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January 29, 2008

Perfectionism is like constant PMS

PMS and deadlines have almost the same effect on me: Make me not want to get up from bed, bite everyone and generally out-do myself in general unpleasantness. The closer I am to a deadline, the more morose I feel and the more I delay starting on a project/piece. Here I see colleagues vomiting words by the second and there I am S.T.U.C.K. trying to get the perfect opening line. I will sit, stew, write, delete, rewrite, write something else (!) and even completely change the introduction/ opening paragraph – with 1800 words more to go – umpteen number of times before I can get a lead on it. It has been known to give ulcers to many an editor, especially if the cover story has been mine, the magazine has to go to bed on Monday evening and even late Sunday night, I am waiting for inspiration. Strangely enough though, two hours from the you-have-to-email-it-instantly diktat, there is a little DING! in my head and everything that had hitherto not made any sense, falls into place.

It has nothing to do with not being able to do the job or not being able to deliver it on time. It has everything to do with my absolute inability or morbid fear of giving in a shoddy piece, or a badly prepared dish or a half-baked cake (I bake, the company’s called “Eat Cake”). In other words a fear of me being second best or average or one-of-the-many. I am told it’s called being a Perfectionist: Someone who wants everything perfect or wants to do everything perfectly. For a long time I had thought it was supposed to be a good thing: Why would you want to do something in half measures? Now am being told – Google search reveals all – that perhaps it’s not that nice and how “perfectionism” leads to self-critical depression, ruined relationships, eating disorders and suicidal thinking. Brilliant! Reading the archives on this blog shows that I've gone through the entire bloody gamut on cyberspace. All because I was trying to be the best I could be, which in other words is perfect… (It also means that each time I read any health article, I find myself displaying all the bloody symptoms!)

Yet perhaps I am not the only one. Was reading Bluecoffeemug’s post on wanting success so bad he can’t sleep and realized he displays perfectionist traits too. I scored 74 % on the Are you a perfectionist quiz (much prefer such quizzes to what-fruit-are-you-quizzes) and the only question I hesitated answering was, “Did your parents have unrealistic expectations of you?”

If I go back way into my childhood, my trying to be the best goes back to age 9, class 4 and this girl called Suparna Chatterjee who ALWAYS came first. My parents were not the type to make life hell for a child, but I hated the fact that they praised Suparna even a little and just because she bloody beat me to the first position. Mom pushed me to study harder, I took it all very personally and somewhere the child brain decided that I was not good enough. It was also the year my Math phobia started and has lasted an entire lifetime. I was regularly made to stand outside class by this dragon of a woman (who looked like a toothpick) called Mridula Ratnam. MISS Ratnam, since it was a convent school. Even today, I forget basic tables in blind panic and am a regular laughing stock at the grocery store for my inability to calculate how much change I am supposed to get back. Perfectionism is also the reason I am paying a whole lot of tax because I refuse to have a chartered accountant do my tax sheets for me. I HAVE to be able to do it else… I will go on losing more money than I earn to the bloody government. It’s stupid but I am helpless.

Another fall-out of the perfectionist streak that started in childhood is my need for constant approval. As a kid I would make my family sit through poetry rehearsals, dance steps, origami lessons and re-enact entire plays BEFORE the final performance… Now it’s my partner who has to sit through blog posts and articles. Earlier on in my career, my editors (grateful to them) were made to read each paragraph of a progressing story before I delivered the final copy. Even today, it’s a guaranteed sour mood for a day if someone close (not random anonymous commentators) points out a better article on a subject that I’ve written on. Like yesterday it was a stupidly triumphant me who pointed out to Partner how the blogger he reads had used a picture I had ALREADY used on one of my blog posts. Silly, juvenile thing to do, but I realized it after I sent him the link and he replied with, “Baby, I agree, that woman is a bloody plagiarist.” I felt silly and small… Not because he was laughing at me, but because secretly I knew I was comparing myself to another person he read! But I’ve needed the approval for so long that it will take some time to break out of the habit. (This blog has helped hugely…)

My father pointed it out too, “Papu, since childhood you have needed approval from everyone, but as you grow, you won’t get it from everyone and people will use it against you. STOP being a perfectionist. Others have faults too, you can’t throw away things and people because they aren’t your idea of perfect and because you don’t consider yourself good enough or perfect either.” Of course we had a huge fight after that statement. Today though… I understand (still won’t tell him though).

I learned how to cook, bake, glass paint, embroider, fix electrical appliances, took up lipsticks, gave up lipsticks, ride a motorbike, lost weight, put on weight; and much more because I NEEDED to be the best for whoever was in my life then… The flip side? My levels of expectations rose: If I wanted to be everything, the other bloody well be everything for me. And walked out when I started feeling inadequate or was compared to etc. It wasn’t the only reason, but very honestly, it was a strong one. If someone made me feel inadequate – “I wish you had longer legs”, “Why can’t you keep the house cleaner?” “Why do you have opinions on everything?” “Why don’t you understand music?” “You suck at numbers, don’t you?” “Why do you have such a loud laugh?” “When you wink when laughing, it looks ugly” – I would throw myself into the activity, in becoming perfect, come out tops (or drop the activity!) and then walk out on the person. Before the walking out though, life would be constant hell because I was constantly comparing and finding myself short of my own expectations.

