By Rushali Thacker
Recognizing Perfectionist Traits
The earliest signs of perfectionism that I recall take me back to my school days. For me, diving into a subject meant starting from scratch, and that might otherwise be considered a good thing if I was researching or something, but maybe not so much when preparing for exams. It meant I had to start from the Introduction chapter, which usually had the lowest weightage for any exam. Doesn’t seem crazy enough? Well, I had to do it even when I was picking up the book for the first time just a day before the exam. And it goes without saying that if I was reading the Introduction, I had never have gone through the other chapters. With this stringent reading habit added to my slow reading speed, I’d barely make it to the last chapter of any academic textbook.
All I did with it was depriving myself of the satisfaction of having done my best. It always, always felt like I could have done more. Which should not, in any way, seem like an inspiration to anyone, let alone a perfectionist like me. I have been utterly dissatisfied with my efforts over the years because of the unrealistic expectations I set for myself. And to have had the satisfaction that I did my best for the two decades of my life, I probably would need one more to give my very best efforts to feel that I didn’t in any way get more than I deserved. But this video by The School of Life tells why this is just a pretty illusion by putting forth an important question, “What is so imperfect about perfectionism?”. To which they say that perfectionism isn’t driven by the desire to do the perfect work, but to feel less awful about oneself.
For most of my life, my mind has attempted to work ideally in the real world. Even though I obviously believe that an ideal way of existence is not possible, in reality, I find my efforts directed towards it. So, all I have been doing is building a house of disappointments for myself and hoping to find shelter underneath it.
The two things that I love doing the most—reading and writing—are burdened with this perfectionism. When I read a book, I have to read it from the top left corner of the front cover to the bottom right corner of the back cover. Every word or non-word has to be registered in my mind. I’d go through the publication details, the ISBN and other such things which normally would be skipped by a reader. Only then did I feel I had read the book completely.
With writing, sometimes before beginning a piece, I have a near-perfect impression of it in my mind. I fantasize about the idea of it so much that when it’s finally on paper; it feels like a failure. Then I’d keep postponing working on it until I knew I could make it perfect, which is never. And that’s the reason I have more unfinished pieces than finished ones. Even though I put no effort each day of my life to get to those pieces, I keep telling myself this pretty lie that someday I will. Reading anything I wrote a few months back makes me cringe. If I would ever get myself to work on an old piece, I’d probably discard it.
The Non-Perfectionist Side
There are most certainly parts of me where I do not fixate on perfectionism. I’ll tell you about the one that first comes to mind—cooking. I am a haphazard and unsophisticated cook. I guess it’s not tainted with perfectionist traits because I am simply amazed, that I can cook something. I expect nothing more from that.
Discouraging the Perfectionist
I’ve been tweeting a lot these days, for two apparent reasons—I know I cannot edit it once it’s out there (no, deleting and tweeting it again is not an option) and that it’s nothing but a lie when I say those one-liners could have found a home in a perfect essay or poem someday. Because guess what? I haven’t used a single one of those here. And again, I do not want to burden my essay on perfectionism to be perfect!
Perfectionists often tend to feel that if they cannot give their best to something, they’d rather not rather do it. I battle with that thought daily. It is unrealistic and almost disturbing to expect only the best from myself, always. The best does not translate to flawless. And that doing my best isn’t supposed to come in my way of DOING IT.
One quote that I hold on for dear life from Roy’s, The God of Small Things, “That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.” My desire to not be careless with my words has somehow turned into an unhealthy projection of this desire on the people around me. I absolutely adore this quote, but I need to tell myself what this line does not mean…
- to put undue pressure on me (or others) to never even mistakenly let out a careless word.
- that a careless word can never be remedied. (Depending on the circumstances, careful words can sometimes remedy careless words.)
- people cannot love once careless words are spoken. (Despite these careless words, I will love people and people will love me.)
It has never been about not making a mistake, but about how we deal with it.
Now, I have arranged the books on my bookshelf in a colour-coded manner. I am not very good at it (as you can see), but in my mind, the Agatha Christie (first from the right) doesn’t at least go after the pink Jane Austen (second from the right). My sister, blessedly devoid of these whims of perfectionism, placed it here and, obviously, I noticed it. But I do not feel the urge to replace it. I guess that’s some progress?
Let’s hope I read the last chapters first, from academic texts someday and give up on reading ISBNs of books.
Bio: Rushali Thacker (she/her) claims to have her unwavering love for sunsets, ice cream, and mountains. She is paving her way through the uncertainties of life by listening intently and, well, trying not to be a perfectionist.