NLDline

Perfectionism

from Growing Up With NLD

by Deborah Green

I sat at my computer screen, squeezing back tears of despair as I stared at the blank screen. At that moment, the yearly Madrigal feast was in full swing. Patrons feasted royally on fine cuisine, served by costumed maids and knights. Meanwhile, a chamber choir strolled about
the room, singing old English carols and folk songs. I had been looking forward to the event for months, and tears trickled down my face as I stared at my unused ticket, wishing that I could have gone. But I knew that my first duty was to my work, and I refused to allow myself any fun until my work was done.

The assignment was to write a ten-page research paper. I had written many five-page papers over the years, but the thought of doubling that length panicked me. Even though everyone told me to just think of the paper as two smaller papers put together, I still felt overwhelmed.

I had worked myself into such a panic that I couldn't write a word.  Every night, I would stare at the computer screen, waiting for something to happen. I sacrificed all of my free time to work on this paper. And, finally, I sacrificed my chance to go to the Madrigal Feast.
To add insult to injury, it turned out to be a wasted evening. I only wrote one paragraph during five hours of anguished thinking. But I was determined to maintain the high standards that I had set for myself, no matter how unrealistic those standards were.

My relationship with perfectionism started early. By the time I was two years old, I knew that things were harder for me than they were for most people, and became self-conscious about my abilities. My Mom tells me that I would usually refuse to try new activities at first, but then, when I thought I was alone, would practice the skills indefinitely. Even at that age, I was a determined child. When things were hard for me, I just gritted my teeth and worked harder.

As I encountered more failure than success, my level of courage dropped. When something was difficult for me, I simply refused to try it without a tremendous amount of external encouragement and praise. Once I started to work on something, my internal motivation returned, and I would continue working on the task until it was done to my satisfaction.
I knew that my parents and teachers wanted me to succeed, and rather than chance doing something wrong, I wanted their reassurance that everything would go right. I needed to draw on their belief that I would be successful. If I didn't get that encouragement when trying new tasks, I withdrew and turned to familiar things that brought me comfort. Even
at the age of four, I was already a perfectionist, and already determined to succeed, no matter what the cost.

My parents and teachers encouraged this trait by having high expectations for me. If I refused to try something, I was lazy. If I did poor work, I was scolded and sent to my room to redo the assignment.  Even after I was diagnosed with learning disabilities, the pressure
continued. And as I grew older, I internalized these demands. I always felt as if I was falling short of everyone's expectations for me, and put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to be as perfect as I could.

Hard work and dedication meant nothing to me. I had to win the "A," the award, the superior rating during musical festivals. In drama, I had to win the leading role. And, of course, I failed far more often than I succeeded. And this eroded my fragile self-confidence even more.

My need to be perfect made me chronically anxious. I felt that I had to do well in school, that I had to qualify for the gifted program, that I had to be the best at whatever I did. And, ironically, this perfectionism made me far less capable than I could have been otherwise.
I was so afraid of falling short of people's expectations that the tension impaired my skills, blocking me from exploring the true range of my possible talents. I spent so much time trying to figure out what people wanted and how to give it to them that I lost all sense of self, and became little more than an anxious windup doll, going through the motions of life.

Because of my perfectionism, I was brutally tough on myself. If I brought home a report card with six A's and one B, I would spend weeks feeling like a failure because of the one B. My main goal in high school was to make a 4.0 average during at least one semester, but no matter how hard I worked, I was never able to achieve that goal. And I felt like a failure because I couldn't live up to my own standards.

I wanted to be one of the popular girls in school, and was devastated when I never had a single date, let alone the glorious reception at Homecoming Court that I dreamed about having. I dreamed about starring in school plays, but never even got a minor part. I
dreamed about being in the school musical, but was eliminated at tryouts. Because I was so hard on myself, these setbacks demolished my self-esteem. Every time that I fell short of my goals, I told myself "I'm a failure. I never do anything right. Why do I even bother trying?"
My failures seemed far more relevant to me than my successes.

