Thursday, September 08, 2005

Thinking Back Thursdays: The Quest for Perfection

This morning, I watched a report on the news that talked about the latest generation of teenagers, who have been labeled by one magazine as the new "Generation Perfection." I watched interviews with some of these teens and was struck so personally by it. Girls who were spread entirely too thin and who seemed to have this inner motivation to be the best in all they do, to the detriment of their own health and well-being at times. It hit way too close to home for me.

All my life, I have been a perfectionist. I don't know why or how I came to be this way, but I am. My parents used to joke with family friends that they never had to punish me for a bad grade in school, because I punished myself. And it was all too true. I have held myself to this ridiculous standard for so long, that I know no other way to live. There have been times when it has almost been the undoing of me. As I have grown older, I have mellowed some on this. In fact, my goal for my 40s is to be at peace with myself just the way I am--warts and all. It probably sounds so simple for some, but for me this will be a huge achievement in a life full of stress and pressure to be something I think I should be that is just out of my reach.

There have been moments in my life, particularly during my teen years, where my perfectionist tendencies reared their ugly head and I was exposed for all to see. I don't advertise the standards I set for myself, they are just there. I saw a psychologist on t.v. once saying that perfectionists are actually quite arrogant because they believe they should be better than everyone else. I don't understand that. It seems so much more to me like we have this feeling of not being as good as the rest, so we strive to be so much more. For me, I feel it is quite opposite from arrogance.

Thinking back to high school, I remember fondly my years playing sports. I lived in a very small town and was lucky enough to be able to participate in whatever sports I wanted. But, that was not enough for me. If I could not be one of the top players in the sport, it ate me alive inside. I worked very hard at sports and loved them, and did "letter" in several areas. I was considered good in most of the sports that I let myself try. (I did not allow myself to try new things, like golf or tennis, where I might be less than above average initially.) But, I was never a star. I know now, that is because when your mind won't let you be anything but perfect, you are almost destined to choke yourself right out of stardom. I can think of several moments where I knew at that time that I had lost reason with my quest for perfection. So, I will share one of these moments that I can talk about on here tonight.

I absolutely loved playing basketball from the time I was young. Being a part of our basketball team was something at which I worked hard and took very seriously. I was among a handful of girls who got moved to the Varsity team very early, getting even to play in a few games my freshman year. My class had several girls who played together from middle school on, and we made a great team. We were a quick group, who liked to put on a full-court defensive press. We were a "man-to-man" type of team--no zone defense with us. We were fast-paced, small and quick. I was the forward/post, and I was only 5'8. But, once we got to high school, our biggest problem was that we were mixed with other classes of players with which we had never played. Sometimes this worked well, and sometimes it did not. The class two years above us was much like ours, in terms of play, and we had great success playing with them, getting to the Area Championship game. But, the classes just above and below us had players that played a different style of ball. The girls were bigger, slower and more physical. They played zone defense. They never ran the press. They muscled their big girls into the paint and let them force the shots up.

So, my senior year, all my old teammates were back to play our last year, along with a gaggle of under-classmen. We'd had a great season the year before, but our coach had left and we had a new coach in his place. This coach played a different kind of ball. And, as I learned later, it was one that I did not fit well into at all.

It became very evident early on that I was not going to get to play as much my last year of school. And this crushed me. I loved this sport more than anything I did in school. And you could see it when I played. I was the cheerleader for the team. When the other girls were playing, I was yelling for them on the sides. I could see plays and see places where we could score too, and offered help to all of my teammates--even the ones I was competing with for a spot. I was an excellent defensive player and a good rebounder, but I did not score much. And, that wasn't what the coach wanted, unfortunately. So, every game that I didn't get as much playing time, I'd compare myself to the big girls who weighed a good 20 pounds more than me and were at least 2 to 3 inches taller. One girl in particular, had such trouble remembering the plays, that I would signal them to her from the bench and then she would score. Then, I would be told I wasn't playing because I wasn't scoring. It was a vicious cycle.

I, too, expected myself to play like they did, even though it wasn't physically possible for me to do that. One particular night, after a very long practice where the new coach did a lot of yelling at us, I made a key mistake and cracked under the pressure--missing a very basic shot right at the end of practice. My friends and teammates even seemed frustrated when I missed. (Which also hit another sore spot for me--disappointing someone who is depending on me.) I drove home from practice defeated. It was late--almost 8 o'clock--and I had a ton of homework left to do. It was pouring down rain, hard sheets of rain that pounded against my car's window, making it difficult to even see. But, I also couldn't see from the stream of tears coming out of my eyes as I tried to get home that night too. I walked into my house and let my parents know I was there. My mom had dinner on the table waiting for me. I waved her off silently, and took my ball and went outside.

I spent close to an hour that night outside in the rain shooting that key shot I missed at the end of practice over and over, tears streaming down my face. I refused to go inside. My parents were worried and then downright angry with me, because I was outside in a cold rainstorm, and I didn't care. I was in such a state of self-punishment that I could not go in. I made myself make the shot at least 100 times before I could go in. Drenched in a mixture of sweat, rain, and tears, I went inside and finally gave up for the night, crashing without eating or doing my homework. Thinking back now, my parents had to have been so worried for me that evening.

Watching the interviews this morning of beautiful teenage girls talking of how they have to look a certain way and must be at the top of their class or in their activities, I was brought back to that night in the rain. Listening to girls who sounded so much like me in high school, I wanted to shake them and tell them to stop it. Let off the pressure! Live! Love yourself! This pressure isn't worth it in the end!

I think, deep inside, I was screaming those words at myself a little. I have come very far, but still have miles to go in this area. But, I am determined to overcome this for my own kids, and most of all for myself. Because, after all of these years of trying to be something more, I have decided I am worth more than what I give myself. And, I think it is long past time to come out of the rain for a change...


Anonymous irene said...

what a touching and heartbreaking story. it IS so hard to let go of our need for perfection, isn't it? and where does it come from anyway? I am so there with you on this path Steph.

2:30 AM, September 09, 2005  
Blogger Yaeli said...

Thank you for sharing that story! Kids grow up so fast these days and I can't help but wonder if we are putting pressure on them to do so through the media and movies and TV shows. Teens seem to have some drive to jump from being a child straight into adulthood and that transitional teen period is becoming shorter and shorter.

Michele sent me.

8:11 AM, September 09, 2005  
Blogger Suburban Turmoil said...

This was beautiful, Steph. I hope you save it and show it to your children when they are teenagers. My perfectionist tendencies as a teen were as much my parents' fault as my own. They really pushed me and sometimes it was good and sometimes it was not so good. Even today, I didn't turn out the way they wanted me to.

11:15 AM, September 09, 2005  
Blogger Beanhead said...

Hi I am here via Michele's.

If more people were as honest as you maybe girls would see that it is okay to not be perfect. Thanks for sharing.

10:13 PM, September 09, 2005  
Blogger Paul Sveda said...

Thank you for sharing and visiting. Hmm.. perfectionism, your story isn't limited to girls or women. Guys do struggle in this area, the difference is that we can't or atleast we feel we can't ever share our frustrations with it all. Once again, thank you for sharing and stopping by. Hope your mellow out and be at peace goal is something you can truly achieve and excel at! :)


10:30 PM, September 09, 2005  

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