Confession of a Perfectionist

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When I made the decision to take summer classes, it was a pragmatic one. I have to finish my studies within six years since I will need student loans and grants to do so. I expected during my first summer course to deepen my knowledge and understanding of the Gospel of Luke and The Acts of the Apostles. What I didn’t expect was what it would teach me about myself.

Going back to Sacred Heart University has been one hell of wild ride from the beginning. I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around the fact that one day my RA was in full-blown flare and the next, through the power of prayer and God’s grace, it was in remission and has remained so. I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around the fact that I was able to talk my way back into the school at all. But it happened. I excelled where my teenage self once failed so miserably. I earned my way off academic probation and onto the Dean’s List and even managed the somewhat dubious honor of being on both at once. So after being granted academic forgiveness and being freed from near impossible expectations, I should be celebrating and I did, for however brief a time.

I started my online course and that took some getting used to. I argue online all the time but I’m not used to doing it for actual points. But what really got to me was the midterm. The test was true/false and multiple choice, open books but very detailed. I had three days to complete it. I sat down and did it all in one five-hour marathon. I couldn’t stand having it hang over my head. Once complete, I submitted it and my grade was available instantly. 96. A 96?! That’s it?! What I did I miss? How did I miss those two questions? I spent another forty minutes looking up what I got wrong. Then I looked at my overall grade in the course: 94.32 and the feeling that welled up inside was a deep disappointment.

I have an A in a difficult, super-compressed summer course at a university that wasn’t even going to let me back in and all that after a chronic illness that had stripped away so much of my life miraculously went into remission and the feeling I have is disappointment? Yeah, something is seriously wrong with that picture. I recognized it immediately. Well almost immediately. “Immediately” being defined as the moment in which I put down the three books and the lecture notes I had frantically read through to see what I got wrong. Upon realizing that this was not okay, my initial reaction was to crack jokes, always my best defense. So I posted on Twitter:

If you score a 96 on a difficult midterm & are disappointed, you’re:

A) perfectionist

B) honor student

C) taught by nuns

D) all of the above

Ha ha ha – yeah it’s not funny. It’s sad. When I first went back to Sacred Heart, there was a legitimate use for my perfectionist tendencies. Nothing less than perfect was going to cut it. But that’s no longer the case. I’m free to do reasonably well without any external demand for perfection and yet I’m still pushing myself for it. Why?

I’ve been asking myself that for a week. It’s been an emotional week for the nation and for me. But time waits for no one and I took two more quizzes this week. I posted my arguments and should be writing a paper as I type this. My quiz grades were perfect and my overall grade is now 95.43. I had told myself I would be happy with a 95. Now that I have it, I want a 98. Why?

How good is good enough? And why can’t I accept that what I’ve done is good enough? I don’t know. But I know where to start.

My name is Christine Pelfrey and I am a perfectionist.

When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough

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I went back to college at 41. Most days I really don’t give myself much credit for that. I’ve let it be merely the next step on the road. And I probably don’t stop to look back to see how far I’ve come as often as I should. There’s so much in my past that I don’t ever want to see again.

I expected stumbling blocks. It would come with the territory, after all I work, I have two teenage boys, and I hadn’t been in a classroom in 22 years. But the one I didn’t see coming was from the financial aid department. They didn’t want to let me apply for aid. My epic failures at 18 had come back to haunt me. There was no waiving those zeroes from 1991. In order to justify my financial aid, which consists of a need-based federal grant and federal loans, the university insisted that I be on probation. I had to earn A’s in my classes for the Fall semester to bring up my cumulative GPA. Nothing less than A’s was acceptable. So when I finished my first semester with a 4.0, I was ecstatic. I had proven myself and could now move forward, free of the shadow of my past failures.

Or not…

I found out a few days ago that I will continue to be on probation for the Spring semester. And this time I will have to write an appeal to justify the release of my financial aid. It was a shock. And the roller coaster of emotions that came with it is awful.

Why did it hit so hard?

It’s just a stupid bureaucratic technicality. I did it once. I can do it again. Maybe. I think. I hope. But I took harder classes this semester. What if I don’t? What if I can’t? Why the hell does it matter that I failed at 18? Why isn’t the fact that I had perfect scores on nearly everything I did this Fall good enough? What more am I supposed to prove? I’m not in the same place I was at 18. Or is that just what I like to tell myself? Damn it! That Gremlin is back to running his foul mouth in my head again.

