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Perfectionism – What is it good for? Absolutely Nuthin’!

I’ll say it again. And again. And again. I’m talking to myself here, because I am a lifelong, bona-fide perfectionist. Apparently I require a lot of repetition, because I seem to leap into yet another perfectionistic thought pattern if I relax my guard for even an instant. Yes, I’ll think I’m making progress in gaining a better sense of perspective, or getting a better grip on my compulsions, and then Wham! I’ll realize I spent the last 10 minutes debating with myself about whether perfectionistic is actually a word. My spell checker says it isn’t, but I’m going to let it stay. April 1, Perfectionism 0!

As a parent, and especially as a homeschooling parent, I’m often struck by how much pressure there is to carry out my role “just right”. The stakes are high – not many things in this world are more important than how your children turn out. It is easy to get the feeling that the margin for error is virtually nil, even for people who are not normally all that perfectionistic. (That term is starting to grow on me. If it isn’t a word, it should be.) The question is, just how healthy is all this questing for the ideal parenting strategy and an ideal education?

There are people out there who think perfectionism can be healthy in some situations. After a lot of thinking about it, I’m not one of them. To me, perfectionism = the drive to do things perfectly. That means no lapses, no mistakes. Taken to an extreme, it would mean that to succeed, you have to be right the first time, every time. That’s just not realistic.

If pushed against a wall, even the most extreme of us will admit that perfection is not literally attainable. Everybody makes mistakes – we all know that. Perfectionists, however, behave as if perfection should be attainable. Yes, they sometimes do things very well, but their tendency is to view every mistake as a failure, every setback as an indication of unworthiness, and this tendency has consequences that can be dire.

I’ve become increasingly aware over the past few years of just how much my own perfectionist tendencies serve to hold me back from actual progress. I decided to write about this topic so that I could get a little closer to answering the question:

“What is so bad about perfectionsim, anyway?”

I did a little thinking, and a lot of clicking around on Google, and before long I was overwhelmed by the all the fascinating ideas I found myself running into. So overwhelmed in fact, that I contemplated dropping the subject altogether, convinced that it was way too hard to approach this topic in an original, interesting, informative, entertaining, innovative, creative, and meaningful way. It was too hard to make it all make sense, too difficult to communicate everything that I had put together so far in a way that did the topic justice. It would just be easier to tackle a topic that is less far-reaching . . . Several days later it (finally!) dawned on me that perfectionistic thinking had its sharp little talons in me once again.

In the end, the only way I could get myself to tackle this rich and potentially life-changing topic was to tell myself that I’ll just take a whack at one little bit at a time. So, for now I am going to limit myself to giving you examples of three types of perfectionism, and then I’ll list a couple of common responses that perfectionists exhibit when their perfectionistic inner voice rears its ugly head. (One of those responses explains why some people don’t even recognize that they are perfectionists. Could you be a perfectionist and not even know it?!)

Three basic ways to exhibit perfectionism:

  1. Perfectionism directed towards oneself. This is me thinking that I ought to be perfect.
  2. Perfectionism directed towards others. This is me thinking that other people ought to be perfect.
  3. The belief that perfection is expected by others. This is me thinking that others expect me to be perfect.

Personally, I have a problem with numbers 1 and 3. I am pretty darn forgiving of mistakes and failure and even just mediocrity in others, but I have very high standards for myself. When I think back on it, I realize that I also commonly feel as if “someone” (not anyone in particular) is expecting me to be perfect. I think numbers 1 and 3 are the classic perfectionists that most people think about when they hear the word. I think type number 2 would be the hardest kind of perfectionist to live or work with, though!

Two responses to your inner perfectionist:

  1. Some people, when driven by inward directed perfectionism, are motivated to achieve and excel. This sounds good on the surface, but because this is a perfectionist we’re dealing with, such a person is only happy when things are going, well, perfectly. Most people undertaking a challenging endeavor will face periodic setbacks. A perfectionist will likely feel those setbacks more deeply than most, which can make for a miserable existence, indeed.
  2. But other people, when faced with the prospect of needing to do something perfectly, will never attempt it in the first place. These people might not even realize that they are perfectionists, because it is possible that in one or more areas of their lives they aren’t accomplishing much at all. Housekeeping guru Flylady believes so many of us perfectionists have a hard time keeping house because if we can’t do something perfectly, we don’t even want to try. (And I can tell you from experience that keeping house perfectly really is impossible, especially if you have children around!)

In both of the above cases, perfectionism can lead to unhappiness and feelings of unworthiness. It is an unrealistic and often counterproductive emotion. Sure perfectionism has sometimes driven people to great discoveries or innovations or contributions. But how many more discoveries or innovations or contributions never saw the light of day because perfectionism was the last nail in their coffin?

