August 5, 2014

Inside the Mind of a Perfectionist

I remember like it was yesterday: Driving slowly to the lab sciences building, where my grade in Calculus was posted, and then dragging myself through the parking lot to the classroom as if a 50-pound weight were tethered to my ankle. I knew there was no way I’d pulled off the coveted A, though I still hoped it would somehow magically appear on the grade sheet. If I’d scored much higher on the final than I’d thought I had, perhaps I’d see a B, and I tried to muster my strength to accept it. That would still be failure – but at least not as bad as it could be.

I located the grade sheet for my section among all the others, and then squeezed my eyes shut and sucked in a deep breath. As I slowly let it out, I wanted to turn and run away without looking. But instead I opened my eyes and scanned the list for my student number. And there it was: a big, fat, ugly C.

Hot tears immediately stung my eyes. I looked again, but I’d seen correctly the first time. I hurried back to my car, feeling nauseous and certain that anyone who noticed me also saw a scarlet “STUPID” plastered all over my back. I sobbed for most of the two-hour drive home, forcing myself to buck up for the last 20 minutes only so I wouldn’t have to explain my failure to my parents.

That C in freshman Calc was the first non-A I’d seen assigned to me since the beginning of my seventh grade year. Deep down, I knew my high school math teacher – and my gym teacher as well – had gifted me with A’s I’d not really earned just because I was a nice kid who tried. And some of the A’s had been A-minuses, which I knew meant I really wasn’t all that smart. But the devastating C in college Calculus swept away all my self-delusions – I was not smart at all - and remained a deep shame within me for a long time. It wasn’t until several years later that I could say out loud I’d gotten a C and several more before I could do so without choking up.

The example may seem petty, and I now realize what a small thing it was in the grand scheme of life. But my devastation at the time was palpable; I honestly felt for a long while that having earned less than an A had turned me into irreparably damaged goods.

That’s the pain of perfectionism, whether it manifests academically, physically, relationally, or spiritually. In my perfectionist’s mind, the C demonstrated that all my high school accomplishments – in every subject area and in my extracurriculars as well - had been a sham. And it cast a shadow on everything I did in college after that. Earning A’s in everything else and eventually finding my niche in the humanities didn’t really matter; the C meant I was an intellectual imposter.

By God’s grace and through much wise counsel, I eventually realized the lie I’d bought into. I now refer to myself as a “recovering perfectionist” – because I’m not perfect at releasing perfectionism! – and I’m beyond grateful for my growth away from that horrible way of living. But how much better if I’d never fallen into that pit to begin with - If I’d realized from childhood that God has given me many wonderful gifts and talents even though higher-level math is not a personal strength…and doesn’t need to be.

One of my parenting goals is to keep my girls from the Perfection Infection so they needn’t go through what I did. I hope such a goal is on the top of your parenting toolbox as well.

Photo Credit: Dick Vos


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