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Perfectionism: The Gift and The Disease

Updated: Nov 3, 2022

As a high performing athlete, my entire life was geared around the incessant perfecting, refining and critiquing of my athletic skills. I was constantly molding myself into what I THOUGHT would be a better, more improved version of myself (primarily the athlete version of myself). While I was almost daily getting stronger or better in the physical sense, I was simultaneously allowing perfectionism to spread through all parts of my life like an infectious disease. It wasn't long before I was paralyzed by this illness. I found myself continually procrastinating even on small tasks because even small tasks, if they must be done perfectly, can be quite daunting. Upon finding the motivation to start a task, I would often restart entire processes or projects when they didn't meet my standard. Perfectionism eventually consumed all areas of my life.

While actively competing as an athlete, I seemed to have managed “well enough” with perfectionistic tendencies. At least, reflecting back, I think I managed ok. Today, despite recognizing that I achieved most of the goals I set for myself as an athlete, it’s difficult for me not to wonder if my perfectionism may have held me back more than it actually helped me, even in an environment where elite performance (i.e. perfection) was considered more of a rule than an exception.

One of the beliefs I now hold regarding how I managed with perfectionism for as long as I did, is that, as a student-athlete, holding oneself to an almost unattainable standard, seems to have been an unspoken part of the job description. A common fear I think, for many athletes, is that if at any point we stop striving daily to become essentially "perfect" in both our athletic and academic performances, we WILL be left behind, whether by our own teammates or our competitors. Perfectionism, in this way, seemed to come with the territory of being an elite athlete, but soon after ending my athletic career, I realized that perfectionism did not at all come with the territory of real life; instead, perfectionism made it difficult for me to even function. I’ll never forget the day I realized that the very thing that once made me great, ultimately posed the biggest challenge to me living a normal life.

One thing I learned during my transition away from athletics was that, in the real world, things take time. Feedback and gratification aren't often delivered as quickly or even as clearly as the result of taking a swing and ending up with a home run, a strike out or something in-between. There are also no practice runs in the real world. The stakes tend to be higher, and the final score is more than just a W or an L in the win/loss column. Granted, things like W's and L's can dictate an athlete's livelihood and can certainly come with real life consequences at the professional level (and I don't want to be insensitive to that). For me, however, the pressure I experienced as an athlete and a perfectionist was self-induced, and, as I look back, somewhat illogical. It was a result of what later on in life created compulsions, ruminations, and anxieties.

So how, you may be wondering, did I reroute my cycle of perfectionism? The answer is, I haven't, at least not fully. Much like the beginning statement of members attending an AA meeting, I consider myself daily to be a recovering perfectionist. My kids would probably be surprised to hear me describe myself as perfectionistic, because for as long as I have known them, I've worked so hard to keep my unrealistic standards in check.

I accept the fact that our house isn't going to be clean all the time, that my kids might go to school with crazy hair some days, and that our car can look more like a dine in movie theater after the show than a transportation vehicle. While it has been difficult to embrace the little moments in life while work still needs to be done or while something is sticking out like an eye-sore, I find myself also feeling grateful that I have been able to experience the art of slowing down to enjoy things just as they are.

Today, I can, for the sake of my family, leave dirty dishes to head out for an impromptu swim or walk. I can wait one more day or one more hour to do that load of laundry that feels like it should have been done yesterday. I can help get kids ready for school and not even realize they are touting "just rolled out of bed hair," until they're walking into the school building. While before I would have beat myself up in any of these instances for "not being a better parent," today I have learned just to smile and file away the sweet memory of, for example, my kiddo's cuteness with their crazy hair. The more I recover, the more internal-satisfaction I have for simply letting things be, even when others on the outside may not see the effort that it took for me to accept my own humanness, I know how hard I fought myself to get here.

Life has gone from daunting and paralyzing to free, easy, and enjoyable just as it comes. I continue striving, not for perfection nor for a complete lack of standards, but a healthy balance of the two. This sweet spot, I've learned, has been the key in finding mine and my family's version of "good enough," taking comfort in flexibility rather than control, and enjoying our family's co-creation of something, unique, special and good - not perfect.

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