“Oh, you don’t like board games. That’s cool, I get it. My sister isn’t very competitive either.”
Hah. Hah hah.
Oh, how I wish I was like your sister. That I hated games because “I just don’t get it.” That I could lose a competition without imagining the heads of every person in the room impaled on sticks that I hold above my head as I streak through the neighborhood in search of conciliatory ice cream I let mingle with the blood as it dribbles down my chin.
Ok, that has never happened. But I don’t enjoy games precisely because I am HYPER-competitive. I don’t avoid games because I don’t find it fun to win. I avoid games because if I lose, it means that I am fundamentally less than the other people I am playing with, and I will resent them for it.
I’ve gotten into learning more about perfectionism lately. I never really thought about it as a real issue before because my thought was, “so what? People want to get things right. That seems good.” Which should have been a red flag that I may be a perfectionist.
The most succinct description of my feelings comes from a New York Times article on perfectionism.
“In short, these are people who not only swallow many of the maxims for success but take them as absolutes. At some level they know that it’s possible to succeed after falling short (build on your mistakes: another boilerplate rule). The trouble is that falling short still reeks of mediocrity; for them, to say otherwise is to spin the result.”
As a stand-up comedian in Austin, you more or less have to compete in something called the Funniest Person in Austin Contest (“the contest”) in order to be truly considered for work in the year to come. It seems like sort of a dumb thing to put a lot of weight on, and we all say that it’s totally not a big deal, but continue to prepare and behave in a way that contradicts that.
The recent documentary “Funniest” from Dustin Svehlak and Katie Pengra simultaneously does an incredible job of highlighting this contradictory attitude and contributes to the aggrandizement of the enterprise simply by existing. — To be clear, I’m very glad it exists, as I’ve already used parts to explain to friends why I lose my mind every spring. It also lets me see that all of my friends go as crazy as me, so I’m not actually crazy, which is the best therapy there is.
One area in which my reaction does differ from my friends’ is that every year during the contest I panic onstage and forget the punchline to one of my best jokes. It’s been a different joke each time, but each year it happens. I am so afraid of fucking up that I cause myself to fuck up.
In 2015 when it happened, I was in regular therapy. I told my therapist about it and we talked through it. We talked about the amount of alcohol I drink, how comfortable with who I am onstage, and what sorts of meditative practices I perform right before going up.
So in 2016, I drank exactly one drink before going onstage, picked my absolute favorite jokes I had told a MILLION times, and spent the time before going onstage walking around the parking lot practicing in my set and sitting in my car listening to The Pinkprint on full blast.
And again I forgot one of my favorite jokes onstage in front of a full comedy club.
I failed to advance, and spent days comparing each of my best jokes to each of that night’s winners’ worst jokes over and over again. Not to remind myself that “I SHOULD HAVE WON,” but rather in shock, learning that I was, in fact, not at all funny. That I was an idiot to have believed in my jokes. I was embarrassed to have ever performed comedy.
The logical part of my brain knows that this is not only factually untrue but very sick. Indeed, this is an attitude that I exhibit time and again.
In high school, I was told I would be made dance team captain, and when I wasn’t, I quit. Because who am I if not the best, the leader? Is everyone mocking me?
In college, I majored in German. German was the only subject in which I was the literal best in the class. I moved to Germany for a year and was repeatedly asked “are you sure you’re American? We’ve never met an American who speaks German like you.” It was impossible to sit in painting or writing class and see people be better than me, no matter how much fun the art was. It hurt every time, like getting broken up with by my own self esteem. German was a path to validation 100% of the time.
In adulthood, I see these attitudes impact all of the categories that perfectionism literature touches on: physical appearance and dieting, a win-or-lose attitude toward romantic relationships, etc. A highly internalized locust of control keeps me from seeing any external factors to a perceived loss than my own shortcomings.
My boyfriend and his friends are really into board games. My objective mind sees that a board game is an incredible way to be present with people you love without having to put pressure on yourself to be witty or entertaining. If I could let go of my need to win, I could be having a lot more fun with someone I care about. I have to trust myself to lose at board games.
At being the funniest, prettiest, smartest, most goodest person in the room.
But if I lose, it’s because I am less than everyone else. And who would want to spend time with someone like that?