Perfectionism. The sneery big sister of procrastination, it is the curse of my life. It undermines everything I think and stifles every dream of mine at birth. We have a long and toxic relationship, perfectionism and I. We have been locked in battle since I was tiny.
When I was a kid, I didn’t think perfectionism was that bad. Sometimes she was actually my friend. I would strive and slave over something and the brief flicker of triumph I felt when it approached my unattainably high standards was, I thought, what satisfaction felt like. The litter of half-started or unfinished projects rustling around my ankles was studiously ignored. As I waded through them to reach my desk and start work on another cherished idea, I thought only of how happy perfectionism would be when this time, finally, I got down on paper what was glowing in my head. But she never was happy, and after a while neither was I. Going back to an incomplete task began to feel like a struggle; having to face my shortcomings on the page, not knowing how to address them. I began to stay away.
As I got older, the pain of constantly failing began to take its toll and I started to think ‘why bother?’ Because perfectionism doesn’t like success. Perfectionism is a recipe for failure, the great excuse to do nothing. When you know in advance that you can’t achieve what you want, why bother even trying? Why bother to start? The pain is too much, the pain of trying something once, not being perfect at it and having to confront your utter worthlessness. Much better not even to start but just to stew quietly over everything you could have done, if only you’d had the chance/been given the opportunity/had all the breaks that that guy had. And of course, the more time you spend doing nothing, the more time you have to think about how crap you will be at anything you care to try, so y’know…why bother.
Perfectionism is evil. It engenders nothing but negativity in the mind of the sufferer: other people’s hard won victories are to be envied, while your own successes are invisible and worthless because they are not perfect. You cannot learn, as a perfectionist, because you never understand that failure is GOOD. It has taken me over twenty years to grasp the concept that failure is necessary to progress, twenty years in which I have thrown away opportunities, cowered away from things I wanted and stifled myself in every conceivable way.
What does this have to do with Mother’s Day? Well, I was always a perfectionist kid with massively high stress levels, but when my mum killed herself it sealed those corrosive habits right in. Her death at her own hand was an eloquent abutment to the belief, carefully nurtured by her over the fourteen years of my life, that I could do anything. Perfectionism, enemy of progress and lover of stagnation, whispered in my ear ‘Why even try? You will end up here sooner or later. Your mum tried, and tried and tried. She didn’t succeed and now she’s dead. Don’t even try. Be kind to yourself.” At a time when I needed kindness so badly, the voice was seductive and I gave in.
Now I have my own kids. They have just this minute brought me the most awesome mother’s day card, by the way, and a lovely present too:
Do I care that what they do isn’t perfect? No. I love them for it. I see them learning every day through their mistakes and grapplings. I respect them for it, the same as I respect my husband for sitting down to finish a drawing or a bit of music whether or not he feels it’s started off sufficiently well. I encourage my children to try and keep trying when they don’t at first succeed. If ever there was a time to embrace my failures, surely it’s now.
So up yours, perfectionism. From now I pledge to embrace halfarsedness. I pledge to write that blog post I thought of earlier, rather than obsess over the detail before it’s even begun. Reader, I pledge to give you sloppy work and badly formed sentences on the page rather than that elusive perfectly formed sentence in my head. Hell, there might even be a spelling mistake in there sometimes.
Failure is my new benchmark for success.