From a former perfectionist: How I learned to chill (kind of)
After my essay on the week I spent in a teen psych ward at thirteen came out this week, I've been thinking about the eating disorder that controlled my teenaged years. I picked up my copy of ""<gaining>: the truth about life after eating disorders", of which I had read one chapter a few years ago after an impulsive bookstore buy. As someone who has survived an eating disorder, I am, of course, interested in life after eating disorders, like my own. But when it was time to read--at the end of the day and/or in bed--I rarely wanted to turn to something as depressing as reliving my anorexia. But, with publishing my essay, my mind traveled back to my own recovery and I dug the book out from my TBR pile.
In "<gaining>," Aimee Liu writes about "The Laws of Perfection." She tells of a study that showed that there were certain common characteristics among those with eating disorders: ambitious/high-achieving, getting good grades/doing well in school, anxious, does not take risks - fear of failure, prone to depression, rule-abiding, and, above all, being a perfectionist. I am most of those things, with a noted difference or two. But I used to be all of them, particularly a perfectionist.
From the time I was young, my parents expected a lot of me and I expected a lot of myself. They were very encouraging and let me try pretty much anything I wanted to--horseback riding, piano, hockey. They were present at every competition/game and recital/performance. I always wanted to do my best for them, to prove my worth. I was certainly always high-achieving and ambitious. I've wanted to write books since I was seven (my first comes out in September). I did well throughout school. When I was young, I was shy, anxious, and awkward and certainly let fear of failure hold me back. My first year in college, I applied to work on the school's lit mag and to be in the school's annual poetry festival. Both were competitive and I did not get either that first year. Instead of dusting myself off and trying again, I took these rejections to mean I was a complete failure and not any good at this writing thing. I never reapplied.
Even in my twenties, I let the most minor mistakes derail me, the slightest critique send me into tears. I'm not saying that doesn't still hapen occasionally (it does), but I've developed a much thicker skin and (mostly) learned to accept that perfection just isn't attainable or realistic. I've learned to take each rejection in stride and use it to inspire me to try again. One of my short stories has been rejeccted 28 times; I'm still trying. Every time it gets rejected, I go back and try to make it a little better. I think I've done the best I can do. I know it will eventually find its audience and place in the world.
A former boss once told me, "Perfectionism is the enemy of the good." Meaning, stop obsessing over every minute detail, trying to make it perfect, and get that shit done already. It took this to heart.
While I am meticulous and do try my best with every piece I write, every thing I do, I've learned to let go of my obsession with making everything perfect. I know it never will be. There's always something you could improve and reading my published pieces, I often notice something I should have changed or could have done better. I've got to just move on and try harder next time.
Admitting my faults and limitations has freed me to acknowledge I am far from perfect; I make mistakes most days. But that doesn't (often) paralyze me with doubt and fear and the belief that I'm not good enough anymore. If it did I'd never get anything done. I've learned to let things go, even if that's not always easy. Sometimes I need to remind myself something doesn't matter, to just try again. I don't always listen to myself.
I credit the Bennington Writing Seminars with getting me into the habit of just writing without letting fear of failure hold me back, to keep moving forward rather than looking back at what I could have done better and letting it stop me in my tracks. I'm trying my best, I frequently have to remind myself.
So, though I do try my hardest to make every story, article, poem as close to perfect as it can be, I'm a long way from perfect and I'm doing my best to accept that. I don't consider myself a 'perfectionist' anymore. I do take risks, aim high, try the hard things. These days, I'm not shy, and in fact am rather bold, though I still struggle with anxiety. I no longer starve myself, trying to look a certain way, to not need or want anything. I'm no longer as obsessed with trying to be perfect and constantly failing, as I was as an anorexic thirteen-year-old. I try to set more realistic goals. I've learned to quiet that voice of doubt and worthlessness. I'm doing my best.