My name is Evan and I am a perfectionist. Perfectionism sounds like a good thing. It has “perfect” right there in the name. Perfection-ism. A religion of perfection.
If my religion is perfection, then you might expect me to manifest perfection. But here’s the problem. Perfection does not exist. Not in nature, not in the human experience. So in effect a perfectionist is constantly pursuing a thing that cannot be had.
And really, “pursue” is too action-y. To be a perfectionist is to be inactive. Because pretty early on in my life as a perfectionist, I started trimming away activities where I might not be perfect. These include:
*NOTE: These include virtually all human endeavors worth doing.
The upside of a life of perfectionism is the safety of not taking risks, of sticking to what you know. As a bystander to the carnival of life I can safely sit back and critique other people’s efforts. And I’m extremely well spoken about why I can’t doing things. Off the top of my head, here are 10 reasons I can’t try something new: It’s stupid. It’s dangerous. It’s not worth my time. It’s too easy. It’s too hard. People like me don’t do things like that. It wouldn’t work anyway. I’ll be bad at it. People will laugh at me. I’ll fail and be a failure.
I can safely say that I have done fewer embarrassing things than your average adventurous soul. But I’ve also done fewer things. In effect I’ve lived less. Oh, I’ve filled the time. I’ve repeated the handful of things I know how to do well. I’ve spent unhappy hours frozen in indecision, in inaction. Distracting myself with a million little things. But this is not living.
In my middle 30s I have come to realize that life is learning, doing, and failing. These are the activities of a human being engaged in the messy process of living. It is possible to live as a perfectionist but I believe it is a kind of zombie life. True, a life censored of some if its lows, but with the highs trimmed away as well.
How can you find love if you don’t embarrass yourself 100 times or more asking for numbers, leaning in for awkward first kisses, feeling the burn of rejection? How can you do the thing that you love if you never even start? If you sit on the sidelines for the entirety of your life?
When I moved to Orcas Island 18 months ago, I was a stranger, a blank slate. So I decided to be the sort of guy who tries new things. Here’s a short list of new things I have done in the past months (imperfectly, even):
Fellow perfectionists may wonder how I did these things. For me, a big hangup was how I looked to other people. I imagined that everyone spent their waking hours watching and judging my every action. I learned recently that this is not the case. The big breakthrough for me was dancing. An island friend suggested that I dance in the privacy of my own room. To be clear, until the last year I had not danced publicly (or otherwise) more than a half dozen times in my entire life. My reason? I didn’t know how to dance (perfectly).
So I took my friend’s advice. One evening about a year ago I turned off all the lights in my room, turned up my speakers, and danced. When I dance without inhibition I do a kind of full body wiggle jiggle. My dance style helps to conceal that I don’t know any steps and may not have rhythm. Also, after three decades of stillness–and much to my pleasant surprise–it feels good to move.
Then I began going to Ecstatic Dance, which I would recommend to anyone who ever struggles with feeling inhibited. The only rule of Ecstatic Dance is no talking. A further unwritten rule is no judging. So people do their own thing. They howl, they jump, they roll on the floor. It’s glorious. I found a place where I could test the theory that nobody gives a shit how I do my thing. At Ecstatic, it is gospel.
And I find now that as I go through the rest of life, where howling on the floor is sometimes frowned upon, I can still rely on the fact that MOST people don’t care about my business. They’re busy obsessing over their own lives. And the tiny number of people who will overtly judge me? That’s their damage, not mine.
To be clear I am not cured of my perfectionism. Even simple new endeavors can feel like an arduous climb over a mountain of doubt. Hells bells, this is the third draft of this post. It needs a new ending, a neat little bow. A *perfect* little bow. You’ll have to forgive me, now, as I click post.