When I was in fourth grade (1989) we had a handwriting book that we used to practice cursive writing. At the top of the page I had to make 73 capital Ms with the little curls and that ever so slight slant, and then at the bottom of the page were checkboxes to rate how perfectly my cursive letters above had been formed. I refused to mark those boxes. My nine-year-old self knew that I could only see two possible options. The way I saw it, my options were to mindlessly mark every “Excellent” box because I made those letters and they must be great even if they aren’t or I would over analyze them and think they were terrible, marking “Needs Improvement” for every single one. And really, if I were going to do that, then why wouldn’t I erase the malformed letters above and redo them so they were right? I didn’t want to evaluate myself. I couldn’t evaluate myself. I would circle the checkbox section of the page and draw arrows to it, making it clear that I wanted the teacher to decide for me. She never did. I would scribble her notes in the margin telling her she was supposed to mark those boxes for me, like maybe she just forgot? I needed her to tell me if they were good or not, if I was good or not. I didn’t even know what to do with it when she took her red pen and wrote me back, saying those boxes were my job, not hers.
Here’s where my two prominent personality traits collide. Perfectionism and self-awareness coexist in my head and make me crazy. Striving to have everything perfect is bad enough, but when you add to it a healthy dose of being aware that you’re not perfect yet, it’s a recipe for personal disaster. The inner critic sets the bar ridiculously high and defines “enough” as a standard that can never be met. It leaves me spinning my wheels, working for more. It’s too easy to tie self-worth into that working and then I really am a hot mess in the making. I still find myself looking for that teacher approval, waiting for someone else to say, “What you’ve done IS great,” because the inner critic will never let me say that to myself. Self-awareness says I will know when I’ve done a good job; perfectionism says I’ve never done a good job. What a nasty cycle to be stuck in.
For me, good is not the enemy of great. Great is the enemy that makes it impossible for me to enjoy good. What will it take for me to look around and say, “This is good” and then leave it? How awkward will it be to lower the bar and to leave it there? Will I still feel fulfilled if I want to do 100% but settle for offering 80% and keeping my sanity?
All I know is that I keep waiting for a teacher who isn’t going to mark the boxes and I’m left with an ache that comes from needing to be perfect and falling short every time.