When you were a kid, was your bedroom messy? Was it sort of average? Spick and span? This is a question I was asked by a therapist in my twenties. My answer was enough for her to confirm the diagnosis.
I told her my room was a disaster zone 95% of the time. So she followed up with, “and the other 5% of the time, was it spotless?” I nodded. “And the tipping point when it would go from spotless to pigsty, was it when just two or three items were out of place?” I nodded again.
“You’re a perfectionist.”
Hang on. What?
How can being a slob equal perfectionism?
She explained that perfectionists often have all-or-nothing tendencies. So in the case of my bedroom growing up, as long as it was 100% clean, it was easy to keep it that way. But the moment just a few items on the floor reduced it to “almost perfect,” it may as well have been utter chaos.
In the mind of a perfectionist, anything less than perfect (AKA less than “all”) falls into a spectrum-less category of not-perfect (AKA “nothing”).
In the decade and a half since that conversation, I’ve taken this perspective and learned to be more flexible about things. In the past, I’d have trouble embarking on projects for fear of them not turning out perfect enough. Or I’d stress over submitting a business proposal, tweaking it for hours on end, risking deadlines or missing time with family. Bet you can’t guess how many times I’ve revised this article.
Actually I now realize, as most sensible people do, that sometimes the best move forward is simply moving forward. And so, I can confidently say that in all areas of my life, there’s significant improvement that has yielded meaningful results. Except for one.
There’s a new element of this mindset plaguing me, and it’s happening on the tennis court. Why is the court any different than other areas of life like work or friendships or love? Well for one thing, nobody’s actively trying to F&%k me up in those areas. Whereas on the tennis court, I have an opponent whose single goal is to throw me off and make me lose.
In addition, on the court I have less time for thoughtful decision making. I can’t sit there for an hour and analyze the best way to return a serve, when in reality, I have only a fraction of a second to make that call. Plus, because it’s a physical and mental game, there are a lot of factors that play into the subconscious. If I miss the same shot three times in a row, it’s going to mess with my confidence of that shot, even if it wasn’t my fault for missing it. And that slight decrease in confidence could disturb everything else moving forward.
Then again, maybe this story is relevant to all aspects of life, and tennis is just a metaphor.
I took ten years away from tennis as I was building my business. It’s not that I couldn’t play, it’s that I had an all-or-nothing attitude about it. If I couldn’t train everyday for three hours per day and compete at a high level, I wouldn’t be happy. Being permanently rusty wasn’t in my DNA, so I stopped.
Two years ago, I decided that was stupid. Tennis was a huge part of my upbringing, it keeps me healthy, and I love everything about it. Once I started up again, it took a lot of physical conditioning and practice to get me back up to speed. After many months of training, I got myself to the point where I was doing well in competitive settings and I could start expecting more from myself. That’s where it started to fall apart.
I noticed a trend. On the days I walk onto the court confidently, I play my worst tennis. On the days when I’m battling a head cold or have had a tough day at work, I completely dominate the game. Seemingly, I have a paradox on my hands.
Suddenly it clicked. It was all about the expectations I’d been setting for myself.
When a perfectionist is well prepared and feeling great, there’s no excuse to produce anything less than excellence. That’s a lot of pressure.
When a perfectionist is feeling sick or has some other valid excuse for underperforming, there’s much less pressure. And that relaxed mindset poises you perfectly for excellence.
In other words, if I expected less of myself, I’d play better.
When I played poorly, I felt exceptionally devastated because of how exquisitely prepared I had just been to play my best game.
There was no excuse to suck, which is precisely why I sucked.
The problem is that as a perfectionist, I’m programmed to push myself. To work toward greatness and commit to nothing less. Logically I understand that perfection is unattainable. But damn it, I want to get as close as one can get. If only it didn’t make me worse.
Anyone I’d mention this to would tell me to cut myself some slack. “Hang in there. You’re being too hard on yourself,” they’d say. That’s not what I’d hear though. Instead, I heard “Amina, go ahead and settle for mediocrity.”
Which brings me to the crux of the problem. I’m proud to be this way. I’m proud to be the kind of person that walks onto a tennis court, a business pitch, or any other context, accepting nothing less but an excellent performance. That’s not to say I can’t accept or expect the odd misstep here and there. But overall, it must be stellar. Period. This is the part of my personality I probably identify with most.
So when someone tells me to “just relax and have fun” and to stop expecting so much of myself, I feel like they’re asking me to relinquish a vital essence of who I am.
And so now, I embark on a journey to discover my way past the paradox I’ve created for myself. I hope to discover some fine line between perfection and finding peace in the moments when all I can say to myself is, “I know I can do better than this, but today it’s just not happening.”
My pursuit of perfection is precisely what makes my performance imperfect.
Or perhaps the pursuit itself is what’s imperfect, and that’s precisely what needs work.
As I wrote these last few words, I wondered whether this was the end of the article. Perhaps there’d be a part two down the road when I made some new discoveries. But the very next day, I found myself writing again, this time with a new perspective.