Just as I could overlook my six A's in favor of one B, I could overlook everything else that I did well. I never gave myself credit for managing the school plays. Instead, I chided myself for not performing in them. I never congratulated myself for staying away from drugs and
alcohol. Instead, I resented myself for not being cool enough to hang out with the party crowd. If anyone praised me, I thought, "Well-they're not very smart." I believed anything negative instantly, but felt that positive comments were the result of either manipulation or stupidity.

I was terribly anxious all the time, and poured all my energies into acting the part of the "good little girl." My personality could have come straight out of a Girl Scout manual. I sat obediently during lectures, gave presents to my teachers, and studied hard. I was polite
and sweet, and would go out of my way to do favors for other people. I was afraid to let anything negative show. I was afraid of losing love and respect if I complained and let my emotions hang out like an oversized T-shirt. So I sat in my little corner, and worked myself into the ground to meet the standards that I had set for myself.

When I got to college, this perfectionism continued, especially regarding my grades and friendships. I found that people I considered my friends were not really my friends. They put up with me because I went overboard trying to be a perfect friend to them. I used to buy my
friends little presents and treat them to cheap meals at restaurants.  When they had problems, I would listen to their sob stories for hours.  Finally, when they treated me badly, I forgave them absolutely and welcomed them back with open arms.

My obvious dependency and need to buy friendship alienated most people. As soon as I needed support, these so-called friends disappeared. Once, in my senior year of college, I asked one friend why she just came in to borrow my stuff, and never really talked to me. And she replied "All you think about is yourself. You're no fun to be around." When she said this, all I could think about were the hours I had spent consoling her for the loss of her boyfriend.

Another time, after spending weeks organizing a dorm event, I asked my "best friend" to come down for five minutes to see what I had done.  And she told me that she was too busy doing homework, and she wouldn't be able to make it.  A third so-called friend didn't bother to come to my graduation party because she wanted to go out with her boyfriend on Friday night, instead of postponing her date to Saturday night.

Still, I accepted these pseudo friendships because I had never known anything better. At some level, I knew that real friends didn't treat each other that way, but I was so busy acting like a perfect friend that I never had a chance to unveil myself and find people who would like me and respect me for what I was.

By the time I entered my senior year of college, I was a nervous wreck. Not only was I trying to maintain all of my usual high standards, I was writing my senior thesis, studying for the Graduate Record Exams, practicing for my piano proficiency exam, and sending out job
applications in case I didn't get into graduate school. I used to go to the counseling office every week, and just rant and rave about the amount of stress in my life.

The counselor kept urging me to drop something, and I would burst into tears and say, "I can't. I have to apply for graduate school, and I have to pass my piano proficiency exam. And I have to look for jobs.  There's nothing I can drop." Because I was so upset and so intense, nothing got done. I became immobilized by my own perfection.

My mental paralysis especially affected my piano lessons. I couldn't concentrate on any of my pieces, and my playing was woefully inadequate. I was so nervous that I couldn't remember the fingering for any of the scales, and since this was a requirement for proficiency, my teacher spent my entire lesson time drilling me on the scales. She got
very frustrated with me, saying that other people had been through the same thing, and they hadn't fallen apart. But I couldn't concentrate. I couldn't even function.

Looking back on it, I realize that I made the situation far worse than it actually was. There was certainly more work and more pressure than I was accustomed to, but I could have handled it if I had broken up the work into smaller goals. But I was blinded by the fear of losing control. I felt like a juggler with too many balls in the air, but my perfectionism demanded that I keep them all circulating. As I spent my days and nights tied in tense knots, I knew that I couldn't let any of the balls drop. I knew that I couldn't let anyone else see that I couldn't control my life.

I continued to put the same kind of pressure on myself throughout graduate school. All of my work and all of my hobbies were tainted by my constant and unreasonable demands. I didn't take chances because I was afraid of failure. I refused to act silly and play games because I didn't want to lose control. I had to remain dignified and serious at all times and at any cost.

Then, at the age of twenty-three, I started to study voice with a wonderful teacher named Carol Holt. When I first started to take lessons with her, I wasn't a very good singer. I was so determined to sound like a star that I had no idea how to sing naturally or freely.  When Carol first heard me, she wanted me to mush all my notes together, do silly gestures, and make silly sounds. Every time that she asked me to do something like that, I cringed and hesitated. I was afraid of being spontaneous. And I was afraid to move in front of other
people. Carol spent a lot of time trying to counteract my fears, encouraging me and praising me for trying new things. 

