The perils of perfectionism

21st April 2010

The perils of perfectionism

I’m in the fourth week of an advanced dSLR community class and our first assignment — five images of patterns, manual setting — is due tonight.  There’s about 35 people of all skill levels in the class and we’re going to spend the evening sharing and critiquing everyone’s work.  I really wish now that I had waited to take the class — I’m hopelessly busy with about 20 different projects and while I don’t lack in motivation, I lack the time to shoot really well-crafted images to my standards.  I was getting a little stressed last night trying to cram in as many shots as I could before class tonight and I was trying to explain the madness to my husband.  “You don’t understand,” I said.  “Not only do I have to take five images of patterns, but they have to be the five best images of patterns in the whole class!”

I admit it… I’m a highly competitive person, prone to excess, beholden to the Draconian voice in my head that compels me to be the very best at practically every undertaking I attempt.  When I was in undergrad, it wasn’t enough to make the Dean’s list — I had to be the very best and cleverest student that professor had ever had (which probably led to my unfortunate typecast as Suck-Up).  My type A personality certainly paired well with my eating disorder.  No matter that it had taken more than 20 years to put the weight on, I wanted it off immediately and was hellbent on achieving that goal, health be damned.  I constantly pushed myself to run faster, starve longer, burn just 100 calories more — all the while excelling in my undergraduate studies while holding down a full-time job.  Even now, years into recovery, I still feel a twinge — okay, more like a maddening compulsion — to outdo my sister-in-law (the diet junk food-munching Weight-Watcherer), who’s recently taken up running.  And I don’t even like running!

I’ve self-analyzed my perfectionist and competitive nature with perhaps more scrutiny than Freud ever dedicated to his psycho-babble-sexual theories, and while it may be, in large part, simply my DNA-encoded personality, part of it stems from being growing up a fat kid.  The taunts and jeers started in late grade school, picked up steam in junior high and become a daily battleground throughout my high school years.  My mom used to be an EMT and I was always fascinated by the stories she’d tell of emergency rescues (I later became an EMT myself), so in middle school, I poured through her EMT training book, absorbing multi-syllabic words I could barely pronounce, let alone knew what they meant, and when other kids would begin to harass me for my weight, I’d throw back insults that often left them scratching their heads in puzzlement.  Even with my personal history of more clumsy gaffes and embarrassing blunders than I care to remember, I still have a kind of phobia at being laughed at and it’s this crippling fear, I believe, that lies at the heart of my maddening need for perfectionism.

I’ve come a long way in easing this self-imposed compulsion since entering into recovery for anorexia and bulimia.  One of my greatest triumphs, in fact, is that I graduated with my master’s degree only cum laude, and not summa or magna cum laude.  Yeah, yeah… I can see some of you rolling your eyes in bemusement, but for me those few tenths of a point meant the difference between a complete nervous breakdown and mere over-exhaustion.  When I interviewed for my job several years ago, the news editor asked why I would make a good reporter.  “That’s easy,” I said with a laugh.  “I’ve embarrassed myself so many times now that I have no problems talking to anyone.”  And it’s true — I’ve been able to plunge into my work in even the strangest of situations without that familiar paralyzing fear of appearing stupid or ridiculous. These days, whenever that need to be perfect jackknifes in my brain, I try to stop myself, take a few deep breaths, and mentally repeat, “I do not have to be the best.  I do not have to be the best.  I do not have to be the best.“  Some days I even believe it.

Okay, so I’m undecided as to the last two images I should share.  Again, the assignment was to take five manual setting images of patterns.  Here’s the three I’ve decided on (click for larger res images).

And then I have to pick two more from among these images.  Which ones do you suggest?

1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 21st, 2010 at 4:46 pm and is filed under Eating Disorders, Personal, Rachel, Recovery. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

There are currently 22 responses to “The perils of perfectionism”

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  1. 1 On April 21st, 2010, SteveD said:

    1 & 5

    But on one do a layer mask and drop the light coming thru the window and paint it thru.

    Looks good, you seem to have a eye for it. Make sure you do things with People in them!

    I am in the finals for Habitat Photo Contest. Week in Nepal. Wish Me Luck! To get experience do some people things.

    But flowers and builds do sell I guess.

    Photography is one of my Passions I guess. Sinced that is what I did before I retired (WLOX TV Robins Robins, USAF Combat Photography). Never did push it thru like I should have (bugged Robin for Opportunity).


