Owning Perfectionism

Tyler McRobert

from Unsplash via Tyler McRobert

23 August 2016
11:11am

Sydney

T. –

I found an article with 31 days worth of “LifeHacks” to improve daily experiences. I got stuck on Day 3.

Day 3: Stop striving to achieve.

We all have a tendency to work too much, lose our balance, and, ultimately, our joy in life. It’s the unhealthy feeling that if we don’t do something productive every day, we’ve somehow failed. So allow your perfectionism to rest. Slow down, and know that life is okay the way it is, right at this minute. As you eliminate the need to strive and be perfect, surrender to the universe. You’ll begin to appreciate and focus on other, neglected, priorities that bring you joy.

It’s not the concept that stopped me. I completely agree with 95% of those observations. What gave me pause was the sentence: allow your perfectionism to rest.

If I take out that one sentence, the entirety of this paragraph applies to me. Which makes me think: doesn’t that actually mean that the entire thing applies to me as a whole, but that singular sentence is my blindspot, the thing I don’t want to look at?

I thought: I’m not a perfectionist. I don’t have perfectionism.

As I see it more clearly now, I thought wrong.

*

Perfect was a dirty word. I remember walking down Academic Row at Muhlenberg, speaking to my Philosophy advisor’s wife, who quoted “The good is the enemy of the great,” and even as I scribbled that paraphrased insight down into the back of my notebook, already thinking “yes, but the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

What is good gets done. What is perfect almost never appears.

*

I took the Myers Briggs personality test three times in college. Each time, I was an E/INFP (oscillating back and forth between E/I, but always sitting within 5% points of each other).

In 2012, I moved from P –> J.

At first, this was a shock to me. I don’t like the label “judging” (J). I resonate with perception (P). But I was also unclear about what constitutes the P/J split.

I’m still not clear on the technical delineations between them. But I know that every single piece of information I read about INFJs fits me like a glove.

“Beneath the quiet exterior, INFJs hold deep convictions about the weightier matters of life.”

“INFJs have a knack for fluency in language and facility in communication. In addition, nonverbal sensitivity enables the INFJ to know and be known by others intimately.”

“Their amazing ability to deduce the inner workings of the mind, will and emotions of others gives INFJs their reputation as prophets and seers. Unlike the confining, routinizing nature of introverted sensing, introverted intuition frees this type to act insightfully and spontaneously as unique solutions arise on an event by event basis.”

“INFJs place great importance on having things orderly and systematic in their outer world. They put a lot of energy into identifying the best system for getting things done, and constantly define and re-define the priorities in their lives. On the other hand, INFJs operate within themselves on an intuitive basis which is entirely spontaneous. They know things intuitively, without being able to pinpoint why, and without detailed knowledge of the subject at hand. They are usually right, and they usually know it. Consequently, INFJs put a tremendous amount of faith into their instincts and intuitions. This is something of a conflict between the inner and outer worlds, and may result in the INFJ not being as organized as other Judging types tend to be. Or we may see some signs of disarray in an otherwise orderly tendency, such as a consistently messy desk.”

I think this was one of my first flares of the internal-external conflict of processes and perfectionism.

*

During my PhD, I had this constant internal debate: I could be doing so much more.

I didn’t have a good structure, a good organisational system for doing work. I didn’t meet my deadlines. I didn’t practice the type of dedicated writing time I wish I had. I didn’t develop my arguments deeply. I spent the final few months sewing it all together like a fraying patchwork quilt with uneven measurements.

One of my best friends (S.) is doing her PhD right now, and I’m amazed at the amount of knowledge she possesses in her field. Last week, I told her: “You know so much more about your field than I knew about mine.” She said, “Yes, but I’m doing a research degree. Yours was a practical degree.” It doesn’t do anything to assuage the feeling that comes up: I could be doing so much more.

*

This is the blog post I’ve wanted to write for years. It’s in response to the way I’ve engaged with my undergraduate studies: which is to say, I’ve been detached. I’ve missed deadlines. I’ve stopped caring. I’ve neglected to push myself. I’ve reached for the comfortable conclusions, and have stopped short of the unique perspectives. I’ve dropped a few innovative thoughts in here and there like seasoning, but have never curated them fully enough to bring out the real complex flavours.

I’ve met my deadlines well enough. I’ve skated by.

This is in response to the way I felt during my PhD: this is not enough. This is not what I really want to say. I could be saying so much more, and it could be so much more meaningful. There could be so much more truth.

