“Perfectionism” has probably never been listed as a cause of death because it doesn’t kill the person you are, it kills the person you could be.
I have a hard time following through. I spend more time at a computer looking up “five-day workout routines” than I spend at a gym actually working out. I’ve been learning Blink-182’s “What’s My Age Again” on guitar for the better part of nine months. I want to plant a vegetable garden and read and write more, but I’ll probably ignore these goals until I forget I ever had them. I am a perfectionist.
I didn’t know I was a perfectionist until I read a comment a professor left on one of my papers. It said something like “This is a B+ paper, but I had to give it an A- because of the way you support your argument.” He used the word “perfect” to describe my diction. At the time, I took this as a compliment. I spent hours on that paper restructuring sentences and replacing words with other, better words, and the professor rewarded me with a whole (!) percentage point. Where did I lose points? My argument. It wasn’t a bad argument, but it “didn’t go deep enough,” he said. My mistake? I spent hours perfecting a mediocre argument when I could’ve spent that time crafting a more in-depth and original one. (In the time it’s taken me to write this much, I’ve reread these two paragraphs nine times all the way through.)
I don’t know how or why someone becomes a perfectionist. Maybe her parents didn’t hug her enough. Maybe he played with Barbie dolls too much. I’m not writing to diagnose perfectionists or even offer advice on how to stop being one, I’m writing to let the world know how great it feels to burst through the fog that keeps us from following through or trying new things.
This morning I woke up for work and realized all my dress shirts either had stains (my perfectionism does not extend to my table manners) or were wrinkled. I threw the least wrinkled shirt I could find in the dryer and waited as long as I absolutely could before I had to be out the door. My shirt looked like it was used to dry a wet dog and then tossed into a hamper, whereupon a week’s worth of laundry was heaped on top of it. For a brief moment I thought about calling in sick because I was dressed less than perfectly, but then I realized, “I’m just an intern working in a cubicle with two other interns who wouldn’t notice if I came in wearing a banana hammock, a Bane mask, and nothing else. Who cares if my shirt is wrinkled?” Wrinkled shirts are the little things that can ruin a perfectionist’s day, but what about the big things that can ruin a life?
Maybe you read that last sentence and the word “hyperbole” popped into your head. Drugs, drone strikes, and diseases. Those are the kinds of things that can fuck up your life, but keeping a clean room, triple-checking the Tinder message you’re about to send, can that kill you? “Perfectionism” has probably never been listed as a cause of death because it doesn’t kill the person you are, it kills the person you could be.
Sometimes in the shower, or in the car, or right before I go to sleep, I’ll think of something to write about. Sometimes I’ll take the next step and quickly jot my thoughts down for later contemplation. Sometimes I’ll think of a title for the piece I want to write and I’ll plan out the first sentence and maybe even the first paragraph. Rarely do I go any further. As soon as I start writing or typing, it becomes real. It becomes something subject to scrutiny. What if it’s not perfect?
My perfectionist mentality gets in the way of a lot more than writing. When I get to a hard part in a song on guitar, I pick a new song to half-learn. What if I never get it just right? My plan to turn an antique looking lamppost into a bird feeder will probably never materialize. What if it doesn’t come out the way I pictured it in my head? Rather than try, and risk failing at things, I take naps…except this one time.
Awhile back my girlfriend and I talked about doing more outdoorsy things over the summer. A week ago she brought up hiking and even found a trail in Cragsmoor, NY that looked accommodating to beginners. I was nervous because it was a two-hour drive there, neither of us had any experience hiking, and it was supposed to be a hot and sunny Sunday. A lot could go wrong. We didn’t know what to expect or how to prepare. Our plans were “less than perfect,” but we went for it and it was life-changing and that’s not hyperbole. The next day I was looking up trails in the tristate area. Of course, I could be done with hiking a week from now, but the hike itself was not what felt life-changing. That I didn’t spend hours researching and planning and things still worked out was such a relief. It felt like putting on a shirt that just came out of the dryer.
This article originally appeared on Medium for Human Parts.
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