A hush swept over us like a tidal wave, and the room grew still, silent, almost breathless. All eyes were fixated on a single, moving point: a petite girl with olive-colored skin, rust colored eyes and brown hair that she’d swept up into a high ponytail, a few wisps falling delicately around her face. She had on her white martial arts coat with her name on the back of it in black lettering, flashing us occasionally as she expertly demonstrated her form.
When she finished, she faced the instructor, bowed, thanked him, and then returned to her place on the mat among the other students who were testing for their black belts or black belt degree rank promotions.
The audience exploded with applause and praise for her. Her demonstration looked flawless, her composure unwavering, her strength very present, but equally balanced by her control. Every technique looked precise and accurate. It was truly beautiful, and every single one of us, martial artist or not, was moved by what she had just presented us with.
Yet, to any trained eye, there had been one mistake. It was a single, carefully disguised mistake. It was a mistake that even I missed in that moment, and I’d worked with her many days before that test. I was familiar with her cadence, her movements, and yet I’d missed it.
While the audience lost themselves in their cheering, I saw it written upon her face: disappointment.
It was not disappointment that she’d failed to pass. She received her black belt that night, and she rank promoted to the next degree. Her family and friends praised her. They took pictures of her and memorialized the event. Her training partners in the class spoke about how great her attention to detail was. Her instructor said he was proud of her.
Yet, when all had turned away except for me, her eyes glistened with tears.
The chatter of excited families and friends became like the droning of a fan in my ears. From across the room, I saw the olive-skinned girl standing with her old belt in hand, pulling on her coat in defeat, her head hanging.
As much as I wished I didn’t, I knew exactly what she felt.
She had failed.
Why? You ask? She got her belt. She passed her test. She stole our breaths with the beauty of her performance. What standard had she not met?
She hadn’t met her own standard.
The olive-skinned girl trained dedicatedly before her test with the intention of executing it without blemish. The one mistake translated to this: You are not good enough for yourself. You cannot be happy with yourself. You failed. You didn’t try hard enough. You will always remember this night as the night you could have done better. You weren’t perfect.
I did the only thing I could do. I took her into a silent hug, let her cry a little, and I told her I admired her. I knew. I knew what she felt, and words couldn’t soothe that aching heart. Only she, unfortunately, could soothe her own heart, and it would mean she would have to make a change. And sadly, I have yet to see that change.
Excellence, not perfection must be aimed for in order to succeed in life. If we expect perfection, we will always fail.
That’s a lesson I wish I’d learned before I’d starved myself.
In my senior year of high school when I was just two years older than she was on that night, I had anorexia nervosa. I was fighting an impossible battle against perfection and control. Mistakes were unacceptable. So were B’s, making mistakes in martial arts classes, not riding the exercise bike on its highest resistance for 20 miles a day, eating more than 500-900 calories, failing to lose weight, and wearing anything besides a small or extra small.
If I did any of the above, I’d failed. And failure meant that I could not live with myself; at least, that’s what I believed.
Fortunately for me, key people in my life that I truly believe God had placed there at the perfect moments when I would be most receptive were able to gently influence me and guide me to a place of healing: Meetings with Registered Dieticians, the encouragement and acceptance of the nurses who cared for me while I was getting my vital signs stabilized, and my English teacher and mentor encouraging me to journal my thoughts and temptations about going back to the places of safe, comforting habits and to perform inward reflection in those times.
Ultimately, though, I needed to come to the conclusion that I could be happy in life without achieving perfection. I needed to let go of my tight grip on control and let things happen as they may. I needed to see that I could aim for excellence and still do great levels of performance. I needed to understand that what I was lacking was balance. I needed to give myself the freedom to make mistakes and to “fail.”
I, you see, had fallen down.
I struggled, there in the dust. I wept and my tears made the soil turn to mud. I gritted my teeth, and clenched my fists and with a determination to fight for balance, to fight for life, to fight for the girl I once was, I reached for the hand outstretched to me, and I stood. I stood upon shaking legs, but I stood.
Perfectionism lay in the slender shadow that fell at my feet.
Perfectionism has haunted me ever since. I hear its words enticing me, calling me back to its suffocating embrace, but I tune my ears to the voices I know I can believe: My loved ones telling me I am beautiful, my martial arts instructor telling me I am strong and have made him proud, my friends telling me I look happier than ever, my brother telling me I’m his best friend.
I could never go back. I could never lose all this again.
Most of all, I could never lose myself again.
I think the olive-skinned girl that night tugged at my heart because I saw myself in the face of her failure. I saw the unhappiness that ruled her life, but that she was entirely unaware of it. I saw that she was fighting self-defeat. I saw she was spiraling downward and that she too would have to fall into the dust and learn to stand.
Martial artists, you see, are like snowflakes, unlike any other in the room. Each of us comes to the mat with different levels of coordination, strength, balance, power, control, age, experience, personality, and character traits.
Each of us, although we may earn the same belts, will likely have a very different journey than the person we train beside.
For some, they will need to grow physically in strength, coordination, or balance. Another will be athletic, but could be prideful. Or maybe, like the olive-skinned girl and I, somebody’s challenge will be to accept that he or she is not perfect. The journey is unique, just as unique as the martial artist who walks that journey is.
In order to continually grow as both a martial artist and has a human being in general, we must come to accept that with any journey, our paths will be riddled with failures, or more accurately stated: mistakes.
This means that we must defend ourselves in the battle against perfectionism.
In an article I read recently, written by Jeff Stibel (Chairman & CEO, Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. and author of NYT bestseller Breakpoint), he describes a “failure wall” located in his business which is exactly what it sounds like: a wall riddled with quotes about failure spoken by famous people, mistakes his employees admit to and add to the wall, and even his own deepest mistakes there for all to see. This wall is not a white board where the writing can be easily erased. This wall is entirely penned in Sharpie.
But something surprising happened, he observed. Sharpie’s famous “permanent” claim seemed to prove itself to be false, because over time, the words written on the wall began to fade, and then eventually, entirely disappear, making room for the next set of failures to be written upon its surface.
It’s appropriate, that failures should fade.
Failures, my friends, are lessons. We are to learn from them, remember them, but not dwell upon them. It is when we dwell upon them that we are faced with self-defeating thoughts. Meditating on a mistake serves no purpose in finding a solution or a lesson from it. Thinking about our failures only causes us relive them and their disappointment all over again.
We can dwell instead, on what has been learned from that failure.
Absolutely no human being on this planet is perfect or will ever be perfect.
Failures, on the flip-side, are in fact very human.
We must be able to forgive others for their mistakes and, in the case of myself and the olive-skinned girl, to be able to forgive our own mistakes.
And so, the battle of perfectionism rages on. What’s your self-defense against perfectionism?
“Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.” ~Harriet Braiker (Author of Disease To Please: Curing the People Pleasing Syndrome)