    Keep on showing your work. I can be hard on photography so If I offend, sorry


  2. 2 On April 21st, 2010, SteveD said:

    If you can’t or don’t know layer masks I can send some links to make it easy, ok easier. What are you using? I hope CS4. (Photoshop).

  3. 3 On April 21st, 2010, Elizabeth said:

    It’s clear that I don’t quite understand what “pattern” means in this context, because the bunnies and the flower don’t really look like patterns to me. But assuming that any of these are patterns for the purpose of your assignment, I would choose 2 and 5, because they are the most different from the images you have already chosen. 3 looks a little more like a “pattern” than 2 to me, so I would also consider 3 and 5. 1 and 4 look too much like other images you have already chosen to me.

  4. 4 On April 21st, 2010, JeanC said:

    I rather like 2 & 5 :)

  5. 5 On April 21st, 2010, Micaela said:

    Bunnies! I like 5.

  6. 6 On April 21st, 2010, Rachel said:

    @SteveD: I know layer masks, but thanks!

    @Elizabeth: In this assignment, patterns are defined as the repetition of similar colors, shapes, objects, lines, etc… My babies are so cute that I just have to show them off! And the flower has a unique pattern all its own, I think, with its shapes and coloring.

    Thanks for the suggestions, everyone!

  7. 7 On April 21st, 2010, Melanie said:

    I actually would choose #4 because I think it’s the negative of the staircase one you’ve already chosen. But I’m with Elizabeth in not understanding what the flower and the bunnies have to do with patterns.

  8. 8 On April 21st, 2010, Twistie said:

    I like 1 and 5. Actually, I like all of them, but those are the two that say the most to me.

    Besides, 1 hadn’t gotten any love at all yet.

    Oh, and I’m seeing the patterns in the bunnies and the flower. It could be that I’m just odd, but I don’t see how they can’t be patterns when there are definite patterns in them.

  9. 9 On April 21st, 2010, Hating ED said:

    I know nothing about photography (probably because I’m such a perfectionist and I know I’d drive myself crazy with something like that), but I needed this post. I’m just starting recovery, and my therapist and I are starting to focus on my perfectionistic habits. Nice to read about it from the perspective of someone who is much farther along!

  10. 10 On April 21st, 2010, rachel with a little r said:

    I would definitely want you to include the flower, because you have already chosen the bunnies, and all the other images are architectural black-and-white images. If you include the flower, though, you will have some color, some black-and-white, some architecture, and some living organisms. Then, the bunny pic will not seem like such an anomaly when the pictures are viewed together. There is also something really nice about the center image with overpass; it seems like it has a narrative story to it.

  11. 11 On April 21st, 2010, LPSFashion said:

    I’m definitely a fan on #5.

  12. 12 On April 21st, 2010, WendyRG said:

    While everyone else is choosing images, I’d like to talk about perfectionism. No dear, it’s not just you. It comes with the job description of being a woman. We must be:
    -beautiful (especially thin)
    -intelligent (but not pushy)
    -good wives(i.e. cook and clean)
    -good earners (but don’t make too much or your man will feel emasculated)
    -excellent mothers (even though we’re supposed to hold our own in the workforce we must also bake homemade cookies for the bake sale at school, oversee all homework, ensure that our children are polite, well-dressed, get good marks, play all the right sports, etc.)

    In a nutshell, women are expected to be perfect.

    BTW, I like 1 and 5.

  13. 13 On April 22nd, 2010, Alyssa (The 40 year-old) said:

    Just gonna second what WendyRG said.
    Also, I know nothing about photography, so I cannot offer advice.
    But if I were your instructor, I’d give an A+ for the bunny photo!!!!!!

  14. 14 On April 22nd, 2010, Tiptoe said:

    Oh, I’m so envious. I’ve always waned to take a real photography class and finish it. I took one once while I was at my mom’s but basically got incredibly upset when the instructor made an example of my photo, saying how out of focus it was when it was actually a photo I really liked. I never went back after that which was probably dumb in the long run but my ego and perfectionism was rather hurt. I’d be better now taking tat type of criticism, but I wasn’t in a very good place. I totally relate about the perfectionism thing and have to back off when I’m feeling super stressed about it. Good for you for realizing this and taking a breath. Sometimes, undoing perfectionism is about knowing that this may be the best you can do right now and accepting that that is okay.

    As for your choices, I’d go with 2 or 3 and 5 as I think those + your other three are good representatives of the most different patterns.

