I’ve been “mastering” my perfectionism problem this summer, as contradictory as that statement sounds.
I joined a Masters swimming program knowing full well that I would be placed anywhere from the slow lane to the medium lane… that is, at least two lanes from the fast lane. I am swimming with folks who have swum the Chesapeake Bay and back a few dozen times. In two hours. Probably taking less than ten breaths.
Last week none of the slow-to-medium swimmers showed up, so I tried to keep up with the mermaids, feeling much like Nemo with a gimpy fin, before he was kidnapped by the diver and placed in a fish tank. I was swallowing plenty of water as I tried to thrust my arms out of the water in a sorry-looking butterfly stroke, and, less than halfway to the deep end of the pool, the mermaids were already doing their half-second flip turns, coming back in my direction. The afternoon was very hard on my fragile ego. Two days later, I am still tired and sore. BUT instead of telling myself that I am a sorry-swimming, lazy loser, I am using the achiness and fatigue as an opportunity to accept — even celebrate — my averageness.
This is huge progress for me… to be perfectly fine swimming in the middle lane, knowing that there is no way in hell I will be able to catch up to the gal who swam butterfly for the US Naval Academy’s swim team. Even if I quit my job, and spent nine hours in the pool every day, she would probably still be able to lap me a few dozen times.
Since my son David is the one who inspired me to try group swimming again, I keep imagining myself as an 8-year-old, attempting a new sport or activity for the first time. That mutates (most of) my anxiety and nervousness into playful fun… so that I don’t take much of it seriously, like I do with practically everything else in my life.
Beyond Blue reader Mel sent me a great piece the other day by Michelle Russell who writes the “Practice Makes Imperfect” blog. In the post “Why Getting Things Wrong Is Vital to Your Well-Being,” she writes:
When we are very young, everything is play. We don’t worry about failing because we’re so excited about the trying. We haven’t yet learned that we’re supposed to think of ourselves as being on trial before the world.
Think back to your childhood and the first time you rode a bike. Or jumped off the high dive. My guess is that the giddiness and excitement you felt outweighed any bumping-into-curbs or belly-flopping that you might have done. You didn’t do it perfectly, but you had a blast making the attempt. And because you had so much fun, you did it again, and again, until you improved. But the improving wasn’t the goal. The fun was.
So here is the reason why I’m saying that it’s vital to screw things up once in a while. You must learn that it is not the end of the world. That you can recover, and keep trying, and get better.
You must learn failure-resiliency. You need to know, deep in your bones, that you can always bounce back.
And maybe even have some fun in the process.
This philosophy not only works for me and my ambition–big and small–but also in how I direct my kids in their own pursuits. Because I don’t want them to grow up to be the control freak that I am.
The other day, when David’s swimming coach was handing out ribbons from the last meet, I so wanted my boy to get one. In fact, my competitive nature almost reared its ugly head and stole one from David’s friend who got seven. (So unfair.)
But we walked home empty-handed, my son and I. And that’s good! Because maybe he will learn … and I will learn … that swimming isn’t about winning a blue or red ribbon. It’s about having fun and learning. Even if you belly flop when you dive and your butterfly looks more like a caterpillar. Even if, in the time it takes for you to swim 25 meters of freestyle, the competitive swimmer next to you has finished her 100 meters.