The Perfectionism Predicament

It’s me! On a ski slope in Utah.

The other day during a Peloton ride, the instructor said something that I have been turning over in my head since then. He was talking about how often we will do something, like say a Peloton workout, and be upset with ourselves if we don’t meet the challenge placed in front of us. He was encouraging riders to do their best for that day, but to know that some days you won’t achieve the goals and that is okay. Every day is different. Some days are harder. It’s okay to meet yourself where you are. Then he said, “Perfectionism is a disguise for insecurity.”

Whoa. I have struggled with the ugly beast of perfectionism most of my life. I’ve also battled insecurity. But it never occurred to me that the two might be linked, or at least I’ve never heard it expressed quite that way. It’s accurate, though. When you are feeling insecure about something, be it person or circumstance or item, you may feel a need to control it. Like my parents before me, I was raised to believe if you can’t do something well, you shouldn’t do it at all. I can’t attribute a number to the times I’ve walked away from opportunities because those opportunities meant I would have to be new to some place or some task or some one. Appearing “stupid” (a stand-in term for any number of different negative adjectives, like incompetent or pathetic) became my biggest fear.

Around the time my husband and I were first married, we went skiing with some friends for the day at a mountain known for more difficult terrain. Of the people in our group, I knew I was the least experienced skier. I was nervous about it. After our first run, I knew my fears were valid. If skiing expertise ranked from 1 (never tried) to 10 (world’s best), my husband and our friends were solid 8 skiers and I was maybe a 4. I struggled to keep up. At one point, we were at the top of an expert run and there was a tow rope to the top of the ridge. The group decided we would take it and ski a nearby bowl. I had never ridden a tow rope. I was terrified of them. I’d seen countless videos of people being dragged up the slope by one of those contraptions. I was not about to take one now for the first time in front of 7 other people I knew. No way. No how. I told them I’d meet them down in the lodge. The rest of the story got ugly for me. My friends tried to convince me. I rejected their arguments. Back and forth, we went. Until finally, completely exasperated, I had a meltdown on the slope. Raised voice, flailing arms, animated speech. The whole nine yards. The only thing I didn’t do was throw myself down and bang my clenched fists in the snow. It was a toddler tantrum. I basically told them, “You can’t boss me,” and took off down the slope in a big old drama queen flourish. You know what? That was when I realized that my fear of appearing stupid might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. I traded the potential to appear foolish if I didn’t navigate the tow rope correctly to the reality of appearing foolish by having a hissy fit on a mountain about a tow rope. Oy.

Off the top of my head, I can think of at least a dozen times when my insecurity about something drove me to embarrassing extremes and, sadly, some of them weren’t that long ago. So, I’m still working on this. I’m working not to worry so much about what other people think of me. I’m working to accept that good enough actually is good enough most of the time. I’m working to remember that even Michael Jordan probably missed his first shot. We’re human, and we do all have to start somewhere. And because there is no objectively perfect anything, no final destination, we really are pretty stupid for wasting our time trying to get there.

7 comments

  1. I began skiing with rope tows at age two and I have memories of being dragged at the end up into the sky and my dad saving me. Also, I was not able to get out of the chair lift at around age four and I’d go around the corner at the top. The lift operator stopped the chair lift and helped to me out without me falling into the big rope net. Not my best memories. I lived your fears.

    1. It had to be terrifying to go through that as a child. I wouldn’t have been terrified, just humiliated, but that fear of humiliation was enough to keep me from trying.

  2. I love the story of the way you embarrassed yourself to avoid embarrassing yourself.
    The idea that I’ve been driven to perfectionism (in selected areas) by my insecurity is a great eye-opener, and makes total sense. I’ve compounded that by choosing, for my goals, extra challenging things that small percentages of the population would attempt or conquer, like flying airplanes and playing guitar.

    Another great thing I heard recently was someone addressing sadness and other emotions, and describing how we’ve built a false expectation that we (or others) should always be happy or made so. In the simplest terms, she spoke of how we need to acknowledge and recognize and process these emotions. If we’re sad or depressed for a day or a period of time, we need to admit we’re sad or depressed, and not continually tell ourselves we need to make ourselves “get over it” and “feel better”. We’re programmed to do this to ourselves and others around us, constantly setting up a failure circle.

    Merry Christmas,

    Paz

    1. I’m good at embarrassing myself to avoid having someone else make me feel embarrassed. I’m a giver that way. I completely agree that we need to do a better job for ourselves (and others) around accepting where we are at and making room for sadness, grief, stress, anger, disappointment, fear, or whatever other “negative” emotion we are feeling. The beauty of being human is the range of emotions we get to experience. Rushing away from one as if it’s not acceptable is a zero-growth proposition. And Merry Christmas right back at you, friend!

  3. I so admire your openness and honesty. You and I are so much alike. I’m convinced more than ever that we were twins and somehow separated at birth….. except about a decade apart. LOL! I really identified with everything you wrote. I also read once that procrastination and perfectionism go hand in hand. Just curious Justine, if you’ve ever heard that?

    1. I have heard that. I’m not usually a procrastinator unless the task is making a phone call. As a die hard introvert, the phone is my nemesis. I avoid it like the plague. And I’m sorry that you read my post about perfectionism and identified because that’s a bummer, but I am glad you read my posts just the same and am happy to have such good company!

  4. I’m a procrastinator in the worst of ways. I even bought a book several years ago on procrastination but never read it because yes, you guessed it, I procrastinated. The book still sits on my shelf untouched. Sigh. 😦

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