Ready to run out and read more about perfectionism?

Then you shouldn’t miss this excellent and thought provoking post about perfectionism from Ragamuffin Studies. Seriously. It is very good. Did you know that there is no word for perfect in Hebrew? In this post she deals with moving towards an idea of wholeness and completion, rather than perfection, and I stand in awe of her insight.

Also you could read this article from BBC News. It covers some of the territory that I did today, but it also has a sidebar with 10 quick questions to determine if you are a perfectionist. I have to admit that number 10 got me! Quite clever.

P.S. You’ll no doubt be thrilled beyond measure to know that it turns out “perfectionistic” is actually listed in several online dictionaries as a bona-fide word. I know I am.

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10 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Hi, I found you through the Carnival of Homeschooling. I love what you wrote here! It’s because of 1 and 3 that I homeschool. I think my school experience perpetuated my perfectionist attitude.
    If it weren’t for Flylady, I would still be researching HOW to write a comic strip instead of coming up to my first year anniversary of DRAWING my comic!
    Peace and Laughter,

  2. april

    Thanks for the comments, Cristina! How cool that you draw a comic strip. I took a look at your blog, and your comics are awesome!

    I think it would be so interesting to hear from others:

    1) Things perfectionism is holding you back from doing.

    2) Areas where you’ve been fighting perfectionism and winning (at least on some days!).

  3. April,

    Coincidentally, I *just* posted about perfectionism on my blog minutes before reading your entry.

    You bring up so many good points, that I could write a book about what you said. (Is part of being a perfectionist having to see things from every possible angle before feeling like we “understand” it?)

    So, I’ll fight my perfectionist urge and answer your two questions in your comment:

    1) My perfectionism definitely holds me back from getting things done. But every day I’m getting better at letting go. Letting go has become my mantra. Also, recognizing my true self, and that I am indeed a perfectionist – and that it’s NOT a fault – has helped. My daughter and I are learning together a new definition of perfect: being perfectly who we are, independent of outside, or inside, value judgements.

    2) I’m finishing a book right now about deschooling. (http://www.huntpress.com) The fact that I have a publisher and I’m actually slated to finish this thing is a step in the right direction for me. Every time I go ahead and hit the “send” button on an article or story, even with its faults, is a step in the right direction for me. Accepting that part of what makes my piece enjoyable to read is that it isn’t perfect. Perfect is boring. And, perfetion also puts me in the position of defending being perfect! (“Oh no, it was just luck.”) Oh man, just send the damn thing with faults, and then I can let it stand on its own.

    The first story I ever sent to a fiction contest won 2nd place. When I read that story now, I love it. But can you believe I still find places that I think should be better? Knowing that my story won, even with all its faults, is comforting to me. It’s examples like these that remind me that perfection really isn’t expected in this world, despite what my teachers in school, and my A++’s in school, told me.

    Thank you for your post.

    But I think I saw some typos. No! Don’t go back and fix them! Let it be. It’s better that way. :) Us perfectionists, we have to stick together and support each other’s humanity.

  4. I’m a carnival visitor, too. I don’t have to take the quiz, I know. I am a perfectionist, through and through. I struggle with numbers one and two mostly. When I got married six years ago, the house was my biggest challenge. I’m winning that battle now, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at my house. My *thought process* has changed, and I’d bet you know why that’s enough.

    It still keeps me from trying new things, even now. What if I fail?!

  5. april

    Hi Tammy – Congrats on the book! Good luck on getting it finished. I have found that deadlines imposed by others are a good way for me to limit my perfectionism. It has to be done, and you can’t take any longer, so eventually you just run out of time and turn it in. I know just what you mean about reading things you wrote in the past. My first article was published this year, and I can still revise it in a hundred small ways every time I look at it. So I just don’t, anymore, lol.

    I love what you say about learning to be perfectly who you are!

  6. april

    Hi Anna,
    You bet I know that changing the thought process is half the battle. Absolutely! It is hard to understand that, though, until AFTER the thought process has changed.

    Yes, what if you fail? I’m trying to tell myself that if I haven’t failed lately I’m not working hard enough to do new things. Some days that works better than others, lol!

  7. Hi!

    Excellent post!

    Nice to meet you, too.

    Vicki

  8. Thanks for visiting my site. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog.

    This article especially grabbed my attention, because I am a self-diagnosed perfectionist. I am learning to moderate myself with success. Thanks for the tips!

  9. april

    Thanks Renae! I’m trying to practice what I preach, these days. Thinking things through really helps me figure out what I’m doing and why, and why I should learn to moderate myself, too. I’m wishing us both luck!

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