About Perfectionism

Pema Chödrön, a well-known American Tibetan Buddhist claims that “Perfection is like death.” In her words “it doesn’t have any fresh air. There is no room for something to come in and interrupt all that. We are killing the moment by controlling our experience.”

She explains that by doing insisting on perfection, we set ourselves up to a failure. Eventually, sooner rather than later, we will confront an experience we can’t control. Perfectionism is an aggressive approach to life, as we reject experiences, whenever they are not perfect or pleasant. To be fully alive and awake, we need to experience every moment, “perfect” or not.

Wow. I was raised to be a perfectionist. My genius father was a perfectionist, when it came to teaching me proper Hebrew. It was a great tool. I owe him my sparkling clean grammar and expressions to this day. When it came to other areas...things were a bit more rigid for me. Ballet dancing for years since I was 3 years old, years of piano lessons, best student in school, best athlete. The world was very clear, black and white. Second place felt a failure.

My mother was not a perfectionist. She always told me a “B” is enough. Only now I realize how brilliant she was in her approach. She was a very successful professional and a very diligent worker, but was soft enough to stay grounded. Obviously things got more complicated as I grew up. The youngest of three, I grew up with two much older brothers who were revered and admired....while I was left behind. To me, it felt as if the family revolved around my beautiful, successful, smart, popular, and sought after brothers. I think my father admired them. 

No matter what I did, it felt irrelevant and unimportant. I won a part performing on TV with a teen group…nothing to write home about. Later serving in the Israeli Air Force, when got an award of excellence, it was no special occasion. When I was best, it was no big deal. When I wasn’t, I had no real tools to avoid drowning in emotional turmoil. 

A bit about figure skating….

The setting: end of March 2015, 2:00AM. Both my husband and I are wildly awake and shaking in bed with a laptop. I know I need to teach a morning class the next day. I will be exhausted. It may be crazy, but knowing I had to get up early no matter what was reassuring. Knowing no matter what the result, life will go on no matter what.

My daughter is about to start her short program at the ISU World Championships of Figure Skating in Shanghai, China. The girl is not even 17 years old. It is her second world championships. In the prior year she got to “Worlds” in Tokyo out of nowhere. She earned her qualifying scores to complete at worlds, so she did. Super talented, she was always a wild card. 

Shanghai was a different game. She had already trained for almost a year with the most renowned coaches in the world. She was living in Toronto by herself with a foster family, without having her parents there. Her peers were that time were Olympic and World medalists and even Champions. They were the best of the best skaters in the world. In training she had shown she had the talent to compete at that level. She was a mesmerizing artist and skater to watch. Huge tripled jumps, gorgeous lines and heart melting movements. She had the whole package, and she and her coaches had expectations.

Back to the present. It is 2:00AM, we are watching the live stream. We are in bed with the familiar feeling of nausea creeping up on us. My husband is now out of bed patrolling in the room like a restless tiger. All of sudden she is on. Looking amazing, so pretty with her hair tied back in a perfect pony tail. The TV cameras love her delicate angular facial features. Her lean body hugged in a smooth black sparkly unitard. A packed arena, her federation, the judges all have their eyes on her as she takes to the ice. Many more eyes watching her on the live broadcast. She begins. For those who don’t know, the short program in figure skating is the gate for the Freeskate (the finals). It is unforgiving. If you make more than one mistake, you are done. Years of training boiled down to three unforgiving minutes

In the senior short, there are no doubles allowed.. We knew her tendencies; we knew the programs by heart. We knew she is a perfectionist. We knew she is afraid to fall. 

She started well, flowing and at ease. Then came the first jump. We are holding our fingers, breath, and every muscle in our body. She popped it. Ugh. Then came the second a triple triple combination. She completes a double-triple and loses more vital points. 

That’s it, done. She didn’t fall. It was a beautiful skating. “Perfect”. But the gate to the freeskate and an invitation to the Senior Grand Prix has been closed. If on her first jump she had attempted a triple and fallen, she would have made the Freeskate, but she popped lost points, and falls short by the smallest margin.

We were waiting for her telephone call right after, crying, miserable. We’ve been there so many times before. Through the many victories and disappointments, we had experienced it all. Looking backwards, it was the curse of perfectionism, the fear of falling which held her back.