Tuesday, May 03, 2016

In which I discuss perfectionism

So there's this thing that happened to me between high school and now.  In high school I got good marks without much effort.  It's not that I didn't study, I just didn't study much, and was a pretty solid 80's student.  Imagine where I would have been with some effort.

So then I went back to school in my 50's, and I was a little surprised to find that any mark below A irritated me beyond belief.  I'm studying - I work hard.  I could work harder, but I work harder at school than I ever have.  I seem to have an "all or nothing" attitude - if I don't get A's, then it feels like I'm failing.  Last semester I got an A- in a psych course which ruined my perfect 4.0 GPA and while I would like to say I laughed at myself over it, I wasn't laughing on the inside.  I was filled with a crushing certainty that I was, once again, Not Good Enough.

This semester has been frustrating for me, because I cannot seem to get an A on anything in one of my English classes.  Although as soon as I type that, I remember that my partner and I got an A on our presentation but somehow I'm not counting that.  First essay, A-.  Mid-term, A-.  So I've been pretty sure I'm getting an A- in that class and my GPA will go down ever further and that has bothered me so much it's not even reasonable.

My other English class was going great.  There were only two essays and a final.  A on the first essay, glowing comments from my favourite prof - all was lovely.  And then the final exam happened, and the second half of the exam had a creative element - and I am Very Bad at creativity on demand.  There were three options to choose from - I spent the better part of 40 minutes in a two hour exam on false starts, finally picked the least horrible option with 20 minutes to spare, and wrote like the wind.  Brutal brutal brutal - I was sick to my stomach, and then I handed in my exam, and got my second paper back - and I'd gotten a B.

I can't even begin to explain how bad I felt.  I sat in my van and cried for an hour.  I considered quitting university.  And underneath all that I knew I was over-reacting in a spectacular fashion but I could not solve it.  I cried myself to sleep.

Luckily, if you believe in luck, I had an appointment with the psychologist the very next day.  I asked her for help.  I told I hated being this way ("That's encouraging", she said) and she asked a few questions trying to help my subconscious brain work out what false connections I might be making.

I'm learning, through this therapy journey, to listen hard to the inside talk.  When the answer finally came, I burst out crying again and refused to say it out loud for several minutes, but when I finally had enough nerve, I said this out loud:

"It won't matter that I am so ugly if I am smart, and a B is not smart."

And then I cried harder than I've cried in many many months, coughing choking gasping for air crying.

But once I'd said it out loud, a beautiful, beautiful thing happened.  I heard all the lies in that statement.  The first lie:  I am not surpassingly ugly, and I never have been.  I'm average, just like a really high percentage of the rest of us.  The second lie:  There are only two things to be that matter, pretty or smart.

I didn't make these lies up myself.  It's a culture-wide, internalized lie.  A high percentage of the time, we compliment our children on their good performances in school, or on their looks.  What about compassion or kindness or the ability to empathize, or a good sense of humour, or being a good sport or a good friend or trustworthy or hardworking or easy going or dedicated or a bazillion other things I could mention?

I don't think I've solved this yet, even though the B no longer embarrasses me,  I wanted to write it down so I'll remember that there are many attributes to value.  If I stop and think about what I value most, what I pursue most, when the marks-obsessed perfectionist isn't winning, it's kindness.

So I give up on a 4.0, or a 3.95, officially, publicly.  Officially, publicly, kindness is moving to the top of my list.  I will strive to be kind.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This. Yes. It was the hardest part of being unemployed back when I lived with you. But, if I'm not smart... What do I have?