“Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.” (Salvador Dali)
Tired of striving for perfection? But it’s just who you are, right? Wrong! You were not born to be a perfectionist. No, you were raised and trained to be a perfectionist! If you were born a little perfectionist you would have never started walking. Can you imagine toddlers trying to stand up or take that first step and then quitting because they didn’t do it perfectly? Ridiculous!
Before going any further, let’s just get this out of the way. Being a perfectionist does not mean you do everything perfectly, but it does mean you could die trying!
So how do you get to be a perfectionist if you weren’t born that way? It begins in childhood with ‘requests’ for perfection. These may be as simple as wanting you to make your bed exactly right, set the table perfectly, achieve ‘perfect’ marks on homework, or have perfect manners. The list of ‘perfection requests’ could go on and on, and unfortunately for some kids it does.
Then we have the ‘dangling carrot’ message. Just when you think you have done enough or done something well, the goal post gets moved!
— Your piano playing is sounding good, it would be even better if you practiced one more hour a day!
— Dinner was lovely, it would have just been that little bit better if you had used more spice.
—Your essay reads really well. It would look better if you printed it on better paper.
— That dress looks lovely, but I think I prefer your blue one.
— 98% on your test! Hey (laugh, laugh) where’s the other 2%?
No matter what you do or how much you do, it is never, ever good enough.
Requests for perfection go hand-in-hand with unreachable ideals. You know, how you ‘should’ be, ‘should’ perform, how much time you ‘should’ put into homework or hobbies, or how much excellence you ‘should’ achieve. As you grow the external pressure to be perfect morphs into constant self-demand, impossible inner standards, fear of not succeeding, and for many a paralyzing fear of failing.
You need to understand what perfectionism does to your life. Then you need to take a deep breath and ease back on the throttle of your desire and need to be perfect. Perfectionism drains your energy and your time. It messes up your priorities, it keeps you hammering away at something trivial at the expense of something important. Striving for perfect makes you unsure of the decisions you make and focused on getting it ‘right’ instead of focusing on what is ‘right’ for you. Perfectionism drains your soul.
Given all of that, I refuse to see perfectionism as a ‘bad’ trait (as it is often portrayed). It comes down to perfectionism vs realism: when is ‘good enough’ simply good enough? Perfectionism is only ‘bad’ when it gets in the way of living or causes anxiety or tension. Not all of us will be able to banish perfectionism from our lives forever (maybe not want to) but we do need to give up the myth that we can actually achieve perfection and keep perfection. If we can relinquish that belief, we can live a long and happy life with perfect…or not.
We can tame the beast!