had stopped trying to develop the lightbulb because it broke the first time? Parents, please remember it’s not all about the grade. Your children are more than a number, remind them of that!! They deserve more, as I know you want for them. How many “things” (ideas, businesses, products, projects, etc.) are we losing out in today’s world because people fear a perceived shame for something not working?
Cheers to the risk takers. And to those of you who are recovering perfectionists, I hear you and it’s your turn. Be the risk, face the fear, and share your creative spirit; we all deserve it.
BE COURAGEOUSLY CREATIVE: What in your actions suggests you support a culture of perfectionism? What is one small action you can take today to help combat this sick culture?