“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there someday.” – Winnie the Pooh
As I was writing the last post, I was already planning the triumphant “Well, I Did It!” post. The poignant, humble and reflective-without-sounding-overly-accomplished words I assumed I would write would accompany my nervous walk across the stage, as I proudly wore my funny hat and rented graduation robe, and a hood so unnecessarily complicated that we joked that we deserved an additional graduate certificate for having figured out how to display it properly. My last post was easy to write. I hadn’t actually graduated yet, so it was easy to believe that by the time I did, I would still be content to answer “I don’t know” to the most popular question I’ve been asked in the last six months: “So what’s next?”
Graduation came and went over a week ago. I didn’t write the “I Did It” post then, and I’m not going to write it today. It’s not that I don’t want to celebrate my accomplishment, although for those who know me, you know that doing so doesn’t come naturally. I didn’t write that post for the same reason I don’t do a lot of things; I was convinced that whatever I said had to succinctly but eloquently sum up the past twenty-two months of my graduate experience, be both witty and reflective and serve as a meaningful lesson to my future self and others, all in 4 paragraphs or less. In other words, it had to be perfect. When I couldn’t figure out how to make it perfect, I couldn’t even begin to write it.
I’ve been thinking a lot about perfectionism throughout this journey, and decided to write about it today after reading a post by Vanessa Cogshall on Tiny Buddha that describes the debilitating mental effects of perfectionism with extreme precision. Ms. Cogshall describes herself as a “recovering perfectionist,” a label I hope to wear someday but cannot apply today with any honesty. I’ve hidden behind perfectionism for as long as I can remember. Many people assume that perfectionism comes from strict and demanding parents, but mine seemed to be part of my innate structure, like chromosomes and blood cells. When I was very young, my parents actually worked hard to relieve the immense pressure I put on myself by assuring me that they were proud of my A-s and B+s, and that it was okay to make mistakes when I was practicing piano, as long as I was enjoying the music. This would work temporarily, but only until the next goal – and the next potential for failure – became apparent.
I’ve kept this internal pressure at the boiling point for the past twenty-nine years, and I’ve told myself that it’s the reason I’ve been able to accomplish things like getting a Masters degree while working full-time, but the truth is that being a perfectionist is exhausting, unhealthy and unsustainable. As proud as I am of the things I’ve done this year, I can point to so many things I want to do that I haven’t even started, simply because I might have to settle for a end result that is “good enough” instead of “perfect.” When I find myself incapable of making that choice, I miss the opportunity completely and end up with nothing to show for the mental anguish I’ve caused myself.
Allowing myself to feel truly satisfied with where I am and who I am in this moment, and to practice staying in that moment, is more important now than any of the “next steps” that traditionally follow a graduation. I expect this journey will be much harder than the one I just completed, but I hope to find it even more rewarding.