Perfectionism is one of the most joy-stifling mindsets. Beyond decorum, it’s the idea of avoiding mistakes to a paralyzing degree. It leads to willful silence for fear of saying the “wrong” thing, looking silly, or being laughed at. There should be a better word for it, because while I use “perfectionism” to describe my attitude, I do not see perfection in my life. There’s nothing perfect in standing stiffly in the corner of the room while everyone else is dancing. There’s nothing perfect in sitting mutely with unspoken ideas for the conversation. For many years, these responses would win out over the possibility of regret and the loop that would play over and over in my head as I critiqued my actions. If I don’t try, at least I can’t fail.
When I’m confronted with something new, the flight or fight response is activated, and I want to choose flight every time. My frustration threshold is low, and there are lists of activities I have abandoned over the years because frustration was stronger than perseverance. If I care about my performance and an action is not coming easily, I become irrationally angry. As a kid I tore apart a new badminton net and broke the racket when I just couldn’t keep that birdie over the net. In my early adulthood I tried to learn how to play guitar, and I had to restrain myself from throwing it at the wall, instead opting for tearing up replaceable sheet music. Emotion overcomes reason and tells me others have natural skills I wasn’t blessed with.
Perfectionism is something I’m striving to root out of my life. One way I’m tackling this is by purposefully pursuing actions outside of my comfort zone. Sharing my thoughts with a public audience is one recent venture. Now, I’ve added ballroom dancing into the mix. Dancing may be the extent of discomfort for me when it comes to physical activity. Give me the controlled movements of yoga or the measured steps of running and I’ll tune out the world and become happily consumed by pushing myself to new limits. But dancing involves skills I just have not developed. Rhythm. Spatial awareness. Graceful movement.
“Slow, quick, quick, slow,” our instructor, Laura, calls out the measured beats of our steps over the music. I hold my arms stiffly in position as I mentally picture the steps, but the connection is lost by the time my feet move. I lead with the wrong foot over and over. Just as one series of steps becomes comfortable, we learn new ones and my feet become confused all over again. Laura models a new step with Matt, then nods at me to try, and I stare blankly. We learn several steps, and we begin putting them together to move across the smooth wooden floor from one mirrored wall to another. The corners of my mouth begin an upturn. My feet are moving where I want them to and there’s a light bounce in my steps. Then we begin spontaneous movement in response to the music, and while Matt moves lightly and naturally, I’m irritated that no one has given me the game plan. My feet fumble and I stop mid-step with a sigh.
We’re several weeks in when we have the shoe discussion. Apparently Nikes and ballroom dancing don’t jive. As Laura shows me the dancing shoes from her catalog, she innocently asks, “What size heel do you wear?” My mouth hangs open dumbly as Matt chortles. She looks at both of us and takes a deep breath. “Okay, we’ll keep it on the shorter end.” My usual joke about wearing heels is that I can walk in them as long as I have an arm to hold onto. Comfort zone officially exploded.
The first time I put on the shoes, I am seized with regret for ever considering ballroom dancing. It’s not the bronze satin fabric or the rhinestone buckles that I object to, even if they do strike a contrast with every single shoe I’ve ever owned. The straps criss cross around my arches and tug tightly across the tops of my feet. More straps at the front squeeze all of my toes together and my pinky toes go numb. An image of a cartoon hippo in a tutu comes to mind. As we begin to dance, concern for the steps is overtaken by the discomfort of the shoes. Laura tells me to limit my first session in them to an hour, and I am willing away the hour in my mind. When I finally remove the shoes and allow my feet to resume their normal, plodding shape (cartoon hippo now dons a sweatsuit), I wonder if I’ve just made an expensive mistake.
“Should I wear the shoes when I practice at home?” I ask as I massage the indentations in my feet. Laura takes another deep breath, and with careful words she replies, “In a few weeks you won’t be asking me that question.”
Will I ever be a good ballroom dancer? I don’t know. Practiced movements have become easier. I’m learning to respond to spontaneous movements, and I’m dancing through my mistakes. A month ago I could barely walk in heels. Now, I’m dancing in them. Most importantly, I can feel this chipping away at my perfectionist mindset. I’m pushing through frustration, and I’m giving myself grace to enjoy learning something new without the fear of failure. For me, that’s a pretty big deal.