Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist

The girl in the chair next to me peeks at her graded paper. “I got a B+.” She smiles, clearly happy with her grade.

“Great job!” I tell her. I know she must have worked hard on it. She’s a recovering drug addict struggling to put herself through college. I’m genuinely happy for her.

She turns in her seat. “What did you get?”

My stomach drops through my toes and seeps into the floor. Embarrassment heats my face. “Good enough.” I hedge, hoping that she’ll drop it.

She doesn’t. No one ever does. “It’s okay. You can tell me.”

More than anything, I don’t want to tell her. I’m too ashamed to admit my grade. I spent a grand total of fifteen minutes the night before it was due working on this paper. Hardly any time at all. But I can’t avoid her questions. I know from experience that she’ll ask until I tell her. That’s what everyone does. Finally I stare down at the desk and mumble, “I got an A.”

“That’s more than good enough! That’s great!” She grins at me.

I stare at her. I’d been expecting a snide remark. Another “Well, of course you got a good grade” in a sarcastic tone. Not this. Fresh shame burns my throat. She shouldn’t be congratulating me. “You spent more time on this paper than I did.”

Perhaps she recognizes the shame in my eyes, in my voice. Her tone softens. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Nothing to be ashamed of. Why had it taken an ex-drug addict at a public college to tell me what no one else had? My grades were nothing to be ashamed of. It’s okay to be smart. It’s okay to get a good grade with little effort.

In my junior high and high school, I’d heard teachers tell the class over and over again: I wish I could grade by effort. The C and B students put more effort than the A students. I would hunch in my chair. I was one of those bad A students, the one that gets an A on a test I didn’t study for, the one that spent a total of four hours studying for all of my exams and got an A on all of them while another student studied four hours for each exam and got Cs. If school was graded by effort, I would have gotten an F.

My grades shamed me. If I got an A with no effort, then was I really giving my best? Most of high school was so easy that I rarely felt challenged. Even when I did pour effort into a project or a paper, shame still clung to me. Had I really given my best effort? Had I actually worked hard? Surely that C student sitting next to me still worked harder than I did.

I demanded perfection from myself. A single wrong answer would gnaw at me for a week afterwards like an infection eating away at my stomach. I wasn’t worthy of my grades. I hadn’t earned them. I didn’t deserve them. Still the pursuit of perfection consumed much of my high school years. Perfection was king. At times, I felt like it determined my self-worth.

I hated admitting my grades to other students. Sometimes, I would even put my test straight into my folder without looking at it so I could answer truthfully that I hadn’t looked.

When my freshmen year of college rolled around, I enrolled in the Honor’s College. On my very first paper, I got a B. I stared at that red letter B for several minutes, shocked to see that grade on the top of one of my papers. I’d never gotten that low of a grade on a paper before.

And it felt wonderful.

For the first time in years, I could actually put effort into something. I worked hard on revisions and upped my grade to a B+. It was the best B+ I’d ever seen.

It was a long, slow road from that first B+ to the moment I realized I didn’t have to be perfect. My self-worth was not dependent on my grades or how much effort I put into them. I couldn’t earn perfection. Jesus had already earned perfection for me. His perfections cover me, earned me the words “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” I don’t have to earn those words with my own pitiful efforts.

My gifts are given of God. I’m not to be ashamed of them. If I’ve been given the ability to take tests with little effort, then it would be wrong to put in more effort than necessary. I’d be wasting time and energy that I could spend elsewhere on my family. Friends. Neighbors. A person in my church in need. So many ways I could have used my time and energy in high school instead of the pursuit of perfection.

Writing is something that challenges me. Unlike history facts or science formulas, it is not something that can be memorized and declared learned. It is a constant learning and growing process. It is something that demands my hard work.

I don’t know what it is like to struggle in school. I don’t know the hardships that come with that. But I can understand the shame of hiding your grades. I can understand the fear that the teacher will call on you, fear so intense my shaking rattled my desk sometimes.

If someone from my high school reads this, then I am sorry if I ever made you ashamed of your grades. If I ever made you feel unworthy. It was not my intention. Most likely, I was too ashamed of my own grades to genuinely compliment you on yours.

I still struggle with perfectionism sometimes. If I mess up at work, I struggle to let go of the mistake and move on. It haunts the back of my brain, lingering, reminding me of all my failures. When I write, I have to write a really fast, messy drafts. If I stop to edit, then my perfectionism kicks in. I see all the mistakes, all the failures, and it clutters my mind so much that I can’t keep writing.

I have to keep my mind and heart focused on the Perfect One. I don’t have to be perfect because He is. I need to stop comparing myself to others and focus only on using my gifts in the way God would have me use them.