  15. 15 On April 22nd, 2010, meerkat said:

    I can relate to parts of that. When I was little, everyone made fun of me (partly for being fat, partly for being socially awkward and nerdy) but at least I was pretty much better than all of them at everything except P.E. Then I got to real life where I can no longer be the best at everything (or, in fact, anything) and I have nothing to base a sense of self-worth on anymore.

  16. 16 On April 22nd, 2010, mccn said:

    I meant to share my thanks when I heard about the bunny fostering (I am a bunny person, myself) but I failed – so let me just say, your bunnies are made of SQUEE.

  17. 17 On April 22nd, 2010, Rachel said:

    Thanks, everyone. I chose nos. 4 and 5 and then ended up choosing another bunny image that I felt fit the assignment of patterns better. And sorry, folks. This little brown baby has already been claimed… by a reader of this blog, nonetheless!

    @TipToe: I took this class through Communiversity at UC. They offer them every quarter, including summer, in case you’re interested. I paid $119 for a six-week session. The instructors are a husband-and-wife team who own a wedding photography business. I checked out their portfolios beforehand and they take some amazing shots and have a real creative eye. They’re also very sensitive when giving out criticism and lavish with the compliments. There was a woman who took some rather horrid snapshots (I wouldn’t even call them images) and they managed to find something nice to say about each of them, even the ones that were horribly over- or under-exposed. They also encourage everyone to break the “rules” and take images that speak to them. There’s a right way and a wrong way to give criticism and it sounds like your instructor may have not been so good at it. Maybe this class might be a better fit for you.

    I’ve taken photo classes at the college-level before, as well as creative writing and poetry classes, in which we share and critique each others’ works. It was VERY personal for me at first to hear criticism about my work, but I learned to take it in stride and shake off the unwarranted criticism and incorporate the constructive criticism. At work, I actually LOVE my material being copyedited because I learn from it and it makes my work look much better in print — and I’m the one who gets the byline and the copyeditor doesn’t!

    @mccn: What do you mean “failed”? Did you keep the bunny you were fostering? If that’s the case, I’m totally a cat-fostering failure!

    How about everyone else? Are you a type A personality? Do you struggle with perfectionism? If so, how have you learned to manage it?

  18. 18 On April 22nd, 2010, Alyssa (The 40 year-old) said:

    I’m a recovering perfectionist. Getting older and having kids has helped A LOT, lol!

  19. 19 On April 22nd, 2010, farmer said:

    So needed to read this post today about perfectionism. I’m taking a college course after graduating from college over 20 years ago. I had my final lab test last night and have beaten myself up over missing 2 problems. Couldn’t even sleep last night. I recognize the silliness of it intellectually but am having a hard time telling my brain to drop it already. sigh. Thanks for sharing your story.

    BTW, I love all the photos. You’ve got a good eye for composition.

  20. 20 On April 22nd, 2010, Bronwyn said:

    I struggle a lot with perfectionism, too, though a lot of people wouldn’t realize it because I’ve somewhat managed pieces of it, though even when I accept that I am not the absolute best, there is still that little niggling feeling that I should be trying to be perfect at it and that what I did really *wasn’t* good enough. It’s something I’m working on.

    And this is my perfectionism coming through, but there’s a minor typo in this post: “I poured through her EMT training book” It should be “pored.” I feel silly even pointing it out but I’m sure you can identify with little things that catch your attention and you can’t shake it!

    I’m also incredibly jealous of your photo skills- I want to take a class someday so I can start taking great photographs.

  21. 21 On April 22nd, 2010, Rachel said:

    @Farmer. Thanks! And that’s good to hear, since our next assignment is composition!

    @Bronwyn: Ha! I will let that stand as a testament to my commitment to not be such a perfectionist!

  22. 22 On April 22nd, 2010, SteveD said:

    Great Choices. Just remember it’s a learning thing. I know I take Bad Photo’s. Just every once in a while a good one slips thru! Did Habitat Breakfast this AM and amazing they looked pretty good. But blew the one I wanted. Family with Mom and 3 Little Girls (Single Mom). One of them was hidden by the Podium. What I should have done is got some help to hold her up so she could be seen. But I did capture her later in group pic.

    Always try to learn from your Photography. Perfection is not possible. I was born Human. Ok some of you Ladies may say and a guy too.

    Show us more of your work when you get the chance!

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