graduate school, sober lifestyle

Perfectionism

The professors made it clear: Even though they’re given a 1-to-5 scale to evaluate student performance in each semester of DelVal’s Counseling Psychology grad program, getting a 3 is the actual goal. That rating is labeled “Adequate” on the official form, but it means you’re A-OK. You’re on the right track, exactly where you need to be.

In fact, if an instructor wants to give you anything higher (better) or lower (worse), they’re required to include additional comments that explain why.

If that sounds fair, reasonable, acceptable…I envy your level-headed perspective.

I’ve spent my whole life chasing 5’s, and telling me I’m “Adequate” sets off short-circuits in my head.

I cooled down a little when my Theories professor — who is basically my idol — marked 4’s in three of the eight possible categories (one was “Written Expression”…go figure! 🤷🏼‍♀️) And at the bottom of the evaluation sheet, where it asks for strengths and weaknesses, she wrote one of the least-critical criticisms I’ve ever seen:

That’s good, right? (4 technically equals “Very Good” on the DelVal scale.) And yet, I squirmed with embarrassment when I sat across from her on Tuesday at the end of our last class and listened to her read the glowing report. My brain immediately spun off into this uber-annoying routine it performs every time it receives any kind of positive feedback.

As I nodded and smiled under my COVID mask, trying to at least act normal, my decidedly abnormal brain urged me to interject with some of its usual self-deprecating bullshit.

It said:

“She’s just being nice.”

“You don’t deserve this.

“Quick! Poor-mouth yourself and end this awful anxiety!”

I fought the urge to smack myself upside the head. After 43 years, I think I’ve finally reached my breaking point with this toxic perfectionism. I’ve let it rule my life for too long, just coasting on autopilot, because as a Type-A, firstborn achiever with anxiety issues, it’s “all I know.”

Well, thanks to 29 months of recovery and therapy, and one full semester of grad school, I finally know better. It’s time to do better.


Early in my sobriety, I heard someone describe the alcoholic as “an egomaniac with an inferiority complex,” and while I could relate, I didn’t fully grasp what that meant.

I’ve since realized: It’s the definition of perfectionism!

I have this ingrained belief that I “should” be perfect, but I know deep down that I’m not and never will be, and that devastating realization compels me to cower in shame in the face of a compliment. It’s like I feel guilty acknowledging that I’m good, because nothing but perfect is “good enough.”

I hold myself to impossible standards, then beat myself up for falling short.

It’s completely ridiculous, and yet it absolutely makes sense.

As the eldest child in a small, loving family that celebrated my brains, brawn and precocious personality — as loving families have been known to do — I grew up believing that I was supposed to be extraordinary in everything I did. If I wasn’t racking up flawless report cards and academic and athletic awards, eliciting effusive praise from my elders, and just generally standing out from the crowd, I was failing. I wasn’t worth anything if I wasn’t winning everything.

Cue the old story where my mom asked how my day was at school, and because it was a normal day, I reported it as a bad one. 😳

Sadly, I got stuck there. I turned to substances and processes to self-soothe the pain of chronic imperfection — the pain of being human — and spent more than two decades in a state of inertia.

Perfectionism is such a MF-er because it achieves the exact opposite of what it purportedly stands for. You can’t be all things to all people, so you end up destroying — or never even finding out — what you really are. You hold yourself back from reaching your unique potential as a human being because you can’t stomach the limits of your humanity.

When you think about it, perfectionism is a copout. It’s like “taking your ball and going home” because your ego can’t handle the inevitable “win some, lose some” of life.

At some point, you’ve got to either grow up or you’ll waste away. You’ve got to accept your place in the human race, own your role, and get busy doing whatever you can to make a positive contribution to the team. Embrace your gifts, and work on those “areas of improvement,” but for God’s sake, stop taking yourself so damn seriously!!


Since I got sober, everything in my life has pointed me toward acceptance and balance, compassion and service…and as the AA literature explicitly puts it, “progress, not perfection.”

Yes, even though I’m finally on the path toward a purposeful life, feeling a passion for learning and growth that I didn’t know was possible, and breaking free from the trap of alcohol dependence, I still battle with a brain that says, “but you’ve gained weight,” and “but it’s so hard for you to find a job,” and “but you don’t know all the right answers,” and “but you might fail at some of these new things you’re trying…” 🤯

It’s still hard for me to accept being “Adequate” at anything, or even “Very Good,” despite the fact I’m leaps and bounds better off than I was in my addiction. It’s hard to acknowledge my strengths when I can always, always be so much better. It’s hard to look at myself and say, “This/you are enough.”

Of course, growing into a complete, authentic, adult person is not supposed to be easy. And when you’ve been living on autopilot for so long, wallowing in counterproductive perfectionist patterns that keep you stuck and contribute nothing to the world, if “Adequate” means being awake, aware, open and willing to work toward change, you really should take that 3 (or 4 😉) and say “THANK YOU.”

2 thoughts on “Perfectionism”

  1. Thanks, Jen. I know what you mean about perfectionism.

    My old sponsor was good at pointing out how self destructive I could be with that. He used to say, ” if you drew four aces and one deuce in your poker hand you would see the deuce as a failure!” His take on it was that it was just my lopsided ego again. That I had a double standard for me (God), and the common people ( the rest of the world). In other words, if someone else got a 4 as a grade I would slap them on the back and congratulate them on a job well done. But if I got a 4 as a grade I would criticize myself and feel like a failure.

    Lopsided ego. Double standard.

    On the other hand, I could use my high expectations to motivate myself to be my best, and accepting my best as “THE BEST” because it is. A good use of my perfectionism.

    To further help me see that perfectionism isn’t always a bad thing, he pointed out that I would like my surgeon to be a perfectionist, wouldn’t I? And my attorney?

    So he helped me to live with it. Turns out, it’s all in how I use it.

    He sure was a helpful old drunk and I miss him often.

    Thanks for posting, Jen. You’ve refreshed my memory again!

    Peace.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jen- I think this was your best post so far! Your growth is evident and seeing you accept that growth is a big step in the right direction in my humble opinion. You are enough and seeing you recognize that makes me happy despite only knowing you basically through your blogs. I wish you continued success in your journey. 🤗

    Liked by 1 person

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