Thursday, April 17, 2014

Confessions of a Backsliding Perfectionist

I am a perfectionist. I get angry at every little mistake I make. I get angry at every little mistake anyone else makes. 

I have been socialized to be a perfectionist. My father was a perfectionist. I could never do anything right in his eyes. Seldom was there praise for anything I had done; mostly criticism. So I was driven to be as perfect as possible in order to please my father and get those extremely occasional pats on the back. 

My father was a serviceman for heating and air conditioning and had a truck full of tools. They were some of his most prized possessions. When I would borrow one of his tools, I would carefully place it back in exactly the place from where I had taken it. Didn’t seem to matter; my father’s perfectionistic eye would always catch a foreign presence in his private domain. “Who was messing in my tool box?” he would bellow the next time he returned from work. 

Not only did I receive perfectionistic socialization from my father, but also from my religious tradition. Mennonites, following their Anabaptist forbearers, were serious about following Christ in their daily life. A whole list rules was established to make sure all the tools were placed properly in the tool box. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), was my church’s rallying cry. 

Like my earthly father, my heavenly Father seldom praised me (or so I thought). I had to strive ever harder to reach the high expectations of my demanding parents. Of course, I expected no less of others as well. The word grace was more foreign to me than the “buenos días” I heard on my uncle’s tomato fields as a boy. 

Over the course of my teaching career, I have directed many one-act plays for my advanced Spanish students to be presented in public. (Oh yes, I learned what "buenos días" means) Like my father’s toolbox, I was meticulous with every detail; especially the intonation and the pronunciation of every word and phrase. It had to be perfect. If they got it wrong, it reflected on me, their teacher. I was a perfectionist. 

For the most part, my students responded well to my perfectionistic direction. Perhaps they were taught in the same tool-box schools of perfection as I had been. However, I will never forget a scene with a sensitive female student during one of the rehearsals for our play. She was SO close to getting it, but I rode her relentlessly until she was reduced to tears. My perfectionism was more important than my relationship with this student. I felt horrible. I’m sure I apologized profusely for hurting her, but the damage had been done. 

Last night my Spanish class staged another play. It was very well done. It was very well received. During the course of the rehearsals, there were times when my perfectionistic self had to bite its tongue, had to stifle its tendencies to demand more and more effort. You see, over the years I have learned that praise goes a lot farther than criticism when expecting students to perform. Whether it is in the classroom or on stage, the same rule applies. 

There were points during the rehearsals that gave me serious doubts whether we could pull it off. There were times when I was tempted to call for more rehearsals, to correct pronunciation and phrasing and stop the ugliness. Instead I pointed out the good things I saw in each performer. 

After the awkwardness of learning to know the meaning of the lines, the importance of proper blocking and movement, and the need to for being present at all times while on stage, my students started to have fun. So that was my final exhortation before the performance. “Have fun,” I told them. And they did. A few tools were misplaced, but it didn’t matter. 

The underlying issue for a perfectionist is the need to control, whether the tool box or the stage. Over the years I have learned to let go. I don’t need to have everything perfect. I am a backsliding perfectionist. And I couldn’t be happier.

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