Perfectionism. What drives some of us to pursue it, though we understand its impossibility?
Setting aside the most extreme cases that warrant constant vigilance and psychological intervention, why does it take some of us so long to loosen the reins, so we may enjoy the fruits of our labors — and our everyday lives?
Even if we can trace our perfectionist tendencies to childhood, even if we diligently do our Downward-Facing Dog, even if we recite a recurring refrain like “there is no perfection in…” — fill in the blank — how do we effectively and definitively battle the Perfection Myth, and ultimately triumph over its most damaging outcomes?
Defining Perfection: Happiness? Purpose? People?
Naturally, our definitions of perfection will vary. Your “perfect self” looks nothing like mine; your “perfect partner” has little to do with what attracts and engages me. More importantly, your definition of the perfect job at 22 and single is far different from your perfect job at 32 and newly married. Your definition is further complicated when you’re 38 with a spouse and two kids, and more so if you’re 48, divorced, and dealing with teenagers.
Your perfect partner may be just as variable over time — Hello? Can we talk? — and realistically, your perfect physique and perfect performance, both of which may provide a sense of identity, will be tempered as you grow older, know successes and failures, and reset expectations accordingly.
And let’s not forget: Everyone fails at something; most of us fail at a great many things.
Failure, most agree, is a powerful teacher.
The Perils of Perfectionism
Thumbs up to change expert and author M. J. Ryan for her take on human imperfection. In a highly relatable article in Utne Reader, we are reminded to embrace our imperfect selves despite unrelenting pressures to achieve perfection in our appearance, our behaviors, our relationships, our job performance, our sexual performance, our parenting, our homes, our social media personas.
Must I go on?
Hell. I’m exhausted just typing out that list.
Ms. Ryan explains:
Perfectionism carries a huge price—in the ways we treat ourselves, our spouses, and kids. As Kathy Cordova, author of Let Go, Let Miracles Happen, puts it: “Perfectionism makes the strong tyrants and the weak passive. It either drives you to bully yourself and others with your demands or to retreat to your comfort zone, afraid of taking the risk of failure.”
The Inner Bully. My, but I know her well.
Fear of failure. That, too.
Are We Perfectionists Forever?
Recently, an old friend from my college years got back in touch. She reminded me that I was always focused on getting something done, rarely able to relax, and driven to achieve, achieve, achieve.
My perfectionist tendencies robbed me of having fun.
Now, I’m still proud of those hard-won A’s in college, and proud of the work ethic that became second nature. And, this friend never knew me when I lived in France, or during the two decades when I traveled back and forth on business. There, my experiences were less rigid, more forgiving, and generally characterized by greater “sensual” indulgence.
Savoring an excellent Pinot, a pungent brie, or an evening’s entertainment.
That me was more relaxed, and more capable of simply “being.” But I don’t live in Paris any longer. I live here, in the U.S., in a society in which we’re barraged by aspirational messaging that reinforces the feeling that we aren’t good enough — not thin enough, not attractive enough, not young enough, not knowledgeable enough, not likable enough.
Not lovable enough.
Perfectionism Is Limiting
Aspirational messaging is nothing new. However effective, the ultimate message is both anxiety-producing and destructive, feeding unrealistic expectations via the latest product or service, guaranteed to lead us to perfection.
If we’re single, those expectations may keep us perpetually on the look-out for the Next Best Guy or Girl, as they, too, are subject to our perfectionism. And if you’re anything like me (and nearly all the women I’ve known), you’re more apt to internalize the banner of insufficiency, certain that it’s your imperfections that are holding you back. And with good reason.
Nothing like a fight fest with your inner critical voice. Or simply surrendering to her superior staying power.
Ms. Ryan points out:
Perfectionism… doesn’t allow us to learn and therefore grow. We agonize over decisions in advance because we are so afraid of doing it wrong. We hold others to impossible standards. We’re fearful we’ll be discovered to be an impostor… We get no pleasure from our successes because all we can see is how we could have done better.
Fear. Impostor Syndrome. Never enjoying success.
The Roots and Dangers of Perfectionism
I’m all for it, when managed. When kept in perspective. When we aren’t carried away by the fairy tale. Because when we are, the pursuit of perfect is too often toxic.
As this social science resource explains:
Perfectionism—the relentless striving for excessively high performance standards—has been shown to be associated with a range of psychological issues including eating disorders, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression.
I recognize a few in that list in a very personal way.
As for the psychological roots of perfectionism, consider these words from the same source, noting that both environmental and cognitive factors come into play, specifically:
High parental expectations and criticism, the tendency to be in a negative emotional state, and maladaptive self-beliefs…
You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby…
I’ve come a long way. And if you’re 40 or over, I’m guessing you’ve come a long way, too.
I haven’t given up my perfectionist tendencies in every arena (I imagine you haven’t either), and I continue to maintain extremely high performance standards, particularly in my work life. However, I allow for “good enough” when there is no sacrifice to the goal I’m trying to achieve. From the good enough document, to the good enough night sleep, to the good enough relationship, I trust that “good” paves the way for time, energy and focus I need on the great four-mile hike, the fabulous project delivered to a client, and the blissful evening spent with the one I love.
This is about choices. Owning those choices. Marshaling the resources necessary to go for exceptional performance in what matters most — rather than running ourselves ragged in the pursuit of perfectionism in everything — to a poor result.
Also required: acceptance of what we cannot change, including the temperament of others, certain physical constraints, our childhood experience, and our inability to halt the passage of time.
My own perfectionist tendencies have not been tamed so much as they’ve been adapted. Adapted in a pragmatic way. Redirected and refocused. This is a function of life experience, discipline, positive self-talk, and, admittedly, not without periodic setbacks.
Perfectionist tendencies run deep. Some of us, fortunately, learn to beat back the bully.
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