Perfectionists don’t deal well with failure.
Seems obvious enough, right?
While some people savor the lessons learned through mistakes, I begrudgingly accept my lesson and fume, often for years, over the failure.
I harbor residual embarrassment that I misspelled Connecticut in eight grade and am still painfully aware of exactly where I sat when I corrected the teacher for adding an unnecessary “c”. (I was also totally right. There’s no need to Connect anything in that name. It’s Conneticut. Or it ought be Conneticut.)
Mindful always of the failure implicit in mistakes, I stoke the fires of mortification at misunderstanding an attorney colleague in 1993. I had to make a joke at my own expense to hide my shame at the company softball game and I can still see the rolling fog and the skyward reach of the home-plate fence when I mistook “tort” for “tart.” And I still remember the warm wash of relief that flooded me on the third row of metal bleachers when They—the smarter, better educated, older, wiser—laughed at my cover joke. Thank goodness for the wounded-pride salve of comedy.
And thank goodness that I’m still self-flagellating over spelling and jargon errors from the 80s and 90s. Consider the world saved, y’all, because I know how dumb I was twice as a teenager.
Many of my struggles with parenting come from knowing I can do better, of knowing what kind of mother I aspire to yet failing to get there. I don’t believe I should ever yell. I should calmly explain expectations and requests and never inflict the psychological damage of raising my voice in anger. Each time one of the boys is hurting the other and I react with the panic of a raised voice, I judge myself harshly. How can you teach kindness with anger? How can you teach calm, measured responses if you don’t model them?
And how effective are cage matches as a parenting technique?
For the daily successes and failures in all that I do, I force a bedtime shrug and recall a mantra that insists, “I honestly did the best I could, I’ve thought about what could be better, and I will try my best again tomorrow with this new knowledge.” That hope and promise applies to writing and parenting and cooking and running and marriage and friendship. Though zen is a state of mind 180-degrees from my normal state of being, I do actually believe that approaching everything with beginning mind opens up possibilities for acceptable, awareness, and joy.
Of course, it’s a ruse, because I prefer to stick with what I’m really good at: cultivating a festering depression born of the self-suggestion that I make the same mistakes every day. Since mediocrity is unacceptable, I roil in my shame and promise to work harder, work smarter, do better. Mostly as an exercise in roiling in shame, not because I actually plan to work harder, smarter, or better.
As I mentioned, totally un-Zen. Thank goodness I was born in a Western culture that digs perfectionism a tiny bit more than mindfulness.
Because my biggest failure lately is physical. Last night I left my beloved fencing academy knowing that I suck at fencing.
Oh, I have myriad excuses. When poor Spouse is foolish enough to get caught in a room with me after fencing, he hears about how few years, really, I’ve been practicing. Two years in college, a frightful amount of which was spend drilling not fencing. Perhaps three hundred hours of drills and three hundred hours of competition. Twenty years off for life, work, school, children. One full year back in earnest, practicing, training, and actively seeking bouts an average of once a week. One hundred hours of trying to stab and not be stabbed, perhaps, since I’ve been back.
Rank beginner by the numbers, I insist. Excusable levels of failure for one as new as I am, I pretend to believe. Four hundred hours of fencing really isn’t much.
Yes, I know how stupid that seems. Four hundred hours of anything and I should totally be an Olympian, right? What a loser.
“But, but, but,” I sputter, “practice begins at 7pm. Ends at 10pm. I’m exhausted all hours of the day, but being expected to have quick reaction times and good form at 10pm is ludicrous. It’s not possible. It’s everyone’s fault but mine!”
Often I spend most of the ride home plying myself with perspective, mostly to fend of the inevitable self-medication-by-desserts. “Buck up, self. You’ve been working as hard as you can, and you’ve shown marked improvement.” (That much is actually true. Some weeks I have a flashes of skill at this game that is often described as athletic chess. Teammates have watched and have cheered my successes, have noted to me that they see how quickly I’m improving. Shhhh. Don’t tell the perfectionist in the corner whose withering glare is making me eat another brownie.)
Sufficient progress eludes me. It’s not quick enough. I don’t want to be perfect…I want to be as good as I think I should be. Reasonable expectations, yo. The weeks where I surge precede, obviously and predictably, lengthy plateaus. Weeks, or recently months, of feeling as though I am not progressing. Not doing well enough. Not trying hard enough. Too slow and stupid and old for this sport.
A long, mournful ride home last night followed five bouts, each lost 5-0. For those keeping score at home, that’s 25-0. Pathetic beyond pathetic. It’s a new low. In 22 years of fencing I’ve never been this bad.
(Quick note from my pride: I did score several touches, but not when we were keeping score. We usually fence for ten to fifteen minutes before we finally say, “okay, let’s go to five.” Usually means one of us feels tired or thirsty or bored of the other fencer.)
(Do you like how, in a post about how I can’t bear knowing I’m bad at something, I have to adjust an admission of being terrible with a caveat that I’m not that terrible? Perfectionism is a disease, people. Inoculate your children now, if your physician allows it.)
So, with clarity of mind and resonant self-awareness born of a dreadful night of fencing failure, I decided I need a new sport.
The other fencers laughed, and we talked about how I would most likely approach baseball, hockey, tennis, and croquet by standing about lunge-distance from my opponent and trying to hit her with the bat, stick, racquet, or mallet.
Ha ha, we chuckled.
And I died a little inside.
Because we all knew I’d be bad at those sports, too.
I felt sorry for myself for being unathletic. Whimpered in the car about being terrible at every sport I’ve ever tried. Wallowed in the reality that I was a slow triathlete and a miserable fencer and a mediocre tennis player.
And after the self-pity waned, I knew that, as with all failure, I have two options. Learn. Or Quit.
I can work harder and smarter. I can make running and weight training a priority, incorporating plyometrics to get some of the speed and agility lost with age; I can pay for lessons; I can take better notes to process what is and isn’t working each week before and after class. I can better plan my weekly goal, which I generally formulate on the drive to the studio, and focus on it more clearly during the evening. I can add simple carbohydrates to the evening, strategically applying calories to the work of getting better.
Or I can quit.
For a perfectionist, there really aren’t many other choices. Just showing up as often as I can and pushing as hard as I can is not acceptable. There must be Lifetime-television-celebrated moments of triumph at least every half hour or so.
Achievement isn’t called do-your-best-ment. I either have to step up my game, or I have to give up.
Now. If you’ll excuse me, I have to go speak quietly and respectfully to my kids.