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How I Overcame the Stress of Perfectionism by Learning to Play Again

“What, then, is the right way of living? Life must be lived as play…” ~Plato

I am a recovering perfectionist, and learning to play again saved me.

Like many children, I remember playing a lot when I was younger and being filled with a sense of openness, curiosity, and joy toward life.

I was fortunate to grow up in Oregon with a large extended family with a lot of cousins with whom I got to play regularly. We spent hours, playing hide-and-seek, climbing trees, drawing, and building forts.

I also attended a wonderful public school that encouraged play. We had regular recess, and had all sorts of fun equipment like stilts, unicycles, monkey bars, and roller skates to play with. In class, our teachers did a lot of imaginative and artistic activities with us that connected academics with a sense of playfulness.

I viewed every day as an exciting opportunity and remember thinking, “You just never know what is going to happen.” My natural state was to be present with myself, enjoying the process of play

Unfortunately, my attitude began shifting from playfulness to perfectionism early on. Instead of being present and enjoying process, I started focusing on performance (mainly impressing people) and product (doing everything right). The more I did this, the less open, curious, and joyful I was.

Instead, I grew anxious, critical, and discouraged.

I first remember developing perfectionist tendencies when I was in elementary school and taking piano lessons. For some reason, I got the idea that I had to perform songs perfectly, or else I was a failure.

Eventually I became so anxious, I would freeze up while playing in recitals. I started hating piano, which I once had loved, and eventually quit.

My perfectionism spread into other areas of my life, too. In school, I pushed myself to get straight A’s, and if I earned anything less, I felt like a failure. I often missed out on the joy of learning because I was so worried about getting things right.

My perfectionism also negatively impacted my relationship with myself. I believed I had to look perfect all the time. As a result, I often hated the way I looked, rather than learning to appreciate my own unique appearance and beauty. I also remembering turning play into exercise at this time of my life and using it to pursue the “perfect” body.

Movement, which I loved when I was a child, began to feel exhausting and punishing.

Perfectionism also hurt my relationships with other people. I felt like I had to be smooth and put together and that I always had to put everyone else’s needs above my own. Not surprisingly, I often felt unconfident, anxious, and exhausted around other people.

At this time in my life, I believed that if I tried and worked hard enough, I could do everything right, look perfect, and make everyone happy.

My perfectionism increased in young adulthood until eventually it became unsustainable. In my early thirties, I became the principal of a small, private middle school where I had taught for eight years. I loved the school and was devoted to it.

In many ways, I was the ideal person to do the job. But I was also young and inexperienced, and I made some big mistakes early on. I also made some decisions that were good and reasonable decisions that, for various reasons, angered a lot of people.

To complicate matters, the year I became middle school principal, the school underwent a massive change in our school’s overall leadership, and we suffered a tragic death in the community. I worked as hard as I could to help my school through this difficult time, but things felt apart.

My school, which had largely been a happy and joyful place, suddenly became filled with fighting, suspicion, and stress. These events were largely beyond my control and were not the fault of any one person, but I blamed myself. For someone who had believed her whole life that if she worked hard enough, she could avoid making mistakes and could make people happy, my job stress felt devastating.

I felt like my life was spinning out of control and that all the rules that once worked no longer applied. I crashed emotionally, and I remember telling my husband at this time, “I will never be happy again.”

That was one of the darkest times of my life.

It took me several years to find happiness again. One of the major things that helped me to do so was recovering a sense of playfulness.

After my emotional crash, I decided I was done with perfectionism. I understood clearly that focusing so much on avoiding mistakes and pleasing-people was the source of much of my suffering. 

I realized I needed a different way to approach life.

About this time, my friend Amy and I started taking fencing lessons together. I was quite bad at it, but it didn’t matter. Because I had given up perfectionism, I didn’t care anymore about impressing people at fencing class or performing perfect fencing moves.

Instead, I cared about being present with myself in the process and staying open and curious, and focusing on joy.

I had a blast. I felt free and alive, and something flickered to life inside me that had felt dormant for many years. I felt playful again. And I realized that I had been missing playfulness for many years, and that it was part of what had caused me to become so perfectionistic.

