As if life isn’t hard enough: who needs perfection to ruin the decent? There is a cruelty to perfectionism. It takes something that could be enjoyed, even celebrated, and turns it into a failure.
See what comes up when you google ”Perfectionism is the enemy of…”? Perfectionism has a lot of enemies; “the good”, “contentment”, “accomplishment”, “innovation”, “progress”, and “everything”. Really. All those will come up.
Here is a list, in no particular order, of the many ways perfections ruins the good.
The first casualty is our ability to enjoy our accomplishments, efforts, successes, and products. Because certainly none are perfect. We might have worked hard, we might have worked under less than ideal conditions, we might have leveraged our best efforts, and yet all that is wasted because of disappointment in the outcome.
Disappointment is truly one of the most difficult constellations of emotions to contend with. It is so crushing. For perfectionists, they are continually being demoralized by a sense of failure.
Unless we are insanely demanding parents, we know when we are helping our children develop self-esteem, and central vehicle is the celebration of achievements. I don’t mean the crazy way we can tell our toddlers that their scribbles are masterpieces. I mean the way we congratulate them on a good assist in soccer, a B on a Social Studies project they worked on all weekend, pushing through their frustration to learn how to tie their shoes, their first violin recital, and ordering a meal in Spanish at a Mexican restaurant.
These accomplishments aren’t meant to be celebrated as if they are the end all be all. They are important accomplishments however that build on each other and can be used to support a developing ego. If only excellence is celebrated in childhood, how many times is that going to happen? Excellence? I mean, my kid is great, to me, but excellence? Seems like a rare occasion in life much less childhood. Do we offer them no congratulations until they get their Doctorates? Do we abandon the main vehicle for building positive self-esteem and self-regard?
As adults we may have moments in life that call for excellence, and where we might even achieve that. A thesis paper, a presentation at a conference, being named MVP, employee of the month, publishing an article or book, pulling off a grand wedding or bar mitzvah. But these are a handful of events sprinkled through-out life. Not every paper is a thesis that requires the absolute best of us. Not in every game will all the forces collide to make us the star player. Does that mean we only get to celebrate our strengths and accomplishments every few years?
If you have to get it perfect, you need to give it your all. To give something your all means you have nothing left for anything else. There are times when it is absolutely fine and appropriate to give something your all. Sometimes those periods of time are long…like when writing a dissertation. Sometimes they are concentrated, like when playing in a baseball game.
But most of the time, there are competing interests vying for our attention. We may be able to cook a masterful meal, but if it is our intention to do that every single night of the week, then we must surely completely ignore our children to do so. If we are in college and attempting to get an A in every class with every assignment, then we are not doing the other thing we are supposed to do in college, which is learn how to build meaningful friendships. If we want a six-pack, or buns of steel, or washer-board abs, or any other such physical excellence, then we surely don’t have time to read good literature, or learn Spanish or volunteer at a soup kitchen, or take our kids on a weekend hike. If having a home that is so perfectly clean that we could eat off the floor is important to us, then we likely aren’t hanging out laughing on the couch with our friends or partner.
Needing to do one thing perfectly prioritizes and privileges that one thing above all others. Certainly, there are times when that is necessary and called for, but it behooves us to step back from something we are putting everything into and consider it is worthy of the sacrifices we are making for it.
If you believe in perfection, you believe in a right way and many many wrong ways, so everyone around you knows they are getting it wrong in your eyes every minute they are with you. We don’t know where to put down our glass in your house, can’t help you make dinner or load the dishwasher as we are sure to be doing it incorrectly, and can’t offer to take some responsibilities off your plate at work because we know we can’t get it right enough for you.
People walk on egg shells around perfectionists because even though you may wish you didn’t judge us with the same ruthlessness you do yourself, you can’t help it. If you are demanding perfection from yourself, we know you want it from us too and most of us wont/can’t deliver. We feel sloppy, inarticulate, unskilled and stupid around you.
Perfectionism isn’t just a personality trait. It is a painful constellation of issues and that can be resolved, and must be if the perfectionist hopes to have some mental and emotional peace in life.
If you suffer from perfectionism, and suffer is absolutely the right word, get some help. Be it in the form of self-help books, a group of other sufferers, or individual psychotherapy, your self-esteem will thank you.
Smith is an analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additionally the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.
If you are interested in therapy and live in Philadelphia or the Greater Philadelphia Area, please let Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice match you with a skilled, experienced psychotherapist based on your needs and issues as well as your and own therapists' personalities and styles. All of our therapists are available for telehealth conferencing by phone or video in response to our current need for social distancing.
For more or related topics in blog and video blog, follow the links below:
Life Isnt Easy or Fair: Idealization Tortures Us Thinking It Should Be
Are My Parents Dissappointed in Me?
An Impactful Change You Can Successfully Make