Everyone is Broken and Everything Needs to Be Fixed: Ongoing Reflections on Perfectionism

The hallways and classrooms of Preparation Academy were no stranger to crying adults. New teachers quickly found the best places to collapse and cry quietly in peace. On any given day you could find an adult perched in the corner of the faculty room, hiding behind the doorway to the rarely used 3rd floor stairwell, or just sitting silently in their car outside in the parking lot. Tears were mandatory. I remember my first breakdown. I lost it moments before back to school night started, exploding into tears from the enormity of the job. There was simply too much to do and not enough time in which to do it. The stakes were too high and the threshold for failure was nonexistent. I just assumed 75 hour work weeks were the norm for new teachers. I was a proud member of the AM/PM club, a core group of Preparation Academy teachers who arrived before the building’s automatic locks opened at 6 AM and left after 8 when the doors relocked.[1]  I didn’t understand how everything I did was driven by perfectionism’s twin engines of unattainable goals and self-criticism.

It wasn’t until my second year at Preparation Academy when I finally came face to face with what I now recognize is the most important component of my inner life.  I had just collapsed inside my room after transitioning my class to their next period down the hall.[2] With a spasm my body unclenched, releasing a morning’s worth of frustration. Twin rivers of saline quickly gave way to full-on waves of tears and mucous. On this particular day Ms. Rogers, the chief academic officer, happened to spot me hightailing it back to my room came to check on me.

After explaining to her my frustrations and inability to connect with a few particular students, Ms. Rogers looked me in the eye and asked me why I came back to the school. Why did I return to Preparation Academy if the place caused me so much hurt? I hadn’t really ever thought about it before, so the question caught me off guard. I stared at her and blurted out the first thing that came to mind, a common ADHD practice. I told her that I saw teaching as a mirror, a reflection of everything I hated about myself. Working at Preparation Academy forced me to confront my deficiencies on an almost minute-by-minute basis, I told her. There was an awkward pause as we both stared at each other, unsure how to proceed.[3]

The school was a glorious fit for a perfectionist. Specific rules and procedures governed everything from how students asked to sharpen their pencil (holding the broken pencil in the air, not to be confused putting your index finger in the air, the sign for needing a pencil) to how they washed their hands after using the restroom (one pump of soap, twenty seconds of washing, three flicks of the hands to remove excess water, then a single paper towel to finish the job).  My inner compulsion for perfection through discipline was overjoyed by a behavioral philosophy predicated upon enforcing rigid codes of conduct on children.

This philosophy also drove Preparation Academy’s academic program. Children were viewed as flawed receptacles to be filled and fixed by teachers. Every single teacher, regardless of subject, gave weekly tests to diagnose gaps in understanding. We took entire professional development days to create data action plans and find new ways to remediate children. Everyone is broken and everything needs to be fixed. I never felt worse. When we were observed, we received an email with detailed feedback from either the head of school or Ms. Rogers. Since the feedback email was immediate, as soon as I saw my evaluator leave the room I told the kids to work silently on their skill packets so I could unhook the projector and read my feedback. It started out with a written summary of the lesson before splitting into three columns: a plus sign (strengths), a question mark (questions about your teacher choices during the lesson) and a delta sign (things you could change immediately to improve). The improvements, like everything else at the school, were surface-level commands that allowed for no conversation. At some point during my first year I spliced all of the negative feedback I received and pasted it onto a Word document. I then taped the awful page(s) on my clipboard so I could read them over and over. I still have some of those sheets somewhere buried deep in an obsessive collection of APA memorabilia.

But I’ve also never felt any better. Like the fish who asks “What’s water?” I’ve come to realize my perfectionism is omnipresent. Even though my school situation has changed, my inner life hasn’t. Although my current school looks completely different on paper, I’ve continued to struggle with the same daily gauntlet of self-recrimination and shame. Perfectionism is always with me. It’s woven itself into the very fabric of my existence. As I’ve stated before, teaching and perfectionism can be a brutal combination. I come home most days feeling utterly defeated. My eyes glaze over in submission to my brain’s relentless laundry list of failings.

My goal this year is to avoid loathing myself by the time I arrive home after work. I want to find and nurture a sense of inner equanimity.  I’m trying to be gentle and to hold myself with the same compassion and empathy I strive to feel towards my students. This is not easy. I’ve had over thirty years to perfect the art of self-criticism. Those neural pathways are deep and entrenched. So I’ve started meditating again. I’ve flirted with mindfulness for a solid decade. I’ve taken classes, attended retreats, and read the literature. I meditate 3-4 days out of the week, and I never sit for longer than twelve minutes. So far I haven’t noticed any change, although I’m not exactly sure what changes I’m expecting.

