mental health

Toss the Red Pen

To err is human.”

~Alexander Pope

Everyone with a perfectionist streak can pinpoint the exact point in their life where the habit burrowed into their brain. Sometimes it showed up early, developing from demanding parental figures. Other times it makes a later appearance, courtesy of managers or co-workers with an inability to compromise. As fear of disappointing someone (to say nothing of the repercussions) sets in, you learn to hold a microscope – much easier to spot flaws with than a magnifying glass – up to your work and life and pick up the specks of error before they go out into the world. Because mistakes? They’re not tolerated.

Where did your need for perfection begin?

I fall into that first group. The eldest child, I got to serve as the “example” for my siblings (don’t you love when parents trot that phrase out?). Throw in a natural aptitude in school systems ill-prepared to handle above average intelligence, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Adults LOVE success. I suppose you can’t blame them, but when they see it, they expect the pattern to stick. One straight-A report card sets precedence. Before you know it, you hear, “If you get a B, we’re sending you to Siberia.” And, intelligent or not, a child brain can’t process the empty threat behind the words. All you hear is the implied disappointment. And a perfectionist is born.

The first time I DID see a B on an assignment? I ended up in a full meltdown. Where I knew kids in my class tore up and hid D or F papers, I contemplated the same with something the average family wouldn’t bat an eye over. All I could see was a monumental mistake, though. My world came crashing down. Everything – my dreams, my hopes, my plans – ended. All because I fumbled too many answers on an advanced math quiz (setting up my hatred for the discipline for years to come). It never even occurred to me that I was working on skills two years ahead of my age. I screwed up, and I needed to go home and pack my bags for a nebulous destination on the other side of the world. (Incidentally, my math skills didn’t extend to the fact that one B couldn’t tank my average score)

And this defeatist attitude followed me to adulthood.

Mistakes equaled abysmal failure. Naturally, I fought tooth and nail to avoid making a mistake in the first place. That meant driving everyone around me up the wall. Why did I need to spend an extra ten minutes on something? No one wanted to take a trip to the library to check a reference for a paper. (Yes, yes – I attended college before Google took off) What idiot stays up until 1:00 AM triple-checking a PowerPoint presentation for consistency? Even worse, when I spotted something I missed, I felt an uncontrollable need to point the error out – to EVERYONE. As if the people in the audience gave two shits about a misplaced bullet point. I stored up the rolled eyes, snickering, and “are you kidding me?” expressions as evidence of my failure.

Since a kid, I’ve chased the concept of perfect, deciding that a lack of mistakes meant success. And, tied with it, I’ve frozen my brain with the fear of destroying everything by tripping up over inconsequential tidbits. It’s something I KNOW other people cope with. You wind yourself up over every big assignment. And when you send an email to your boss (or an editor or a prospective employer), noticing at the last second that you spelled something wrong? You feel a mountain fall on your head. You’re positive the universe paints it in neon, flashing lights. And, of course, the person’s going to laugh, share it with the rest of the world, and turn you down.

Because that’s how mistakes work.

Except – as I’ve started figuring out – they don’t. If they DID, no one would succeed. How many books, newspapers, or magazines do you read with errors? Editors miss things all the time. People type slower than their brains work. And the more you work on something, pushing your mind and body past the point of exhaustion, the greater the odds you’ll fail to notice a mistake sliding into your work. But you still have a job, right? You still earn your paycheck. Clients still approach you. Because THEY don’t pay attention to the minutiae you obsess over!

Courtesy of other people hammering the lesson into ME, I’ve been working to break this need for perfection. And while it requires gritting my teeth, breaking a sweat, and enduring the shakes, I’ve allowed myself to MAKE mistakes. (Not berating myself about them is taking more work, but it’s also part of the process) For instance, I write both of my blogs stream-of-conscience. While I plan the topics ahead of time, I don’t write, review, and edit them ahead of time. So if they come out sloppy, with weird errors, so be it. I need to calm down the shrieking in the back of my head that tells me I sound like an incoherent moron, but it’s the best exercise I’ve done. It FORCES me to allow mistakes into my life.

And the Apocalypse hasn’t happened. (Go figure)

I’m ruthless about my work. I review, and review, and review everything – determined to please my clients. And I do a solid job. I also exhaust myself in the process. And if they notice something that needs tweaking? I go into a full-blown panic. That ISN’T how a person’s meant to behave. It tells me I still have PLENTY of work to do on breaking this habit. People make mistakes – and then they move on. You can fix boo-boos without a problem. Everyone does. So why should I hold myself to a higher standard?

If you find yourself in the same anxiety loop because you misspelled a word, you know what I’m talking about. And you need to get to work on a similar exercise. Find something you can do that might lead you down the road toward a mistake. (I don’t mean deliberately make a mistake, but leave the door open) And if you see one? Let it be. You can fix it, if someone asks you to. But if they don’t? Hey, guess what? You don’t need to pack your bags for Siberia. Who knows? Eventually, we might even approach something close to normal with our thinking.

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