In some areas of life, I am a precise person. I care deeply about proper pronunciation, spelling, grammar, points of fact, directions, theology, song lyrics, movie quotes, and the answers to questions on tests. My need for precision doesn’t extend too far beyond these parameters (were that I were so fastidious about my fashion sense or practicing a musical instrument, but, alas), but within these parameters, it is intense.
Why those categories? I’m not really sure. I think it has something to do with natural facility for some, and for others, the fact that my family thought they were important. Why the intensity? I’m kind of an intense person anyway, and this intensity is only magnified by my perfectionism. Perfectionism tells me that I need to be right about these things or terrible things will happen. If I put a comma in the wrong place, unspeakable horrors will ensue. If someone asserts that the capital of Wisconsin is Milwaukee, the universe may implode. It is therefore very important that I mind my p’s and q’s, and that I help others do so as well.
However I acquired this important task, the point is that when I am wrong about one of these things, I feel deep shame. And when someone in my presence is wrong about them, I feel a compulsive need to correct them. To save the universe from implosion, of course.
My need to correct other people is thankfully balanced by a huge fear of confrontation. If I don’t know you well, I will not call you out, even if you misquote the Princess Bride. But if I do know you well, corrections are forthcoming, and that right swiftly.
Many people in my family are similarly afflicted by whatever this affliction is, so we spend lots of time correcting each other over mostly minor details. It’s never pleasant to be on the receiving end of such correction, but we all know how important it is to get to the TRUTH of any given situation and usually we do not take it too personally. (Although I suspect that we are enabling each other.)
My major problem is what happens when I get close to people who are not related to me by blood. I am then close enough to get these corrections off of my chest, but often these people do not share the same commitment to TRUTH, especially not in these weird particular categories. While in my mind I am acting as the defender of rightness, I am in reality being nitpicky and hypercritical.
This is a problem with I have with my husband, Andy. We are about as close as close can be, so he is the main recipient of my unfettered honesty. But he is not a perfectionist, and he isn’t especially concerned about most of my pet categories of precision. If he’s going to bother to be precise, it’s going to be about something important, like soccer statistics. This unfortunate combination means that I needlessly correct him, a lot.
Or at least I did. A while ago I came across this article by Justin McElroy. In it he says, “ Don’t correct people. Unless their wrongness will lead to them getting hurt or hurting someone else. You’ll have a fleeting sense of superiority and they’ll resent you. Nothing worthwhile comes of it. This used to be so hard, but now I cringe when someone else does it.”
I immediately took exception to this idea, because I usually am not in the correction game to feel superior; I am in the correction game to stave off existential disaster. But upon deeper reflection, I realized that since no one else can feel my panic stemming from perfectionism, I do just come off as a jerk. Also, more importantly, that panic stemming from perfectionism is a LIE. People can be wrong, my husband can be wrong, I can even be wrong, and most of the time, NOTHING BAD WILL COME OF IT. This is particularly true about the categories I normally get uptight about. Therefore, I can R-E-L-A-X.
So these days, I am attempting to follow the code of Justin McElroy, and only correct people if someone will get hurt. I have good days and not so good days. When I am going through times of stress (such as moving, that is, right now) I’ve noticed that this tendency increases, and even expands to new categories. The more out of control I feel, the more important it becomes for me to have control about getting small things right. But even recognizing that trend has helped.
I just remind myself: I can be wrong. People can be wrong. I don’t have to correct they’re mistakes. The world will not explode. :)