perfectionism

happy potential

I grew up clinging to two contradictory goals and have only recently been able to shake their hold on me. I know plenty of other people who had these goals, and I see how demoralizing it is to strive to accomplish such a paradox.

The two goals were these:

1) Make very few or no mistakes

2) Be perfect at everything

I grew up surrounded by people who emphasized that our ultimate goal should be perfection and that we should continually be improving ourselves every day.

My reaction now: perfection is impossible and overrated.

An obsession with perfection wasn’t the only problem though, because that second goal, in combination with the first, was where it really got thorny. The people I learned from would acknowledge the possibility of making amends and being forgiven for mistakes, but pretty much as lip service in combination with stressing but try as hard as you can not to make mistakes.

The contradiction is that to get better at anything, making mistakes is NECESSARY. You can’t ever get better at anything unless you start with flaws—otherwise there is nothing to get better at. The only other option would be to start out doing something perfectly, which we know is just not reasonable.

I have seen the frustration and agonizing self-criticism that grows from making your life’s work trying to accomplish those two goals. It is fighting a losing battle.

I once heard a quote, read earnestly, used to support these goals. It was something like “The strength of the wind is appreciated by the man who stands up to it, not who is blown down by it.” And everyone nodded in agreement and it seemed like a nice thought that the truly strong ones will not be blown down but will always stand up to the wind. But the problem is, that’s not the end of the story.

It’s not “One man remains standing, the other falls down, the end.” The other one who is blown down can get up and then learn how not to be blown down again. And then when a bigger gust comes, maybe he stays standing but the other guy then falls down. The fact is, you can’t prevent being “blown down” by “the wind.” The best you can do is get back up when it blows you down and withstand it better the next time.

Maybe you get blown down again and again, but each time you learn a different technique to resist. And meanwhile, maybe that guy that stood up to the wind at first gets blown down and stays down, because he had the attitude that falling down once means irredeemable failure.

That little idea about the wind is just one of many little pat platitudes and ideas that are seemingly inspiring but actually quite damaging. The truth is, to grow you need to make mistakes, and if you never make mistakes, then you never grow. Maybe this sounds obvious or simplistic, but I can’t begin to tell you how many people I’ve met who would argue with it.

A friend once was talking to a coworker and said, “Well, that’s what life is about: doing your best to learn from your mistakes.” The coworker simply answered, “No, life is about obedience.” If you have time to listen, I have plenty of similar anecdotes. This is a pervasive belief.

This ties into how uncomfortable some people are to hear (constructive) criticism. They think that it is indescribably worse to have to correct a mistake than to never make one. It seems like the end of the world to admit that they made a mistake, so they refuse to believe it.

I used to be one of those people, because I tied making mistakes to being worthless. I hated hearing any criticism because I thought it meant I was worthless; so I lived in denial and refused to believe I had any serious flaws or areas in need of improvement.I stayed stuck in a lot of harmful, toxic thought patterns for years and years because of this.

I am finally seeing the happy potential that lies in mistakes. Recently, I snapped at a friend and said something really rude. Afterward, I realized how mistaken I was, and at first I was petrified to apologize. I felt such overwhelming shame. But when I did, I was actually quite gratefully amazed at how forgiving and understanding the friend was. They actually related to me and told me about similar things they had done. It actually strengthened our relationship! Imagine that, Past Me! I said something really rude and addressing it made it better than it would have been without the mistake! Imagine that! Sometimes mistakes lead you somewhere you didn’t expect or want to go but that turns out to be better than your plan.

What Is Perfectionism?

I am a perfectionist, which means that I am rarely satisfied with my work. It does not mean that I do everything perfectly, am a high achiever, consistently do good work, or regularly accomplish my goals.

Perfectionism is a mindset that manifests itself in feelings and behaviours. I want to emphasize that those behaviours are not usually the expected ones when someone hears the word ‘perfectionism.’ I think that most people conflate being a perfectionist with being ‘type A’ or a high achiever, when that is just not the truth. Popularly, people think that perfectionists set high standards and then always achieve them when instead, they set impossible standards and never achieve them.

I used to take violin lessons. I told a new teacher that I had a hard time practising because I was a perfectionist. She clearly thought of perfectionism the way that most people do and answered, “Oh, that’s good! That means you’ll practice hard!” No, that’s not what it means. (If it did, I wouldn’t have let the teacher know it, as a disclaimer.)

It means that I will end up rarely, if ever, practising because I will always fail to perform at my expected level. It will be too painful to continue to practise while never reaching my goals. I will hate what I sound like and feel embarrassed.

Some signs of perfectionism include excessive double-checking and revisions to work. This makes a perfectionist invest a lot of time in one task that could take another person less than half the time to do. One thing that exacerbates the perfectionism is realizing what little output there is for the amount of time that went into a task. A perfectionist can spend hours on, for example, writing a few paragraphs and then will feel bad that such a simple task took so long.

Perfectionism breeds procrastination, not out of laziness but out of fear of not performing perfectly. Personally, I would put off assignments in school to force myself to only work a set amount of time on them. Otherwise, I would check and double check what I wrote for a long time. Sitting for hours constantly revising an assignment was maddening, especially with a constant negative commentary running through my head. It was incredibly painful, and procrastination was how I dealt with it.

Sometimes I would do more than procrastinate: I just wouldn’t turn in the assignment, even if I had worked a long time on it, because it fell short of my standards. I was so afraid of what would happen if I turned in sub par work. I was afraid of being judged by whoever graded it and thought that they would judge my character in general by my work. This lead to many bad grades.

Because of the popular view of perfectionism, I felt uncomfortable admitting that I struggled with it. I was afraid people wouldn’t believe me. How could a perfectionist do so poorly in school? If I were really a perfectionist, why didn’t I turn in perfect work? I would think back on my experience with the violin teacher or other times when people would confuse being an achiever with being a perfectionist.

Perfectionists can also be high achievers, but they are usually not satisfied with themselves. What to other people looks like outstanding work will seem like trash to the perfectionist author. Being a perfectionist means having a skewed view of reality and what ‘good’ work is.

Realising that you are a perfectionist and that the set of traits you have is a pattern that other people also have can be helpful. It makes you feel less alone and strange, and you can find tools to combat the problems. However, after the ignorance of thinking you are a special kind of incapable comes the realisation that you cannot trust yourself and your perceptions, which can be frightening (there are many types of mental processes this frightful feeling can be applied to).

As a way to combat my perfectionism, I’ve resolved not to mercilessly edit this post but let it stand.

Discussion Questions

1. Are you a perfectionist too? What do you wish people knew about it?

2. Where can perfectionism come from?