I’m terrified of not being perfect.
Admitting that scares me. Talking about the concept makes me look around to make sure nobody is listening. I don’t want to talk about it, because I know my beliefs about it are contradictory and self-defeating. It’s even worse to admit this to you.
I found out Wednesday night that I made a mistake at work last month. I sent a couple thousand dollars that should have gone to one company to somebody else instead. I’ll go over a transaction in detail at the office tomorrow to be sure, but I’m almost positive I screwed something up.
The problem can be fixed, so nobody’s going to lose any money, but I am humiliated. It happened because we don’t have adequate controls in place for this one particular thing, but I’m still the one who failed to handle this one transaction in a different way.
You see, I’m not supposed to make mistakes. Never.
I set this pattern when I was a child. It wasn’t conscious, but my purpose was to defend myself against my father’s anger. When I made mistakes, he could be scary. Just thinking today about his volcanic tirades back then can still elevate my heart rate and make me feel a bit of panic.
I can credit my father with my decent command of grammar, because he insisted we learn to speak and write properly when we were children. But his methods were terrifying. If one of us made a grammatical mistake, he would stop us and insist that we correct ourselves.
That’s not so bad, but he wouldn’t tell us what we had done wrong. We would have to figure out what we might have just said and how we had been mistaken. The same would go for mispronunciations. And if we didn’t figure out the mistake and correct it quickly, this ordeal could easily go on for an hour or more. By the time it ended, he would be screaming at us, so we were motivated by panic to figure out the mistake and correct it as soon as possible.
When I was in the eighth grade, I wrote and directed a production for my school. When I typed the script, I included the credits at the top. The assistant director was someone I didn’t get along with. I didn’t have room for the full title, so I abbreviated his title as “ass. director.”
He started screaming at me when he saw what I had just typed. He told me that I had done that as an insult to the boy I didn’t care for, but I honestly had no idea what he was talking about. He told me to figure out what I had done wrong and correct it — but without looking at any books or reference material.
This went on for hours. I would go back to him periodically with another guess about how “assistant” might be correctly abbreviated. Do you have any idea how long it takes for a 13-year-old to guess that it’s actually “asst”?
One of my sisters mispronounced the name of the Ferris wheel one time. She was maybe 8 or 9 and called it a “farris wheel.” He pulled the car to the side of the road and refused to go anywhere until he yelled at her long enough for her to figure out how she should have said it. That incident seemed to last forever.
These sorts of things went on all the time. My reaction was to stay hyper vigilant. I was doomed to make some errors and get into trouble at times, but I was as perfect as I knew how to be. This created two very contradictory beliefs in me:
— I must be perfect at all times.
— I am so flawed that I deserve to be punished.
Since it’s impossible to be flawless, I was doomed to be in trouble. But since I was so vigilant, that became a personality trait. I was the boy who didn’t make mistakes. And I was the boy who called out everybody else who made mistakes. I am ashamed even now at how arrogant and pompous I was in becoming a junior version of my father in this regard.
I’ve wrestled with this for years and I’ve tried several times to adequately explain it here, but I don’t know that I’ve ever conveyed the depths of my self-loathing about it.
When normal people make mistakes, they might be annoyed at having made the mistake. They might be defensive. But they don’t take it as seriously as I do.
It was about 8 p.m. Wednesday when I found out that I might have made this mistake at work. I started looking into it and I soon became obsessed with figuring out what I’d done. I felt sick, quite literally. And as I realized that I will almost certainly have to confess to a couple of people that I made this mistake — and I’ll have to fix it — I have felt a deep sense of humiliation that’s accompanied by panic.
It’s almost 1 a.m. and I’ve been able to think about little else for the last five hours — all because of a careless error which can be reversed fairly easily.
Right now, I just want to quit my job and never see my co-workers again. Seriously. I know that sounds crazy — and I know I won’t do that — but the panic that comes from making an error pushes that sort of button for me. I feel so ashamed that I never want them to see me again.
I realize now that our childhood defense mechanisms become part of our personality. Rightly understand, personality — as we understand it — isn’t “what we are” as much as it’s “how we’ve learned to compensate” to get what we need.
I learned to be perfect — or as perfect as I knew how to be — to buy as much peace at home as I could possibly get. And that is reflected in the Enneagram Type 1 personality which describes so much about my personality, for both good and bad.
I’m trying to learn two things:
— As long as I am diligent and conscientious, I don’t have to be perfect, because I can’t be.
— I don’t deserve the shame and guilt that I heap on myself — and nobody else is expecting me to be perfect. If I am punished for not being perfect, it’s only because I’m choosing to do that to myself.
Intellectually, I know that nobody is going to scream at me for making this mistake. I also know that even if someone did scream at me, I don’t deserve that. But my body has a deep association between my mistakes and wild, visceral scenes of punishment and anger. That goes very deep in me.
It’s hard to convince my body to believe that I’m not still the child or teen who is going to be screamed at and punished for making a mistake.
I’ll never like making mistakes. I’ll always go to great lengths to do everything properly, to the best of my ability. It makes me feel better about myself to do that, even if that programming was put into place by my raging and narcissistic father.
I just hope I can learn to love myself enough to offer ready forgiveness for my mistakes — and I hope the day will come when I no longer feel hours of humiliation just for being human.
UPDATE: After almost 18 hours of worry and shame, I got to the office Thursday to discover that I had made no error after all. Here’s a little bit more about it.