I was a very serious voice student, and got upset with myself when I came in unprepared. Even though it took me hours, I made sure that I knew every single note and rhythm of my piece before I stepped into the room. Even so, I made a lot of vocal mistakes, and beat myself up over each and every one. When it took me a while to get a concept or to do
something new, tears filled my eyes as I told myself "I'm never going to get this. I'm just too stupid to learn how to sing."

When I spoke to Carol about this, she explained to me that singing is very much about being in the body, and that it was hard for some people to feel comfortable in their bodies. She explained that she had also had a hard time feeling comfortable with the physical aspects of singing, and had gradually learned to feel more connected to her body through doing physical activities that she enjoyed like Yoga and walking. And she assured me that someday I would find something that allowed meto become more comfortable with the physical aspects of myself.

Meanwhile, she continued to encourage me as I traveled on my journey.  Despite Carol's praise, I refused to believe that anything was going well with my singing. If she said that something was wrong, I took it as gospel truth, and moped about it for weeks. When she praised me, I discounted her words as a futile attempt to make me feel better about myself. Carol noticed how hard I was on myself, and tried to counteract my perfectionistic tendencies.

During my fourth lesson, she asked me, "Do you know that you're really hard on yourself?"
I plaintively replied, "I had to be hard on myself. If I hadn't been hard on myself, I never would have learned anything at all."  And she smiled and said, "And now you're succeeding. And now you're a successful adult."

Carol made me focus on the positive, and also made me focus on one thing at a time. I would walk into my lesson and she would say "All that we're going to work on today is taking a good breath. Nothing else matters." So I'd sing, and she'd say "Great! Now what did that feel like?" And I'd reply "I did the vowel sound all wrong." Instead of noticing that I took
a good breath, all I could see is what went wrong.

Carol called this the "Yes, but syndrome." She said that she would ask me something, and I'd give her a totally unrelated answer. It took a long time, but Carol got me to focus on one thing at a time. And that was an important step for me. Instead of saying, "I have to be perfect," I could say, "My goal for today is to keep the sound forward. Nothing else matters." And gradually, by concentrating on smaller steps, I became better at reaching larger goals.
To rebuild my shattered self-esteem, Carol also gave me a lot of general encouragement and support. Once, when I came in with some ornaments I'd written for an Italian piece, she showered me with praise, telling me that I had a real gift for this kind of writing, and that my ornaments were both tasteful and stylistic.

When I felt intimidated by an advanced voice class, but stuck with the class, Carol praised me for having the courage and determination not to quit.  When I was afraid to audition for a choir, Carol told me "Look-they're looking for good people and you have a good voice. Just remind yourself that they want to take people like you, and you'll be fine." Using Carol's advice, I was able to keep calm enough to pass the audition and get into the choir.

Under Carol's tutelage, I became more willing to do silly things like dance around the room or make ghost sounds. And, for the first time in my life, I was able to relax and just have fun instead of trying to live up to impossible standards.

Today, I make sure that I have a chance to play as well as to work.  If I can do something fun, I grab the opportunity. I don't worry so much about how I appear to other people. I do what feels right, and if people don't like it, that's their problem.  Because I'm not paralyzed with fear or trying to please other people, I simply live my life and let my real self assert itself. This willing surrender of control has given me tremendous freedom in both my
music and my life. I explore many different styles without worrying about hitting a clunker or doing something to offend someone. And as I've grown more comfortable with myself, I've found real friends who support me and care about me. Sometimes they tease me about my quirks, but they like me because I'm me, and not because I'm acting the part of a
perfectly controlled person all the time.

For me, the most important step in overcoming perfectionism was concentrating on one step at a time. Small goals are far more attainable than perfection, and I developed self-confidence when I met my goals, instead of continually falling short of impossible standards. High standards are a wonderful thing to have, but perfectionism is destructive. It's important to have balance in life. It's important to be silly as well as serious and to play as well as work. Without the pressure of perfectionism, real excellence can rise to the surface,
allowing success, self-confidence, and happiness to flourish.

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