I told Deacon Ron shortly after we first met eight years ago that my fear isn’t failing. My fear is doing something exceptionally well. Because once you’ve done something exceptionally well, people expect you to do it again. Over the last few years, I told myself that statement was founded in the depths of old wounds and held little, if any, truth. Years of emotional and physical abuse left me with wounds that have still not fully healed. I still fight every single day to accept what I do is not merely good enough but is actually good. Most days, that self-acceptance is there and it has been gradually become easier to reach. I had thought that the worst of that pain was behind me. Now here I am, being told that perfect isn’t good enough. To explain myself. To justify myself. I know it’s stupid red tape bullshit. I know that. But it hurts far more that I can put into words. Those old wounds run much, much deeper than I realized and the scabs have just been ripped off. Again. And the emotional dam burst is almost more than I can take.

It took every ounce of courage I had and then some to walk back on to that campus. I overcame panic triggers that are older than most of my new classmates. I poured everything I had into my studies and somehow still had enough left to balance the rest of my life. I tapped into reserves I didn’t know I had. I excelled in a place where I once failed abysmally.

I didn’t get this far on my own. My RA was in full-blown flare one day and in remission the next. And those reserves of strength and courage and calm and yes, at times even patience, were a grace given for purposes I don’t understand.

So yeah, I’ll justify myself and I’ll explain myself.

And yeah, my head has been an ugly place to be lately.

And while I hurt right now, deep down I know I won’t be swept away by it.

I had one of my vivid watcher dreams in late November. I was with the same guide that always shows up in these dreams. He stood with me on the side of mountain and showed me a dark, shadowy valley below us. There was no path through it. Only rocks and larger rocks, shadows and darker shadows. He wouldn’t show me the way forward. Nor would he show me how far it was to the summit, only the darkness that lay beneath and behind me. As always with my watcher dreams, the message was simple: See this. Remember it.

I remember. God brought me this far. He’s not leaving me now.

Unglitzing New Year’s

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New Year’s Eve came around last night. Again. I have a serious love/hate thing going with New Year’s. I ricochet between, ‘Now what?’ [excited that good and new things are headed my way] and ‘Now what?!’ [fed up and overwhelmed already, what further crap could be coming]

I know the latter is not exactly inspiring, is it? But it’s honest.

I had planned to be celebrating with friends but my body had other plans. Between the cold, the coming snow, the stress of the busy season at work and my insane willfulness to just keep going full tilt during Christmas, the RA finally caught up and flattened me. I came home from work at 2:30 in the afternoon. I had to double up on the pain pills. Instead of heading out, I collapsed on the couch with my woobie blanket, feeling exhausted and rather betrayed. I spent the evening migrating between reading Rumi’s poetry and scrolling through Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr all while wearing compression gloves to help ease the pain in my hands. I’ve found that I read with different eyes on my down days. And from what I read on social media last night, I’m not the only out there who feels this kind of ‘oh crap now what’ trepidation as we head into 2014. But we gloss over it. We dress it up, take it out, buy it a few drinks and hope it will either change into blindingly brilliant optimism by the time the ball drops or at the very least, stop reminding us of all the things that could go catastrophically wrong in the coming year. Nobody that I’ve seen goes out on New Year’s Eve saying, ‘This year was tough and I’m afraid 2014 will just be more of the same.’ Not because we don’t feel it, but because it’s not acceptable to say it. New Year’s Eve is always the night of the happy, happy, joy, joy song and dance, insincere promises and staged optimism.

But the party is over now. The ball has dropped. Auld Lang Syne has been sung. The sun has risen on a new day, a new year. So the question still remains: Now what? The inflection and tone and the unspoken words carried behind it are up to you. As for me, it will be another quiet down day. But I managed to drag my sorry self down to the beach this morning and kneel in the sand with the sun of the new year on my face. When I stripped away all the glitzy, glossy, staged woohoo optimism, shoved away all the fears that are nagging at me, and took the time to really know the ground beneath me, I was left with one simple thing:

There are 365 dawns in a year. How many do I choose to ignore because I decide, for whatever reason, that I don’t like the way my day is headed even before it starts? I throw away a gift before it’s even unwrapped.

I could make a resolution to change but to be perfectly blunt, I suck at keeping resolutions. They’re too big for me to handle. I’ll stick to unwrapping today. I can thank God for the beauty I saw this morning…

… And for making sure no one saw me trying to stand back up after kneeling on frozen sand in 17 degree weather with knees that aren’t working right. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t graceful. But it was grace-filled and that feels like almost too much for me to accept.