Playfulness is the attitude we take toward life when we focus on presence and process with attitudes of openness, curiosity, and joy. Perfectionism, on the other hand, makes us focus on performance and product and encourages anxiety, criticalness, and discouragement.

Fencing helped me rediscover play and leave perfectionism behind.

I fully embraced my newfound playful attitude. It touched every area of my life, and I hungered for new adventures. I began reconnecting with dreams I had put on hold for a while. Eventually I decided to leave my job as a middle school principal and return to graduate school to earn my PhD in philosophy, a goal I’d had since seventh grade.

Earning a PhD in philosophy may not seem like a very playful thing to do, but it was for me. For six years, I immersed myself in the ideas of great thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Rousseau, Herbert Marcuse, and Paulo Freire.

It felt like I was playing on a big, philosophical playground. But I also faced some significant challenges.

I was thirty-seven when I returned to grad school and was a good ten to fifteen years older than most of my colleagues. Most of them had a B.A. and even an M.A. in philosophy, while I had only taken one philosophy course in college. I had a lot of catching up to do, and I faced some major challenges.

One of the biggest challenges I faced early on was our program’s comprehensive exams. We had two major exams over thousands of pages of some of the hardest philosophical works ever written. The exams were so difficult that at one point, they had over a fifty percent fail rate. If students didn’t pass them by the third time, the graduate school kicked them out of the program.

I was determined to pass these comps and spent all my Christmas and summer breaks studying for them for the first several years of graduate school. But I still failed both exams the first time I took them, and I failed my second exam twice.

It isn’t surprising I failed them, given the high fail rate for the exams and the fact that I was still learning philosophy. But it was painful. I had worked so hard, and I was afraid of getting kicked out of the program.

I was tempted to revert to my old perfectionist habits because they had once given me a sense of control. But I knew that would lead me down a dead-end road. So, I began applying all the lessons I had learned about playfulness to the comprehensive exams.  

Rather than focusing on performance and the product, I focused on presence and process. I also focused on practicing habits of openness, curiosity, and joy. Mentally, I compared the comps to shooting an arrow into the bull’s eye of a target. Every test, even if I failed it, was a chance to check my progress, readjust, and get closer to the bull’s eye.

This turned the comprehensive exams into a game, and it lessened the pain of failing them. It helped me accept failure as a normal part of the process and to congratulate myself every time I made progress, no matter how small it was. This attitude also helped me focus on proactive, constructive steps I could take to do better, like meeting with faculty members or getting tutoring in areas I found especially challenging. (Aristotle’s metaphysics, anyone?)

I also taught myself to juggle during this time. Juggling not only relieved stress, it was also a playful bodily reminder to me that progress takes time. Nobody juggles perfectly the first time they try. Juggling takes time and patience, and the more we focus on openness, curiosity, and the joy of juggling, the more juggling practice feels like a fun game. 

I began thinking of passing my comps like juggling, and it helped me be more patient with the process. I eventually mastered the material and passed both my comps.

Studying for the comps taught me to bring playfulness into all my work in graduate school.

Whenever I felt stressed out in my program, I reminded myself that perfectionism was a dead-end road, and that playfulness was a much better approach. Doing this helped me relax, be kind to myself, accept failures as part of the learning process, and to take small consistent steps to improve.

This playful attitude kept me sane and helped me make it to the finish line.

Playfulness was so helpful for me in graduate school that I have tried to adopt this spirit of playfulness in all areas of my life, including the college classrooms in which I teach. I have noticed that whenever I help students switch from perfectionism to playfulness, they immediately relax, are kinder to themselves, and increase their ability to ask for help.

I am dedicated now to practicing playfulness every day of my life and to help others do the same. Playfulness isn’t something we must leave behind in childhood. It is an attitude we can bring with us our whole life. When we do so, life becomes an adventure, even during difficult times, and there is always something more to learn, explore, and savor.

About Shelly Johnson

My name is Shelly Johnson. I have a PhD in philosophy and teach ethics and a variety of other philosophy classes (including Philosophy of Zombies and philosophy of play) at Georgetown College. I blog at Love is Stronger and am the author of Argument BuilderDiscovery of Deduction (co-author) and Everyday Debate. I enjoy hula-hooping, juggling, forest-bathing, watercolor painting, and writing.

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