The Lies of Perfectionism
I have been a perfectionist for as long as I can remember. I always wanted to geteverything right and make everyone happy. In school, my parents actually reached a point where they could not handle anymore of my straight A’s. It’s not that they minded the report card with the A’s lined up in a nice little row, and I am sure that they enjoyed driving around with the bumper sticker that read “My child is an honor student.” What they did not enjoy was my constant crying and fretting over grades.
My tearful mantra became, “I just know I am going to fail.” (Translation: “I am not going to get an A.”) In college, my parents finally told me, “Jenni, we want you to relax more. We want you to have more fun. We would actually be happy if you made a C next semester instead of another 4.00.”
I Needed to Be the Best
It wasn’t as simple as trying to relax about my grades—my perfectionism was well rounded. Throughout school, I had to be involved in every extracurricular activity available—from honor societies, athletics, choirs, bands, to volunteer and leadership organizations. And I didn’t want to be merely involved. I wanted to be—I needed to be—the best. I was in the varsity show choir and in the top band. I was on the “A” volleyball team. The “B” team just wouldn’t do.
Yet I learned that even when you are in the top show choir, sometimes you still miss a word in a song. And sometimes in a volleyball game, you don’t get the ball over the net. You can’t always be perfect. But as long as I was thin, it didn’t really matter. Being thin was my safety net. It was what I fell back on when I failed at anything else.
In dance class, at four-years-old, I worried about my size compared to the other girls. I wanted to be the best little girl in the room. As I grew older, I came to believe that the one thing in my life that could be perfect was my size. When I wasn’t perfect at something in my life, I always said, “At least I am thin.” Even though other people could control certain aspects of my life, no one could tell me what to eat and how much to weigh. A college professor could put a difficult question on a test, but she could not force me to eat dinner.
But there was nothing perfect about my thinking or my size. I had an eating disorder and I believed its message. I held onto the idea that even if I failed at everything else, I could be the perfect size. I stuffed all the feelings I associated with failure deep inside and said to myself, “At least I am thin.” I stayed trapped in a disease of misery. Of course, those unexpressed feelings only led me deeper into the depths of the eating disorder that almost destroyed my life.
Finally, I decided to fight my way through my eating disorder. To overcome it, I had to first stare my perfectionism in the face. I had to let go of my safety net. Today when I do less than perfect at something, I cannot use the eating disorder to make myself feel better. Today if I miss a word when I am singing, I have to face the fact that I actually messed up, that I am simply less than perfect. I am learning to experience the feelings and move on, rather than be tortured by my fear and shame.
Today I am grateful to be on the other side of my eating disorder and am living an amazing life, a life filled with A’s and B’s and C’s, and even the occasional F. I am told that it is all about the learning, not about the grades, and that when we learn from failure, it becomes a success.
Am I completely over my perfectionism?
No. But no one’s perfect.
By Jenni Schaefer
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Spring 2005 Volume 3, Number 2
©2005 Gürze Books
About the Author
Jenni Schaefer is a singer, songwriter, and author of Life Without Ed: How One Woman Declared Independence from Her Eating Disorder and How You Can Too. For more information about Jenni, her music, and her availability as a speaker and performer, visit www.jennischaefer.com