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.