*

This blog post is an argument I have built up over years of having to defend myself to other people.

*

“You’re being too hard on yourself.”

I’m not.

I’m so not.

I’m so absolutely not.

In fact, it has often been the opposite: I haven’t pushed myself far enough. I have let myself get away with murder. I have procrastinated. I have sat on my hands. I have been lazy.

“That’s ridiculous: how can you be lazy when you do so many things? Surely now you’re definitely being hard on yourself.”

Sometimes the doing-of-so-many-things is a way to hedge my bets: To spread my investments in multiple areas so that I’m certain to see return. To prevent getting too attached or too involved. To allow my disparate skills to develop – because I’ve doubted that one area can hold my attention.

More accurately: I’ve doubted that one single area (or job, or role, or circumstance) can hold me – and all of the elements I comprise.

Recently, I’m finding myself proven more and more wrong. But that’s a recent development. And it does little-to-nothing to retrain the decades of muscle memory that tell me: I cannot do justice to my complexities by staying within the boundaries of one single field of focus.

“Maybe you feel like you’re lazy because you’re not focused (i.e. because you do so many things).”

False.

I am always focused.

I am hyper-focused on at least seven levels of awareness simultaneously. What I’m often not is: challenged. When I feel hemmed in, or fenced in, or boxed into a single scenario, I get bored from the lack of challenge. My muscles are not utilised. They atrophy. I get lazy.

“You need to give yourself a break.”

I don’t know what I need. I think I need to slow down, definitely. I think I need to dive deeper. I think I need to be honest with myself about what I need to focus on in order to feel fully challenged, alive, and utilised. I think I need to spend more time with people who ask me questions like: “Are you challenged? What are your zones of genius, and how can we put you there? Do you feel utilised? Let me tell you how I see you adding value…”

I think I need to stop always filling the space. To stop always filling the time. To stop always trying to achieve. Growth for growth’s sake is cancer.

“You have a PhD. Clearly you’re very accomplished.”

I have a PhD because other people deemed my work good enough to graduate with a degree. I have accomplished the task of fulfilling other people’s criteria.

I didn’t graduate with a poetry collection completely ready for publication. I have spent 12+ months deconstructing and sewing together a new collection that I’m happy to publish as my first book.

Just because I’m happy doesn’t mean I’m satisfied.

There is so much more I have to give, so much more I have to do, so much more I have to be. I use “have” here as a verb of possession, not an imperative. I don’t have to do anything. But I possess contributions, and I feel discouraged when I hold back from offering them fully.

“You do so much already. How can you take on more?”

I think this is the crux of my internal dialogue right now.

*

The more I’m describing is not a measure of volume. It’s a measure of quality.

My investments of energy have a high rate of return in my life right now. But I know the levels I’m investing are not sustainable. And I know they’re stretching me thin. So much of this is in response to my father’s comment when I was nine: “I know you like singing, and now you’re playing the flute and the guitar. At some point, you’re just going to have to pick one. You can’t do it all.”

Even remembering this statement, a throw-away comment, brings up so much resistance in me.

I stopped working last year in order to pursue the possibility of professional performance. I picked up consulting roles because I wanted to hone my strategic contributions. I’ve taken on a directing role because I can no longer listen to a soundtrack without following the visions in my head for how to make it manifest. I am still writing, while working, because there are too many things I can’t keep myself from saying.

There is this impulse to create, to build, to hone, to develop, to learn, to explore. All of this is different than growth for growth’s sake.

*

I think where things get slippery is in starting to recognise that this is a type of perfectionism. It’s not Type A vs Type B personality classifications (because I am a card-carrying Type B).

I got onto the train and told all of this to S. I said, “It’s crazy, right? I mean, I’m not a perfectionist.”

She said nothing.

“Right?” I pressed. “It’s ridiculous.”

She said nothing.

I know this type of silence. I sigh.

“Okay.” [pause for brain reconfiguring]. “Am I a perfectionist?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Right.” I said. Meaning: fuck.

*

The insights from S. made a lot of sense.

Speed is a type of perfectionism. When you see something wrong, you want to address it as soon as possible. It’s not just about problem-solving, either. It’s also about when you see an opportunity arising. It’s a perfectionism of process. This is how quickly your processing and reflection happens. You want to get it done as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Speed. Speed speaks to me. I get that. I want to go deep, and I want to go deep fast.