Meditation is one of the main ways I’m trying to alter my trajectory away from perfectionism’s black hole. Another way is to simply catch myself when I’m doing it. I’ll tell myself to “stopstopstopstopstop” whenever I realize I’ve berating myself. The problem is that I’m always putting myself down. Whether I’m comparing myself to other, better teachers in the building or replaying failed parts of a lesson, it is non-stop. In those rare moments when I am able to turn the negativity down, my brain feels eerily empty. Errant thoughts wander through my neural neighborhoods searching for some action. But this is the exception, never the norm.

Now, four weeks into the year, I can say with resigned acceptance that nothing has really changed. Failure continues to coat me in its slick film, and no matter how hard I scrub it’s always on me. But I’ll continue to try. I’ll still seek out those rare moments of bliss when I’m able to silence my perfectionism and experience the joys of a life driven by joy instead of shame.

[1] Only later would I realize just how awful this was for my marriage. I would arrive home every night exhausted and defeated, limp into the bedroom, and collapse on the bed. In order to keep up with the weekly quizzes Preparation Academy required, I would carry my work with me everywhere during the weekend. Scenic car trips to apple orchards or hiking trails were simply time to grade quizzes and write on student papers.

[2] At Preparation Academy teachers transitioned students between classes. Students had to walk in silent single-file lines “on the edge of the blue.” This meant roughly twelve inches from the wall. The space in the flooring was conveniently marked by a single strip of blue tiling.

[3] On a side note, this example proves the teacher-training bromide true: your first few years of teaching end up being more about you then they are your students.

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17 comments

  1. jenorr73

    I don’t know that I have the right words here, but I couldn’t read this and go on without some sort of comment. As an outsider I found this fascinating. It was an astounding glimpse into a teacher and into school. As one who has met you I found it painful. It was so honest and raw. Thank you for writing it and for being willing to share it.

    Like

    • Peter Anderson

      Thanks for the kind words, Jen! That school left many indelible marks upon me, and I know I’ll be writing about it in some way or another for many years to come.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

      Like

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  3. Joy Kirr

    I thought I was a perfectionist. Until I read your post. I know I’m not now. I cross that blue (any color, really) line – just to cross it. Just to rebel – a teeny bit. Just because I CAN. I think my mom taught me that… I see myself in so many points in this post, but then my mind goes to what I do to counteract these feelings. I spill all to my love. He tells me I’m learning. He tells me it’s human. Normal. Perfect, as you say, is truly unattainable. So why beat yourself down about it? That’s human, too.

    I’ve only tried meditation when my mom was sick, and it was the worst time in my life. The friend who talked to me about meditation said, “Think only of the NOW. What is happening right NOW.” I could see how that applied to my mom, and that helped a bit, as she was fine AT THAT MOMENT, but what was I doing? Was I wasting my time trying to sit and meditate? I’m not a sitter, normally. I have a hard time watching a fire while camping. I’ve seen meditation work for some. It didn’t work for me in the short time I gave it a try. (I did NOT study it, by any means. I feel I’m too impatient.)

    You probably didn’t write this post to get advice. But I can’t hold mine back. Feel free to stop reading, Peter. I think I’ve gotten much better at handling my mistakes by seeing the mistakes all around me. The ornament – I allowed – my niece add to our tree. It’s in the wrong place. It’s crooked. It’s not all glued together, even. I smile at it now. The cord behind the tree is crooked, because my nephew kicked it when he was getting the presents. I leave it there to remember his excitement. Instead of bothering me, I let my mistakes and imperfections remind me of experiences. Am I making sense?

    Since my comment is too large now, I’ll transfer these thoughts to a blog post some day. Not too soon, as my list (I wonder what your list looks like…) is full of last-minute break plans. I see the fact that you shared this post with me as serendipitous. I’ll use your post as a catalyst for ideas to use. This may be a life-long struggle, but recognizing it is a HUGE step, yes? May your loved ones help you along, and reach out to others when you need an ear! We’ll be here. All of us – in our imperfect houses / lives.
    Respectfully, Joy

    Like

    • Peter Anderson

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Joy. I’m glad that the writing was able to have an effect on you. I’ve dabbled with meditation for years; I think it’s about time I recommitted myself to it!

      I liked hearing about the tree cord and the ornament. I’m reminded of Buddhist poet Rumi’s line: ‘The wound is where the light enters.’ I’ll keep your tree/ornament in mind as I move into the new year.

      And lastly, thanks again for the words of compassion and support! Looking forward to reading your next post, whatever it’s about.

      Like

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  5. Corinne Campbell

    Hi Peter,
    I’m so grateful to have come across this post. Much of what you say resonates with me: I have similar struggles with shame, anxiety and perfectionism – to see your own struggle laid out like that… it helps. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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