I cringe as I type definitions like, “An exemplification of supreme excellence” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary) or “A special feature or quality that confers superiority” (Roget’s II The New Thesaurus). When asked to define me in one word, why did my peers choose a word so close to this one? Nothing about a perfectionist like me is perfect. Rather, it’s a lack of perfection that fuels my behavior. The term “perfectionist” is wildly misunderstood, and I wonder what people are thinking when they describe me that way. Do they expect me to be offended? If so, they will get no gratification. I accept the label of perfectionist without shame, because it isn’t what the dictionary implies.
My parents say my perfectionism surfaced at six months old. I would straighten block towers they purposely built lopsided. Since then, I’ve moved onto bigger things, like sorting Skittles by color and trail mix by nut type. Most recently, I’ve tidied up the paint slips at L&M Fleet Supply. They were all overlapping and sideways, so I gladly fixed them while waiting for my family to pick out hunting boots. These quirky behaviors are more for my satisfaction than for function, which is more obsessive compulsive disorder than perfectionism. Although I haven’t been diagnosed with true OCD, my friends tease me about it quite often.
My closet is a prime example: it is organized with short-sleeved shirts on one half and long-sleeved on the other. Within those groups, they are arranged in rainbow order from red and pink, to orange, then yellow, etc. If you don’t know the rainbow, I don’t know if we can be friends. I’m kidding, of course, but my color-coordinated closet is very special to me; it makes me feel at ease and in control every time I step inside. It also signifies a large part of how I define perfectionism. Coming up with a unique system of organization keeps me from getting lost among random heaps of laundry.
Organization is a key piece in every perfectionist’s puzzle. I think every perfectionist gets teased for oddly organizing something, or for simply organizing something that normally wouldn’t be organized. This is just one of many attempts perfectionists like me make at controlling the imperfections in our lives.
School is my number-one priority, so I am always eager to learn. This often bothers my classmates, because I ask a lot of questions and blurt out answers to problems they are trying to figure out. I never intentionally interrupt – sometimes I just get excited about a tricky math problem. Outside of the classroom, my world revolves around my homework, and sometimes other people’s too. If someone needs a paper edited, they ask me because I am quite the grammar critic. These behaviors are what get me labeled a perfectionist. It makes sense, though, because just like a chef is critical of their food, I am critical when it comes to schoolwork. Everyone has areas of their life they dedicate their time and energy to; this just shows that we care about that specific topic.
Because I’m often doing more than what is expected at school, people probably think something is wrong with me, like being a perfectionist is the equivalent of having a disease.
Symptoms? Unnecessary organizing, obsessive erasing and critiquing of first drafts, constant straightening of textbooks, and anxiety over anything less than an A on worksheets.
Treatment? Chaos. Throw this person into a life full of things she can’t control and organize. Fill her schedule to the brim so that she has absolutely no time to obsess over a clean room or perfect hair. That’ll teach her that being perfect is NOT possible.
The assumed definition of a perfectionist is someone who is completely put together in all aspects of her life, someone who never falters. But this is impossible; perfection is nonexistent. So what does that make me? I’m a part-time perfectionist. I only organize things that I can justify organizing. I like my books in my locker in the same order as my classes so I don’t grab the wrong materials. I like my Skittles in rainbow order so I can eat the ones I don’t like as much first and save the best for last. But on the other end of the perfectionist scale, I value a good night’s sleep over straightened hair, so I choose to snooze an extra half hour and throw my hair into a ponytail in the morning. I also don’t clean my room very often because the only time I’m in it is when I’m sleeping. I’m not flawless; I simply like A’s on papers and a tidy closet.
The common misconception that perfectionists are perfect couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, we realize how imperfect we are, and we actively attempt to compensate for our imperfections. The extremely successful football player and coach Vince Lombardi illustrated the goal of perfectionists very well when he said, “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” I believe everyone dreams of becoming excellent, but what sets perfectionists apart is their active attempt at getting there. My hope is that all the extra effort and hard work I put into my grades will help me be successful in school and life. I try to chase perfection every day by taking extra notes and going over material three or four times until I get it right.
Notice how I didn’t say perfect.
I’m getting kind of sick of that word and the expectations that follow it. Someone the other day said that since I was writing about being a perfectionist, my paper had to be perfect. I said that isn’t what being a perfectionist means, but she didn’t understand. So let me be perfectly clear: nothing I do is perfect. I know for a fact that my paper will have flaws, just like any other struggling high school writer’s will. The difference will be the extra effort I put into my work. Everyone can do that if they care enough. It’s simply a matter of being willing to go the extra mile.
I’m proud to be a perfectionist because it shows that I care about my life enough to take control of it. I’m not perfect, but I strive to be excellent, and that makes all the difference.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.