First off, I’d decided that my first move should be to get a second opinion. And a third and so on. I needed to reach beyond myself and even beyond the folks that knew me best, to see if they could shake up my paradigms. A coach at my club responded by saying that the first step is to admit you have a problem. Do I have an addiction? And if so, to what, tennis or perfection? Deep down, I know the answer to that.
I also did a bit of reading and discovered that, according to social and personality psychologist Dr. Kelley J. of Robinson, one of the biggest obstacles in self-compassion is a person’s beliefs about the connotations of being “too soft” on yourself. Turns out I’m not alone. She’s found that people who are less self-compassionate in general are inclined to say that self-kindness makes them feel less industrious and ambitious after a failure. Instead, they feel stronger and more responsible if they respond to failure with self-criticism. This made me feel a little less nutty. If I’m working though something that’s known to be a “thing,” then I’m part of a society of sorts.
Later on, I had lunch with a client I’m courting. It was our first time talking business and as our conversation went deeper, it became clear that we aligned on a lot of personal philosophies. Because I believe that vulnerability is an important part of business development (a topic for a different article), and because we were clearly well aligned, I decided to open up. After I’d explained the paradox I was up against, she began her response with, “As a recovering perfectionist…” I thought this was a great start. She could empathize, and as an athlete herself, she was very familiar with the issue.
She challenged my thought process by asking a lot of “why” questions. I appreciated her desire to understand more before dispensing advice. I could tell she was intrigued by the challenge and it seemed she genuinely wanted to help me solve it.
Since I’ve started talking to people and asking their perspectives, I’ve pinpointed what I’m looking for. I’m stuck in a thought cycle. It’s a pattern I can’t quite see outside of, and I’m sure — absolutely positive, that there’s someone out there that could shake everything up with one question.
And that was her. She had that one question that completely busted open the paradox and showed me a path through the thorns and thickets that stood in the way.
She asked, “Have you considered treating your perfectionism like a handicap?”
Ok. For those of you reading this who are thinking, “Duh, Amina. That’s so obvious,” kudos to you. I wish we’d crossed paths sooner so you could have shown me the way.
I couldn’t see it for myself, but once she asked me that question, the building blocks started falling into place.
I could now define my problem differently:
1. When I have no handicap, (I’m feeling great, well rested, well prepared) I put more pressure on myself to play well, which results in poorer performance.
2. When I have a handicap (I’m under the weather, tired, or rusty from taking time off), I put less pressure on myself, and play better as a result.
3. Therefore, if I treat my perfectionism as a handicap, I’ll always walk onto the court with a handicap, which arguably could mean putting less pressure on myself, resulting in better performance.
I tested out my theory.
The next time I played, I walked onto the court with the following mental script:
“Ok, Amina. You’ve slept well, had a good meal, a fun day at work, and now here you are ready to play. But things aren’t perfect. You’re a perfectionist and you’re expecting yourself to play flawlessly. And because of this, you’re probably not going to play as well. So take this as an opportunity to use this handicap as an excuse to cut yourself some slack, and see what happens.”
I kicked ass.
Now, that’s not to say I didn’t run into issues. The biggest one (and this is going to make me seem REALLY neurotic) was a loop that I hadn’t anticipated.
When I didn’t expect myself to play well, I started to play REALLY well. When I noticed myself playing really well, I expected myself to keep it up, which degraded my performance. When I noticed this degradation, I started to relax and play better. And so on.
But before too long, and before it started to drive me crazy, I realized a solution. I stopped the loop by refusing to acknowledge when my play was great. Instead, I continued to focus on two things, the handicap and the ball. As long as I remembered that I had improvements to make while keeping my attention on the actual game itself, I became transformed.
Back on the court the next day, I was given a new insight by a friendly opponent — someone I’ve grown to know as even harder on himself than I am. We were talking about expectations, and how on any given day, you might play at 90% of your actual ability, for example. If you go into the game expecting yourself to play at 80%, you’ll be pleasantly surprised that you performed better than expected. But if you go in expecting to play at 100% capacity, you’ll be disappointed. 90% play is 90% play. It’s the expectations that end up driving how you end up feeling about it.
Is that yet another obvious perspective? Perhaps. But sometimes it’s the obvious ones that end up making the biggest difference. You just needed to see them.
This begs the question, is 90% good enough?
Expecting 100% every time is just fooling yourself. Even 90% is a tall order if you think about the world realistically. Whether you’re playing outside on a windy day or you’ve got some issue gnawing at your subconscious, there are always going to be variables standing in the way. The best you can do is maintain a mental state that’s conducive to thinking quickly and critically, while arriving at the situation as physically prepared as possible.
For those of you who have related this very sport-specific problem to general life matters, props. This subject exists in all contexts — professional, artistic, affectionate, athletic… and I’m sure I’m just a small part of an enormous club of perfectionists who have a secret love/hate relationship with something very important to them.
And so now, I embark on a journey to implement what I’ve learned, and to continue learning so that I can continue to grow in a direction that’s both fulfilling and functional.
And I invite you to join me. Join me by offering advice, words of support, or by simply sharing your story. I’m likely to write an update in the not-to-distant future, and hope to continue this conversation with you far beyond.
With gratitude, Amina