My father was a storekeeper and the son of working-class immigrants. He wanted his children to do better than he had, and he believed the gateway to a successful life was education. Consequently, he held me, his firstborn, to high academic standards. This meant I had to get A’s, and to earn my father’s approval I abandoned many other activities so I could focus on schoolwork. By the time I completed high school, I had achieved a perfect average and was class valedictorian, but I’d learned very little about many other important aspects of life.
The roots of the drive for perfection are spread wide and go deep. The ancient Greeks saw perfection as necessary for beauty and high art. Buddhists are encouraged to practice the Six Perfections as part of the path to enlightenment. St. Matthew exhorted, “Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
Our culture’s idealization of perfection extends beyond religion, philosophy, and art. Our leaders should be perfect (George Washington never told a lie, Abe Lincoln walked miles to return a penny). The media projects images of perfect skin, perfect hair, perfect teeth, perfect bodies, and perfect lives, and offers us products to attain them.
Many of us see perfectionism as a motivator. Certainly, striving for excellence has characterized people who have made important contributions in the arts, sciences, philosophy, law, spirituality, athletics, and many other fields. But striving for excellence and perfectionism are not synonymous. Those who strive for excellence do their best and see setbacks as challenges, defeats as learning opportunities. Perfectionists, on the other hand, get their self-esteem from “perfect” behavior, appearance, and accomplishments. When they fail to achieve a goal or to conform to often unrealistic standards, they feel defective and ashamed.
Perfectionists are more often paralyzed, not motivated, by perfectionism. They can be plagued by envy when they see someone doing “better” than they’re doing, or they can languish in a state of potential, hating themselves for failing to achieve anything “important” but unable to choose a path because they might be unsuccessful.
A less extreme symptom of perfectionism afflicts people who avoid being seen in public unless their appearance is “perfect.” When they do find a spot on their clothing, a mark on their face, or some other “defect,” they may spend hours, even days, reviewing every contact they had that day, worrying that someone might have noticed this “imperfection.”
If you see a tendency toward perfectionism – you work too hard at something that may be impossible, worry excessively about how others might perceive you, beat yourself up for minor missteps, avoid challenges because you’re afraid you won’t handle them perfectly – try the following:
1. Record the thought. Write a sentence that captures your basic perfectionistic belief. For example, “If I’m not perfect, I am nothing,” or “If I make a mistake, I’ll lose everything.”
2. Question the belief. Is this belief always true, not only for you but also for other people? Where did this belief come from? Does it contribute to your well-being?
3. Create an affirmation. Create a counter-statement that more accurately describes your reality. Effective affirmations ring true, but they come from a gentler, more sympathetic place. For example, if you catch yourself thinking “If I’m not perfect, I’m nothing,” you can substitute an affirmation such as “I don’t have to be perfect to be loved and happy.” If your initial try at an affirmation doesn’t feel credible, change it to something that does. For instance, “I’m not perfect, but I’m still okay, and I’m working on getting better” carries a hint of perfectionism, but it also has an optimistic spin. A little different is enough to disrupt the perfectionist pattern and make an opening for change.
The ultimate antidote to perfectionism is self-acceptance. Self-acceptance is taking stock of things as they are and allowing them to just be. It is letting go of strivings, regrets, and self-recrimination. It is saying, “Whatever is, is. Whatever has been, has been. This is who and where I am now.” With self-acceptance, we can comfortably follow Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advice: “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could.”
Those of us who tend toward perfectionism may not want to give it up entirely. Choosing to do a few things “perfectly” can be satisfying in ways that trying to wholly conform to perfectionistic standards is not. For example, I freely indulge my desire to keep my computer functioning “perfectly” and to tinker with a photograph until it’s “perfect.” I know that perfecting these things takes more of the limited time I have on the planet than is really necessary, but I’m okay with that. We don’t have to avoid perfectionism… perfectly.
NOTE: Paths to Wholeness is now available at the following Boston-area bookstores and libraries:
Cabot Street Books & Cards, 272 Cabot Street, Beverly, MA 01915
The Bookshop, 40 West Street, Beverly Farms, MA 01915
Boston Public Library (main branch)
Brookline Public Library (main branch)
NOBLE Public Libraries (Beverly Farms and Salem)
MVLC Public Libraries (Hamilton-Wenham)
Please let me know if you find it in other locations!
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Paths to Wholeness: Selections (free eBook)