Perfect is the enemy of good, says the post-it on my computer, reminding me to let go of my obsession with perfectionism. While perfectionism has its obvious benefits, namely, striving to do a good job, writer Elizabeth Gilbert strips perfectionism off its romantic disguise to its naked, ugly truth:
Perfectionism is just fear in high heels and a mink coat trying to be funny.
This is a harder truth to swallow. For me, at least. I have been raised to excel. Nothing less than a 90 (the equivalent of an A) was good enough for my parents, but the expectation was closer to a 95 and the highest grade in class, without any help. I don’t recall a single occasion in which my parents sat down with me to help me with my homework, or prepare me for a test. My parents were intellectuals and busy people (who incidentally I never saw read). It was on me to figure it out and bring home the
good excellent grades.
Praise was scarce because in my European upbringing, my father believed that too much praise would make my head explode with arrogance. He couldn’t afford to raise a cocky (“beképzelt”) child, especially not a daughter. Conversely, he often liked to remind me of how bad my English was when I was eight (and how much better was my brother’s) when my plays in English began to gain recognition from other sources, like the Hungarian Culture Centre in London. Instead of reading my award-winning play “Someplace Else,” he took the copy I had given him as a gift to a translator and asked to know if I was any good.
Despite being acutely aware of how my parents’ unrealistic expectations of me have impacted my studying and writing, letting go of perfectionism is still a challenge. The inexorable abuse I inflict upon myself with each rejection, a grade that is less than an A+ is worse than anything my parents could ever say to me. In my last semester at university I wrote a paper on “The Price of Perfectionism” for my psychology course, outlining the harmful effects of perfectionism on mental health and well-being. As an experiment, I challenged myself to apply only 80% of my usual perfectionist efforts to the course and see where it got me – hoping for nothing less than an A+ of course.
As a mature student, my daughters saw me get up at 5am to polish assignments and study for exams before preparing their breakfast and packing their lunches. They heard me speak to myself “strange Italian incantations” on the weekends. Neither of them ever needed a push to finish their homework on time, or a nudge to study for high school entry exams. Suddenly two alarm clocks went off early in the morning: mine and my eleven year old daughter’s.
Months later when I received the rejection email from the school Celeste had applied to I was reminded of how my own mother informed me of a rejection from a prestigious Arts school in Tel Aviv. “You didn’t get in,” she said matter-of-factly before making a paper ball out of the letter and throwing it into the bin. She said nothing more but her face said it all. I wanted to make sure my daughter saw a different face when I broke the news to her.
I sat beside her, hugged her and made her a hot chocolate. I told her I couldn’t have been prouder of her for studying so hard, on her own. I told her that disappointments were part of life and training for them was necessary. I told her how not everything in life was fair and that something better was waiting around the corner. She seemed to appreciate my words but immediately went on her computer to polish her letter to another highschool. “I must get in mum. Or I’m setting up a shop in the garage like Steve Jobs,” she said while crying.
We don’t have a garage. But fortunately Celeste did get into her chosen school.
“Mum, will you be mad at us if we brought home a B?” My daughters asked me over dinner.
“A bee?” I was confused.
“Pas une abeille,” they clarified. “Une B. Tu sais. La note.” They referred to that abstract concept that was foreign to them in their alternative school.
“No.” I declared somewhat heroically, while secretly feeling the sting of that B in my gut. I would never forgive myself a B.
“That’s not what papa said. He said we’d have to discuss it.” The word ‘discuss’ was a synonym for trouble.
“We would have to discuss it,” I said. “But in a constructive way. We would need to understand what you don’t understand, and how we could help you understand it better.”
I went on to talk about my first semester at university when I got a B+ on my first literature course because I didn’t know how to write an academic essay. I told them about the hard work I invested in learning how to write one by submitting earlier drafts to my professor who was kind enough to give me constructive comments. I talked about growth mindset and a love for learning that is about continuous development through dedication and commitment. I admitted that my graduation “with great distinction” wouldn’t have been possible without those first B-s as stepping stones. I explained the difference between intrinsic motivation that is about performing an activity for its inherent pleasure or challenge, versus extrinsic motivation that is focused on external rewards or pressures. “Be curious,” I told them, “and you’ll do great.”
I was quite impressed with my little pep talk. But did I believe it? For my daughters, I did. My daughters were allowed to ‘fail,’ but was I? I realized that these are the words I had wished to hear from my parents; a reassurance that their love for me wasn’t conditional; that I was enough; that I was even good, and that they had my back. The forty-five year old in me was still that child, seeking my parents approval – a hole that would never be filled, unless I learned to fill it myself.
A few days ago Celeste came home with her first official grade. It wasn’t a B. It was an E! I found myself short of breath. She laughed and said, “don’t worry mum. Everybody got an E, except one person.” I was secretly thinking, and why wasn’t that person you? “It was only a practice and it won’t count towards my final grade. And I did what you said. I went over it and studied my mistakes. Now I know what to do.”
Slowly, a breath entered my body. She was my daughter after all, only so much smarter.