According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a perfectionist is:
(Noun) ‘a person who refuses to accept any standard short of perfection.’
‘he was a perfectionist who worked slowly’
If you’ve read my last post titled 'Hammer and Tongs,' which outlines my slap-dash approach to renovating, you may think this term shouldn’t apply to me. Imagine my own surprise several years ago, while sitting in my doctor’s office, to see the term and my name together on his screen.
I was checking in with him on a regular basis, along with paying exorbitant fees to another professional in the quest to untangle my headspace. (By the way, I cannot recommend paying a stranger to listen to your problems enough.) The psychologist in question had emailed her notes to my doctor, which read, ‘Joanna is very perfectionistic.’
Of course, I vehemently challenged this assertion, which possibly reinforced the point! However, apparently perfectionism isn’t necessarily applied to what we do, but rather our expectations about our personal self.
I decided to dig a bit deeper and found this explanation on Wikipedia (I know, I know, not the most reputable source, but this is a blog, not a medical journal);
‘Perfectionists strain compulsively and unceasingly toward unobtainable goals, and measure their self-worth by productivity and accomplishment. Pressuring oneself to achieve unrealistic goals inevitably sets the person up for disappointment. Perfectionists tend to be harsh critics of themselves when they fail to meet their standards.’
Ah, self worth! That old chestnut. At the time of consultation, I was staging my return to teaching after saying for the past four years ‘never again.’ However, my desire to get in front of the class was being thwarted by a case of anxiety. Preparing to present lessons in front of 25 adolescents who can smell bullshit a mile away is not for the faint hearted. Wanting your colleagues to think you are at least competent doesn’t help either. My muddled mind had reached dizzying heights, literally.
I was working for a prestigious private school, which entailed a 30 minute, claustrophobic drive in heavy traffic to get there. Fellow sufferers will well understand the way the body’s fight or flight system kicks in, which in turn encourages evacuation of any unnecessary matter in order to prepare for a quick getaway. When the escape is hindered by everyone else also trying to get to work, the stress spirals and the bladder threatens to burst. I took to carrying a Tupperware container along for the ride just in case. This perhaps should have been my first warning sign something was amiss! Coupled with my perceived need to present perfectly to uphold the school’s reputation for excellence, the situation took its toll.
I was annoyed to think the esteemed psychologist thought my ideals were unrealistic and potentially unobtainable. I have since proved her wrong to the extent that I am now in a full time teaching role I love working with a variety of people who nurse their own personality quirks, and have certainly relaxed my need to please. The delightful aspect of teaching is that it is relentless. While reflection on practice is certainly important, so is the need to get up each morning and have another crack at it. In this current education system, students and parents depend on having someone up the front and facilitating a safe learning space.
Wikipedia also threw forth this little gem, which made me understand the years of experience behind my shrink actually did lend some weight to her conclusions;
‘D. E. Hamachek in 1978 argued for two contrasting types of perfectionism, classifying people as tending towards normal perfectionism or neurotic perfectionism…When (neurotic) perfectionists do not reach their goals, they often fall into depression.’
At the time I was indeed depressed and most definitely neurotic; there is no getting around it. I wanted it all, the family and the career. The predicament frustrated the hell out of me. I was also still homesick for NZ. Despite these stressors, I told myself off for not just sucking it up and coping.
Years previously, when my husband and I were first getting to know each other in such diverse settings as the Pyrenees, Cinque Terra and an eight person London flat, he told me I was the worse queuer he’d ever met. In a hurry, impatient, no time to waste. (He usually only says nice things to me and is very sweet, which is why I married him).
Another perceptive man (my dad) once told me, ‘Don’t let anyone ever tell you, you can’t do something. If you put your mind to it, anything is possible.’ It’s become the mantra for my life, and pushed me through some challenging times. Its good advice from a guy who spent time bringing up two children on his own, while running a farm and gaining an MBA with distinction. I come from a long line of ‘doers’ and achievers and never questioned the impact this drive to achieve something of worth can have if not reigned in and ignored from time to time.
Because of expensive therapy and incorporating the wisdom of my elders, I’ve now learned to enjoy striving without beating myself up if it’s not perfect. It’s taken seven long years to achieve permanency in my teaching career, a moment I never thought would come and it’s something I am immensely proud of. The globe has also been circumnavigated and the children have been born. All are milestones I often reflect on with pleasure now instead of dismissing in exchange for focussing on the next plan.
Incidentally, my latest project is a navigation through the publishing world, a result of finishing a second novel manuscript. It would be easy to give up at the sight of the first rejection letter, after all, writing and editing 80,000 words is a demanding process, only to be told it is not what the house is looking for. But I remind myself of the hours of summer I gave up to put my butt in the seat and produce copy, and this time I’m determined to follow through to the bitter end. (Have I learned nothing after all?)
I’ve been shortlisted for a short story award, and almost 1000 of you have read my blog in the first five months which propels me forward and for which I thank you.
I promise not to base my self esteem on it though!