The Perfectionist’s Curse

For over a decade, I taught part time at LMU. One of my most memorable students, Lauren, was in a class I put together on Interpersonal Communication & Technology. There were thirteen students, all seniors, who were Comm. Studies majors. The final grade rested on just one, ten-page research paper due end of semester.

Lauren handed in an 18-page report printed on brilliant white paper that she’d encased in a plastic cover.

It was an impressive piece of writing; a solid “A.” In terms of her final grade, though, I didn’t think she deserved an “A.” The class was driven by discussion and she’d never once contributed to any of our discussions.

I gave her an A-.

No sooner had she gotten her grade than she called me. Tears poured through the phone, as she demanded to know why I’d given her an A-. When I explained, she reminded me that I didn’t put in the syllabus that she’d be graded down for not participating in class.

She was right so I agreed to change the grade (and made a note to revise the syllabus).

I was curious, though. Given that she was so bright, why hadn’t she spoken in class?

Her answer still floors me all these years later. Her goal always was to graduate Summa Cum Laude. She had a “rough” freshman year and screwed up in one of her classes — she got an A-. In all her other classes, freshman through senior years, she received all A’s, until I spoiled her record with that damnable A- that knocked her down from Summa.

Turns out, she was so afraid of not getting an A that she never spoke in any class for fear she’d say the wrong thing and be marked down.

For four years, Lauren went through college MUTE. She’d let her obsessive need to be “perfect” silence her.

Although stunned, I understood the logic of her debilitating thinking. As a “recovering” perfectionist, her decision to silence herself made sense to me. Do you see something of you in Lauren’s story?

Is it crucially important for you to be seen as perfect? Do you silence yourself out of concern you’ll be judged as less than perfect?

The truth is there’s a power that comes from being comfortable in your imperfect state.  And there’s excitement that comes from discovering new insights when actively engaging others in discussion.

Power comes from laying claim to your voice!

In coming weeks I’ll tell you stories of clients who’ve worked to lay claim to their voice and communicate with confidence and insight. If you have any communication questions or issues you’d like me to address, please send them to: jp@jpr-communications.com

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