Monthly Archives: September 2014

Overcoming the Paralysis of Perfectionism

I started working in a resource room in one of the elementary schools in town a few weeks ago. Each school day seems to have it’s own life cycle. In the morning there is a relative peace as we all begin to mesh together. Each individual begins releasing a bit of what they brought with them to school as the energy of those around them is woven together to become the energy of the whole. All the individuals strings that we are become interwoven into a living, breathing fabric. At some point during each day there is, to one extent or another, at least one crisis which stresses the fabric and connection that we have formed. For so many of the students I work with the paralysis of perfectionism is at the root the problem. At many times throughout the day the kids are asked to complete tasks that feel impossible to them. The kids handle this stress in a few different ways. Many will shut down completely, only working on the task if they have someone nearby to ask for constant guidance. They seek reassurance and direction to insure they are getting it right. Often they seek more guidance than they need, hoping to avoid the problem all together. Some will jump in headfirst and attack the task in a random fashion that makes it quite clear they have given no thought to understanding the current assignment. They rely completely on what has worked in the past and plow ahead with relative confidence that what has worked in the past will be good enough to carry them through. This system can be somewhat effective, as most of what the kids are asked to do builds upon what they have already done. This strategy blocks them, though, from reaching for new knowledge. It keeps the kids from true learning as they are not invested in understanding the new material. In other words these kids are playing it safe.

The good news is that the kids who employ one of these two methods will eventually learn new material. However, they block themselves from experiencing the freedom and exhilaration that comes when you give yourself permission to learn imperfectly. They are locked into a place of fearful learning that paralysis of perfectionism that is kryptonite to the “a-ha” moments of life. The coping strategy that I find the hardest to work with is the one employed by the kids who do not have feelings of past success to draw upon. The kids who reach end stage panic before even attempting to begin something new. This kind of learner has not yet begun to reach back into the stack of past success to gain enough confidence to even begin something new. In other words, this is a student who has no chance of success because they refuse to ever begin.

Each school day dribbles by and somehow we all continue to show up and hold our place in the fabric of our community. As I look to find the gifts that this new opportunity holds for me, I have realized the kids are an amazing mirror for my own struggles with needing to be perfect. As I observe these beautiful children struggle under the burden of perfectionism, I see these are all the same strategies I use to keep myself safe from blundering my way into the unknown. I can think of many times when I have floundered about waiting, praying even, for someone to come along and rescue me. Someone who already knows how to do whatever “it” is. My very deepest desire is that they will simply do “it’ for me.  I have undoubtedly built “it” into a Mount Everest sized problem in my mind and and I would much rather that someone else just take care of it. I certainly have no desire to learn this new skill myself, much safer to hide from it!!

I can also think of many occasions when I have blustered my way through, scraping together old coping strategies and a hod podge of skills. This is my go to approach for most everything computer related.  Rather than taking the time to learn new skills, I plug away like the proverbial monkey at the typewriter. (That is assuming that the monkeys bang on their typewriters in a sweaty frenzy swearing their little monkey hearts out.) The fear of not being able to make it perfect holding me back from taking a calm and sensible approach to learning new material. Just like the students I work with, I do pick up new skills through this process, but it is a hard fought battle when the fear of all you don’t know pokes at you relentlessly. I end up limply draped across my desk like an exhausted, wrung out dishrag.

I see, too, times when I have given in to my fear and given up on my desires before ever attempting to make them happen. This self fulfilling prophecy of failure is something I can see myself emerging from now. I can recognize my death spiral of self pity and intense dramatization which usually involves lots of stomping, banging, mumbling, swearing, and sometimes even tears. It is not pretty, and is basically an adult sized version of the behavior I struggle to help the students overcome.Lately as I begin the ascent into crazy town I can catch myself and slow it down a bit. I might not be able to get it right, but I can always give it a try. It is an exciting process to know that things that have left me stranded in indecision and inaction in the past are actually things that I am now beginning to accomplish. I have learned how to recognize the action that is required and even more simply the energy that promotes and creates space for that action. By beginning in such a safe place, it is easy to draw from the bank of past success to propel myself towards my goals.

My goal for my work at school is to become an example of this kind of imperfect learning. I aim to be able to acknowledge mistakes without shame and to take decisive action even if I don’t know the “right” answer. To become this example I am embracing the energy of courage and the confidence to be imperfect. I notice examples of this energy in action all around me in the fabric of our days together. This simple act of noticing effortlessly welcomes the desired feeling into my being, so I am well on my way. notice


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