I really didn’t need a book or a quiz or a podcast to tell me that I’m a perfectionist. I’ve known that my whole life. My grades had to be perfect. My life had to be neatly planned and any disruption to that plan sent me spiraling. Home improvement projects that people gush over haunt me because I know where that piece of tile is cracked, I know where the floor was scratched, I know where to find bubbles in the polyurethane finish. When I can’t do something well, I just want to quit, freezing into a catatonic state until I figure out how to make it work.
I knew all of that about me, and then I started digging into the Enneagram.
I know, I know. Not everyone is a fan of personality typing and some think that it’s a bunch of voodoo that the rest of us get sucked into because it gives us excuses for who and what we are.
But when the world feels like it is falling apart around you, it really does help to have tools to help us better understand how we specifically function in our world.
I’ve always sought to be the very best at everything, and that has been especially true in my teaching career. My first three years teaching I was at a very small school where I taught all four grade levels of English. I had to come up with lesson plans and units for four grade levels, grade the homework for four grade levels, and I was still learning how to be a teacher. I would see the innovation of friends at other schools and wonder how in the world they ever came up with those incredible lesson plans. It ate away at my confidence. I knew I was doing my very best, but my best was clearly not good enough.
Then at my next teaching position, I found myself in a much less stressful classroom situation but was quickly pulled into the theatre program. I was a young 20-something with minimal theatre experience leading a program with the expectation of growth. I demanded perfection of myself and my students. I cringed with mistakes that only I knew about. That pursuit of perfection on the stage often led to periods when I let things go in my classroom. Even worse, when I let things go with my marriage as I pushed for bigger and better with my students.
Then we moved again and I pursued perfection in grad school because it felt like everything else was falling apart around me. Our fixer-upper was literally falling apart. I was pregnant and super hormonal. I was lonely and depressed and A’s on papers about Mark Twain and composition theory kept me going. I found a new classroom and pushed my students to the limit, a limit that paid off in the end but took a considerable amount of sacrifice on the road to that perfection.
And after the end of a teaching position at a fourth school now, the burden of perfectionism weighs heavily on me.
I’m not the only teacher or mother or person who has felt that burden over the last year of a global pandemic, when everything we ever knew about how to function in our jobs and lives was turned upside down and suddenly we had to find a whole new way of doing things, all while knowing that the end result was going to be far from perfect.
I’m not the only teacher or mother or person who has felt the crushing disappointment of seeing our friends and neighbors and coworkers not meet our high expectations for behavior and care for others. Ones on the Enneagram see a clear right and wrong and expect other people to do their part. It’s just how we see the world, and yet the last year has challenged that perspective over and over again as we’ve begged others to do the right thing, not just for themselves but for all of us.
And when the very thing that you’ve spent years pouring your heart and soul into comes to a sudden end, it takes your breath away.
In The Road Back to You, Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile write that “unhealthy ones fixate on small imperfections. These Ones are obsessed with micromanaging what they can. Asserting control over something or someone is their only relief.”
For the last couple months, I’ve found myself doing just that. The loss of a clear routine left me spinning and checklists overwhelmed me. I’ve never been good at relaxing and instead of being still, I found meaningless tasks to keep me busy. I spent time on things that didn’t really matter but at the time seemed like small wins. I continued to ignore the things I had always let go of (like the state of my messy house) because the feeling of failure made even cleaning and organizing feel like something I couldn’t get right, so why try?
I felt like I had done my best but had still failed. I felt like I had stood up for what was right but it didn’t matter. I felt like I had sought justice but I was standing alone.
I had followed my conscience and my life had been turned upside down. My justice-seeking perfectionist kept smacking down my solution-seeking peacemaker wing. I didn’t just feel like I was in conflict with my imploding world; I was in conflict with myself.
I’ve had to grapple with the fact that perfectionism is a lonely space. A space where you know you should ask for help, where you shouldn’t go it alone, but something keeps telling you that to ask for help is to accept failure.
Throughout my life, my perfectionism has been one of my greatest assets and my biggest enemy. It has made me the person that I am, preparing me for the blows but making those blows so much harder to take.
Someday I will be able to once again embrace a healthy state of perfectionism, one which forgives people for the ways they have failed me and others, one that holds onto principles but is patient with stragglers as we slowly make the world a better place.
Until then, I’m just trying to maintain enough self-awareness to get me from one task to the next.
And maybe finally tackle the mess on my desk.