Month: April 2017

Perfectionism Develops In Childhood

I finished my run and was stretching my legs in the backyard when I caught sight of a colorful fallen leaf. It reminded me of an art assignment in sixth grade. We were told to find a bright-colored leaf and make a drawing of it. The one I picked back then looked just like the one I saw today.

I didn’t complete the assignment by myself. I made my aunt do it. This didn’t seem like a big deal then, but today,  I’m wondering:

1) Why did I want my aunt to draw the picture for me and claim it as my own work?

2) Why did my aunt (and mom) agree to that without hesitation?

The first one is obvious. I wanted her to draw it because I knew she could do better than me and I wanted the assignment to be good. Was this an early sign of perfectionism? And if so, where did it come from? Researchers used to say that unsatisfied (and dysfunctional) parents, who push their children too hard, are to blame, but the newest studies imply that perfectionism is genetic. Either way, thanks, Mom and Dad!

I’m not a perfectionist. I do have high standards and I can be too harsh on myself sometimes, but considering all the impulsive decisions I made and all the things I’ve tried in life, I don’t think I’m even close to being a perfectionist. Anyway, this isn’t the point I’m trying to make here. I just find absurd that I wouldn’t allow myself as a child to complete an art project in my own lame way.

My aunt’s drawing didn’t get me an A, by the way. I got a B and I was happy because I thought B was a good enough grade. So why didn’t I draw that leaf myself? Maybe I thought that if I had tried, I would only have gotten a C, which I didn’t consider good enough. Or maybe I was just too lazy to draw. Or maybe I just didn’t like drawing at all.

This got me thinking about some other things I didn’t do because either I didn’t feel like spending time with them or thought that the end product I could deliver wouldn’t measure up to my standards. I have no idea why I doubted myself so much, I was one of those gifted kids that flew through school with ease (and one who got an award for being the school’s best student) yet I created these enormously high expectations for myself and didn’t care what my parents or teachers thought of my achievements, if I didn’t think I was doing great, it was all for nothing.

***

I love storytelling. I guess I always have, but I remember thinking as a child that I was terrible at it. We used to get assignments in English class to write about various topics. That caused me a great deal of anxiety because I always felt I couldn’t come up with anything entertaining. So instead of writing stories in English, I asked my mom to draft them for me in Hungarian (that’s my mother tongue), which I would then translate and improve. Never mind that this was three times more difficult, considering Hungarian is one of the hardest languages in the world. I was confident in my English skills but felt absolutely incompetent when it came to my storytelling abilities.

I spent a lot of time thinking about this as an adult. “How is it possible that someone that didn’t like storytelling and sucked at it (so I thought), became a writer?” I realized I had it all wrong. It’s not storytelling I didn’t like or wasn’t good at, it was the lack of creative freedom I couldn’t handle. They always gave us concrete topics to write about (which I found, most of the time, boring) instead of saying, “Tell a story about anything you like.” And only now, twenty-something years later, I can see how harmful and stupid that was.

***

I was part of an experimental class when I started school at age six. We were taught how to read and write using an alternative method, which encouraged individual work. This meant that as soon as a child could read and spell, (s)he was given permission to complete all the exercises in the book without any assistance, guidance, or supervision.

There were a few pupils in my class that could already read when we started school, so they were allowed to work on their own from day one. I wasn’t. I didn’t know how to read when I went to school and it took me a while to learn it, which made me irritated because I couldn’t bear the idea of someone else finishing the book before me. I begged my teacher to let me go ahead individually, but she thought I wasn’t ready, so she wouldn’t. (Man, was I upset!)

Finally, after five other kids had already been working on their own for months, I got the green light. I was over the moon. My grandma picked me up from school that day, and I told her that we needed to hurry because I had a lot of homework.

We arrived home (the journey felt like ages) and I was pacing around impatiently as my grammy was unlocking the door. When I finally got into our apartment, I ran to the bathroom, washed my hands, ripped my bag open, and pulled out THE book.

I didn’t have a desk at the time, so I placed the little red wooden chair, which my grandma used to stand on to reach the upper parts of the window in the kitchen, in the middle of the bedroom and kneeled down in front of it. I put the book on the chair, took a deep breath, opened it, and didn’t stand up until I finished it. The entire book in one evening.

It was way past my bedtime, and I remember my grandma and mom approaching me several times, asking me to take a break to eat something or just relax for a while, but I was adamant. (I wish I could have this focus these days.)

Why did I do it? I honestly don’t know. There wasn’t any reward for finishing the book, nor did I get any special treatment for doing it, so I guess the look on my teacher’s and classmates’ face was my prize. I wanted to show them that I could. Isn’t this crazy?

***

I was a lucky kid and teenager as I had a bit of talent for most of the things I had tried my hand at. And if I didn’t, I just dropped that particular thing because there were plenty others to choose from. Even when I was only second-best at something, I would just refuse to do that thing or pushed myself until I became the best.

My parents couldn’t always keep up with this. They wanted me to learn how to play the piano, so they made me take lessons for five or six years from the age of six. As much as I love music and my ability now to play an instrument, I loathed piano lessons. I hated having to practice every day; I abhorred having to perform twice a year in front of a committee that would rate us, and I despised the mandatory solfège class with all its sight-readings and solmization. Why? Because I never felt I was talented enough to sacrifice so much of my time and to put in so much effort. (But mainly because I felt that everyone else was doing better.)

So, when I was twelve, and my solfège teacher gave me an F for my performance (only because I sang the song too slowly), I never showed up again. My parents freaked out and were begging me to go back, but I was relentless. They took me to a psychologist because they thought there was something wrong with me. The shrink told them that she thought that a child who was part of the basketball and volleyball team, took private English lessons twice a week, performed in school plays and voluntarily attended a first aid course, might as well have the ability to decide whether she wanted to add more to the agenda or not. So my parents didn’t have any other choice but letting me be the boss in this. No piano lessons ever again.

***

High school wasn’t much different, except that there were many more smart kids in the pool, which meant more things for me not to be the best at. I went to great lengths to manipulate my environment in a direction that served me most. Don’t think of anything evil, I give you an example.

We were due to write a test in History class, which I didn’t study enough for (to get an A). Getting anything worse than an A would have been an unimaginable outcome for me, so I approached all my classmates one by one and asked for their permission to speak to the teacher on behalf of the class to persuade her to postpone the test for next week. And it worked. Every single time. People were grateful that they didn’t have to write a test that day and I gained the extra time I needed to prepare to write the best test the week after. Win-win.

In my junior year, all my final grades were going to be As except Chemistry. I got the same amount of Bs as As during the semester, and Mrs. Thompson decided to give me a B as my final grade because “I wasn’t going to study Chemistry in college.” I didn’t like her way of thinking. I went to see her after class and told her that I deserved an A because I knew everything I was supposed to know and I said I was ready to prove it. She was game. She gave me three days to go through the entire book again and said that if I answered all of her questions correctly, she’d give me an A. You bet I got it.

***

You’d think I’m proud of myself for my achievements as a young person. And to a certain extent, I am, of course, but from an adult’s perspective, I have some unsettling thoughts.

Have I been manipulating myself through life because I’m afraid that I’m not good enough?

Should I assume that me always choosing the more difficult, time-consuming, and indirect routes is the result of being scared to take the direct path because I don’t believe in myself?

Does pushing ourselves harder and harder make us feel more accomplished, or in the meantime, do we lose the sense of what is important and fulfilling?

Would pieces fall in place easier and would success come faster if we didn’t compare ourselves to others, or if we didn’t try to exceed our own expectations all the time?

I’m yet to find the answers.

More in the mood for fiction? Read this.

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