This is also true of any kind of communicating, with other people, or just with yourself. That’s more about efficiency than speed. You have a focus and an eye for accuracy. You want to skip past all the stupid stuff at the beginning in order to get to the good stuff.

Dear B.,

I’m laughing at myself on the inside for writing this letter. Well, not really laughing so much as possibly cringing — but let’s pretend it’s amusement for all intents and purposes.

I have this thing (besides a running count of how many paragraphs I begin with “I”)… I have this thing about friendships. For me, they have never fully landed (or settled, or rooted, or cemented) until both parties can reflect on their friendship from a meta-level. Why are we friends? When did we become friends? When was the first moment you really know that I knew you? The questions vary. It can be as simple as reflecting  where the two people met each other. Or as complex as your survey question: what is my role in your life? What am I to you?

Typically, these meta-friendship origin story analysis moments crop up randomly. Often, when enough time has passed to look backwards. When certain comfort levels have been reached. (“You know when I knew we were friends? When we drank wine out of plastic cups on that bus trip.” “Really? For me, it happened much later than that. I guess I was your friend before you were mine.” –> true story. This happened. I find these origin story inequalities hilariously honest.)

This means, in most instances, the  friendship has to unfold to this moment. That takes time. Which completely pisses me off.

There’s a site called The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, which has an entry for the word “adronitis”:

“Adronitis. (n.) frustration with how long it takes to get to know someone — spending the first few weeks chatting in their psychological entryway, with each subsequent conversation like entering a different anteroom, each a little closer to the center of the house — wishing instead that you could start there and work your way out, exchanging your deepest secrets first, before easy into casualness, until you’ve built up enough mystery of the years to ask them where they’re from, and what they do for a living.”

True letter from April this year.

*

In the span of 6 weeks between February and March, I met four men who I desperately wanted to become close friends with. Each of them challenged me, each of them felt resonant in a different way. I loved them as soon as I met them. And I spent a large majority of that time period over-analysing everything I said to them. Not wanting to jump too far ahead of myself, not wanting to scare them off, or appear to be too intense. It was a difficult holding-back from saying: “It’s fine. I know we’re best friends. Can we just agree to that destination, and then go through the process of getting there?”

In that same time period, I met with a close friend from Circling for an early morning breakfast meeting. I shared these feelings with him. I’ve probably told this anecdote in so many ways, to so many people, in so many contexts. But it’s going to stick in my personal history as one of the most impactful moments of my life. He listened, patiently, to all of my excitement over these connections, and all of my fears that they would leave, that they would find me “too much,” that they would — at a basic level — be scared off. By everything.

He said: “You are asking for intense relationships. You ask for that, because that’s exactly what you want. You don’t want anything less than that. So why do you presume that they want anything less than that either?”

“You can’t be too intense for people who appreciate that kind of intensity. So stop being afraid that you are.”

*

I’ve gotten more insight out of that conversation than just cementing those friendships (for the record, 3/4 of those connections are now my best friends in Australia). I also started to reflect on the apologetic nature of being “too much” in other areas: work, life, relationships, writing, ambition, skills, ideas, questions, philosophising.

I stopped over-analysing my conversations with people. When I felt the conversation going off-track, and I felt myself holding back, I trained myself to take at least a 5 minute hiatus. And then return to the conversation, saying “What I really mean to say is…”

Cut through the bullshit. Cut through the toe-ing around. Just find a way to say what you deeply, deeply mean.

I wrote a unreasonably deep cover letter (to a job I didn’t ultimately get) that finally described the core of who I am as a worker, as a creative, as a rational thinker.

I learned to stop molding myself around other people’s expectations. I learned to lead with what I know my deepest skills are. I learned to describe them more coherently to other people.

I learned to stop worrying about being “too much” and to stop the constant pressurised refrain of “not enough” underscoring all of my actions.

I’m learning, instead, to build frameworks and goalposts that are perfectly tailored to me. Not based on any external — or even internal — expectations. But based on a day-by-day process of becoming. Adaptable to what I want to build, to how I want to push myself, and what new areas I want to explore.

I am not “allowing [my] perfectionism to rest.” But I am also not barrelling through growth just for the sake of it.

I am slowing down. I am learning not to fill all of the free space with “achievements.” I am learning to say no to things instead, to allow that free space to open up.

And the things I say yes to — those become the fuel and the burning desire that propels everything else (mindfully, reflectively, gracefully) onward.

More soon. There is still fire in this topic for me.

M

 

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