by Linda-Ann Stewart
“I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence, I can reach for; perfection is God’s business.” Michael J. Fox
Do you ever avoid going out of the house with a hair out of place or in wrinkled clothes? Are you afraid to turn in a project, because of you feel it’s not good enough? I knew an artist who started an oil painting of dried leaves and a decomposing stump. She spent days painting every leaf in great detail, so detailed that a person looking at it thought they were real. But she spent so much time on the details that she eventually moved on to another project and never finished the painting.
I’ve never met a happy perfectionist. Most of them are anxious, unhappy people, who have low self-esteem, and are trying to meet some impossible, ideal standard. Generally, the syndrome comes from a childhood with parents, caregivers or teachers who never approved of anything these folk did.
In elementary school, when I would make a perfect grade on a test, my father would ask “Why didn’t you make a 200%?” In fifth grade, we had a pop quiz, on which I made a 100%, and then the teacher had us take a similar one, on which I also made a perfect grade. When my father came home, I was waiting for him.
“I made a 100% today,” I said.
“Why didn’t you make a 200%?” he asked, as usual.
I laughed and said, “I did,” and showed him the papers. He never asked me that particular question again.
Fortunately for me, my father did give me approval and acceptance. But for many people who are perfectionists, they’ve never received that from their parents. As children, they tried to do everything right to gain some acknowledgement and never did. What they didn’t realize was that it wouldn’t have mattered how perfect they were, their parents couldn’t approve of their achievements because of the parents’ emotional baggage. When the child grew up into adulthood, they continued the attempt to be perfect to avoid rejection. It didn’t work in childhood, even though to the childish mind it appeared to give them some control over the situation. As an adult, it only causes misery.
The Basis of Perfectionism
There is a difference between being a perfectionist and being precise. A perfectionist isn’t motivated by trying to be accurate or to do their best. They’re actually living out of fear, trying to avoid making a mistake so that they aren’t rejected or criticized. Being precise is important in many careers, and in many aspects of our lives. Accuracy is valuable in mixing chemicals, recipes, statistics, etc., because an error in any of these could cost dearly. But the difference between being a perfectionist and being precise is that the former takes over a person’s whole being, while the latter is specific as to time and place.
Perfectionism can keep a person immobilized. An individual can be so afraid of making a move that they won’t do anything, for fear that their decision could be the wrong one. A project may be finished, but they revise it over and over, trying to get it just right. The point they miss is that there are any number of right ways to complete the project. And continuing to work on it may mean they turn it in late.
Perfection and Procrastination
Another side effect of perfectionism can be procrastination. As in the example just given, if a person keeps re-working a project until it’s late, they may not be faulted for it “not being their best work.” In other cases, an individual may postpone making decisions or taking action so they won’t be condemned. Then they’re criticized for never doing anything.
All of this comes from trying to live up to some artificial, unrealistic standard that was imposed on them in childhood. And instead of a positive principle they aspire to, they actually live in fear of not measuring up to it. So much energy is wasted in fear that they can never actually live up to their potential. And very likely, due to the fear of condemnation, a person won’t risk suggesting new ideas or new methods in their careers or personal life, preferring to stick with what has been accepted in the past.
Update Your Beliefs
If you’re a perfectionist, realize that it’s a response to an environment that no longer exists. With your current knowledge, review the dynamics of your childhood relationships with your caregivers. Would you ever have gotten their approval, or were they imposing unrealistic expectations on you? For instance, expecting a four-year-old to act like an adult is irrational.
Experiment with not doing things perfectly; like leaving dishes in the sink for a few hours, don’t straighten pictures, and go for a walk without dressing specifically for it. Whenever you feel anxious that you may not be doing something perfectly, remind yourself that nothing is ever perfect. Do your best, be accurate, be precise, but don’t try to be perfect. Then move on. In so doing, you’ll begin to reclaim your life, your power and your peace of mind.
I give myself permission not to be perfect. Assessing my past, I recognize that perfection wouldn’t have brought me the acknowledgement that I craved. Perfection won’t bring me any greater acceptance or approval in the present. I am, and have always been, a valuable person. I do my best, I aspire to be accurate and precise, but I let go of any false belief that I have to be perfect to be accepted. The Universe accepts and approves of me, as I am, therefore I do the same.