Alternate titles for this post: Less Hang Ups and More Finishing or I Probably Owe You a Thank You Note or A Long Post on Perfectionism
I’m a perfectionist.
I know, I know that sounds sexy, doesn’t it? The word “perfect” is right there at the front of it. But much like being a super taster isn’t super (there’s no cape involved), being a perfectionist is not about actually being perfect. It’s more about the fear that nothing you do is ever going to be good enough. What “good enough” really means is unclear but that doesn’t keep you from obsessing over being it. Symptoms include stress, procrastination, stress over the procrastination, sense of worthlessness, sense of guilt, extreme sense of guilt over the sense of worthlessness, denial, zoning out, moodiness, hyper-distractability (wait, I think I see something shiny over there that has the potential to be be perfect), a special kind of passive agressivity that is only acceptable when directed at people who love you most, and stress.
My perfectionism means that if something I’m working on can’t be really super amazing, then I often end up deciding I’d rather just give up. Though “deciding” isn’t the right word. You don’t really “decide” not to finish a term paper. You just write and rewrite and start over again until you miss the deadline and then the extended deadline and end up with an “I” for incomplete. Sometimes I give up on things in the middle, and sometimes I give up before I even start. Are you thinking that it makes more sense to finish something and have it be average rather than not finish at all? I’d have to agree, but being a perfectionist is not about being rational. It’s about having a voice in my head; it’s a mean voice and it berates me for not being better. Oh you nasty, nasty Voice. That voice has almost kept this post from happening at least four separate times over the course of five days. Sometimes the Voice comes with its own series of chastising images…
Whenever I think of a thank you note that’s due but I haven’t written, my mind conjures an image of Martha Stewart giving a disapproving nod. Then when I resolve that I shouldn’t really care what Martha thinks of me, she morphs into Danzico and the nod shifts to an expression of raised eyebrows.** It’s an expression only my imaginary version of Liz’s eyebrows are capable of conveying: one of sadness, almost pity, and confusion over my not being able to complete this most rudimentary yet critical of human exchanges. Then the aforementioned Voice kicks in with something like, “You can’t even muster the courtesy to pick up a pen and simply write <insert name here> a note? A simple yet heartwarming note that conveys exactly how special <name> is to you and how much <name> means to your life and how beautiful you think it is that <name> is even alive on the planet? Can’t you distill it all into a couple of sentences illustrating both the specificity and universal nature of your gratitude along the spectrum of all human emotion? No? Hmm, you are a loser.” Yes, I’m completely aware how selfish the nature of perfectionism is. A mountain of birthday, wedding and holiday gifts have gone unthanked. Favors untold, including the procurement of a rainbow-birthday-appropriate marching band, lie unacknowledged anywhere except inside my head. I’m not sure how I sleep at night. I’ve even had people who I owe thank you notes write me a thank you, and then I just feel like I have to avoid them all together. Just in case you forgot, perfectionism in no way resembles rationalism.
Real World Example: Last December I was in a bind. I’d taken on organizing AIGA/NY’s holiday party, and I’d covered decorations, interactive entertainment, a signature cocktail and costumes for the photo booth, but I’d yet to secure an actual speaker. I went to our board president Jennifer Kinon because she is on good terms with pretty much everyone (and, perhaps not coincidentally, she’s a thank you note role model), and she suggested we ask James Victore. I agreed he would be an ideal fit for the cut-loose kind of the event we had in mind, but would he agree on such short notice? He did. He came. He rawked it. And then he followed that by kicking off the karaoke portion of the evening with an inspired version of Sweet Caroline even though he admitted the idea of singing on stage scared him. James was a gracious and great cowboy-boot-wearin’ sport the entire evening. It was perfection. (Aha, so sometimes it is sort of possible.) I struggled for a few days with various ideas for thank yous, and then I got this email from James: “I wanted to drop you a line to say that the world is a better place because you and your rainbows are in it.” Jaw: floor.*** Crap. Now I not only had to thank James for all he did for the event, but also make known how much his sweet, simple comment meant to me. I made plans; I drew thumbnails; I shopped for supplies at the flea. Meanwhile days turned into weeks, which turned into months. And what is the status of this master thesis art project of a thank you? Supplies sitting in a pile, nothing completed, no one thanked. I wasn’t able to find enough time to do something amazing, so I did nothing at all. That means James has no idea how much I appreciate him, and worse, I’m pretty sure he rightfully thinks I’m rude.
I have to stop this perfectionism from holding me back, pushing me down, paralyzing me. I’ve got to internalize that it’s better to finish and fail than to fail by giving up. Posting this is one painful, baby first step.
The Voice tells me I’m wasting my time; I’m silly; I’m wrong; I’m boring. Maybe the Internet echos the Voice’s sentiment. So be it. For the record, that’s not going to stop me. Here I go.
* This is my new, one-word manifesto. I hope it will usher a new era on Lucky So And So. Less hang ups = more posts.
** Please BE CERTAIN Liz would never actually raise her eyebrows at me this way as she is the one of the sweetest, kindest, most empathetic people in the world. It’s because I look up to her that the thought of letting her down is so reprehensible. Liz excels in the very area where I am a flop: intentional organization. I currently owe her 3 thank you notes. That is not an exaggeration. Just to reiterate: I both LOVE and ADMIRE Liz Danzico.
*** There’s a super cool reason this comment was a really big deal to me, outside of the fact that James is a brilliant designer. I’ll tell that story in a subsequent post.