My first trip to a beach was nearly a disaster because I was paranoid… I didn’t know how to swim (was worried that there’d be women doing swan dives and shit), had never stepped into the sea and wasn’t too sure if I wouldn’t look stupid in a bikini (well, a girl likes to look good for her man especially when there are other naked girls around). Thankfully – and I will always be grateful – Partner was the perfect foil for my constant-need-for-approval. I have said before that I HATE looking stupid before people I don’t know (with those you love you really cannot pretend for long!)… Yet I was fine learning how to doggy-paddle on my first trip into the Indian Ocean, even though I swallowed more seawater than anyone in history. Because I was not made to feel inadequate… It was the most perfect holiday for me ever.

For all of you who are perhaps a bit like me: Comparing yourself to others, thinking you need to be the best at everything you do (or not do it), spoil a party because you don’t think you’re looking nice, delay deadlines because it’s not the ‘perfect piece’, refuse to ask for the price/pay you deserve because you are not certain about yourself, get palpitations because your friends are buying a big car while you can only afford a Nano… Please STOP. We cannot be everything, not me, not you. And neither can someone or something else be everything for us. Often when we are chasing Being Perfect, we lose out on other things around us. I am slowly learning to give it up, I know it will take time.

Like quitting cigarettes, because you see, I AM a perfectionist! As NY Times says, “The burden of perfectionist expectations is all too familiar to anyone who has struggled to kick a bad habit. Break down just once — have one smoke, one single drink — and at best it’s a “slip.” At worst it’s a relapse, and more often it’s a fall off the wagon: failure. And if you’ve already fallen, well, may as well pour yourself two or three more. This is why experts have long debated the wisdom of insisting on abstinence as necessary in treating substance abuse. Most rehab clinics are based on this principle: Either you’re clean or you’re not; there’s no safe level of use. This approach has unquestionably worked for millions of addicts, but if the studies of perfectionists are any guide it has undermined the efforts of many others.”

Perhaps I shall take Crimson’s advice and do the quit-slowly thing. (Or am I just being a perfectionist scaredy-poo, cold-turkey or nothing?)

PS: Another deadline, blog-effectively delayed. Hrmph.


avijit bakshi said...

Guess who...ha ha ha...
Anyway according to moi, there's nothing wrong with being a perfectionist. Be so by all means but on your own terms not on the world's (which means not what the media or your peers or your school tells you /expects is best. Rather set your own standards after evaluation of what is best for you, does it suit your personality? Your idea of happiness?) There is no single measure of the perfect thing, excepty the measure in your head, so each one's measure is going to be different. Take my measure for instance. I think you are amazing, you bake cook write think fight and do your own taxes, halleluja! (Beat that Suparna...ha ha ha..!)

The only trick to enjoy being a perfectionist or whateveritionist is to enjoy the journey to the goal as well as the achieving goal. Enjoy / experience your achievments AND embarrassments for what they are worth at that moment. Sounds like a trite cliche? It always will so long as you don't try it.

Take care

Eve* aka JBo said...

thanks Avi...with the current silence goin on here, was wondering if am blabberin in a foreing tongue or something...and leave a pic or whatever in that "join community" box will ya!

Crimson Feet said...

My kangaroo buddy seems to be a good man! ... the effect is conspicuous and positive.

and now... this wasn't blabbering at all.. to me its one of the more sensible posts that you have written..


PS. i repeat.. slow quitting is possible and its real... so you can do it..

the mad momma said...

oh wait a second.. i thought you were writing about me. I hate making a fool of myself in public... i dont like people laughing at me, i cant take a joke or criticism and i struggle to perfect things so that no one can say a word..

Akash said...

Good blog !

I too was (or still am !) victim of perfectionism syndrom. This addiction helps you win some but makes you loose some too. So why to work so hard to get a balanced sheet at the end :)

Abhi said...

Was away for some time and then I read this awesome post. And if you need any tips on quitting smoking, just ask. I have a lot of experience quitting the damned habit ;). Guess there are some issues that are plain human, and not driven by the gender externals ;).

That was a good one :). Keep writing.

Geetha said...

This is a beautiful post..just love the way u follow thru ur thoughts and can still express urself clearly.
I am also going thru this syndrome but never really put a name to my behaviour until i read this pattern and found myslef nodding and thinking - yes there is a bit of me in this post.
The worst side effect of this syndrome is that i cannot enjoy myself doing certain things when my mind thinks i am just mediocre at what i am doing,I should be doing better and such inadequacies.
I can write something and say..this is no good ,there are a millions of others who can do this better.I can play a music instrument and think the tone can be better and so on.
It prevents me from enjoying many things i do.

Eve* aka jb said...

Hi Geetha! Just read your comment and completely agree that when I find myself lacking in something -- however imaginary that lack might be -- it does get tough doing that thing or enjoying it. But guess we both need to give ourselves a break, dont you think? Welcome to the blog!