#14: On Perfectionism

#14: On Perfectionism

I am, for the most part, a perfectionist.  I hate to make mistakes.  I don’t like to do something unless I am sure I can do it well, or that I, at least, won’t embarrass myself.  This can be a paralyzing trait and I often have to fight against it.

While watching the Olympics this summer, I had a few new revelations on perfectionism.  One was that I realized it was time to come to terms with the fact that my chances of making the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team are pretty darn slim, although the seven -year-old in me still holds on to the dream.   The second was that I realized even Olympic athletes sometimes make mistakes.  For some reason this was an astonishing revelation to me.  As I found myself gasping whenever a gymnast stepped outside the line or fell off the beam or missed the vault, a part of me wondered, “How can they make mistakes?  They are highly trained Olympic athletes.  That shouldn’t happen to them.” The other part of me realized, “Even highly trained Olympic athletes are human and are prone to make mistakes sometimes.”  I found this thought highly comforting.

I have to constantly remember that I am human and I will make mistakes.  In fact, we are all human and we will all make mistakes.  I have no trouble telling my students this and believing it for them.  I say it all the time, “It’s OK to make mistakes.  That’s how we learn.  If you don’t make the attempt, you will never improve.  Learning is a process.”  I truly believe this for everyone except for myself.  Why?  Why is it so hard to be forgiving of and encouraging to ourselves?

I don’t know.

But what I am finally learning is that my life is much richer when I challenge myself, while giving myself permission to fail.  I put this into practice a few years ago, when I started taking painting classes.  The teacher had warned me ahead of time that the first class was going to be difficult, but that I should just let myself play and trust the process.  I did listen to her, but it took a lot of inner dialogue.  My first painting was not so much the masterpiece I had envisioned, but I did get paint on paper and was able to explore and learn and to even have fun.

I continued to take classes and something else enlightening happened.  At the end of each painting class, the teacher would have everyone turn their painting toward the circle and then she would go around to each one and pick out the parts of our paintings that we did well.  The first time this happened, I was terrified, but it quickly became one of my favorite parts of the class.  What a wonderful thing to focus on what I did right, even if it was small.  Even if the majority of what I did was awful – what a joy to realize that I did something right.  Woo Hoo!!!

This concept has changed my teaching.  When grading an essay, I make a point to highlight something the student did well.  I and I love to watch their faces light up as they realize that they are capable of doing something well.  I am learning to do the same with myself when trying something new.  What a great thing to focus on the positives, instead of the negatives.  I don’t always succeed in doing this, but I am improving and life is a lot more interesting because of it.

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