Confession: I used to be a perfectionist. When I was a kid, I remember rewriting papers over and over again because of one mistake, one erase-mark. My room was always tidy and I couldn't do my homework if the area was messy. I'd even clean up a friend's living room if we were studying together. And it still gives me anxiety to have a disorganized house, though these days I'm OK with just 90 percent "perfection," which really isn't perfect at all. I realized in about the sixth grade that I was going to waste too much time making things perfect and so I made a change, on my own, at age 11.
I would force myself to do my math problems with a sweatshirt plopped (not folded) next to me. I turned in assignments with eraser-marks on the page. I would purposefully make my bed a little messily and leave it all day while I went to school ("messy" meant leaving the top sheet a little wrinkled underneath the comforter). At first I would think about the imperfections constantly; they would pop up like fresh toast when I was thinking of other things, but gradually I was able to let go. I like to think I trained myself out of it, though I still have my moments of obsessively organizing and arranging.
We all know people who are perfectionists: For most it manifests in only one category — baking perfect cakes, assembling the ideal outfit, or making error-free spreadsheets, for example. And sometimes that propensity can be useful. I want my doctor, air-traffic controller (and pilot!) to be perfectionists when it comes to their jobs. Perfectionism seems like a desirable personality trait, but it can also cause as much harm as good when it overflows into areas of life that are by their very nature imperfect. Teaching and learning; raising a child into a happy, functioning adult; non-emergency medical care; art, music and writing; politics — all of these categories, by their very nature, are imperfect, because there is no one right way to do them. Bringing perfectionistic personalities to those worlds (or any space where there's more than a yes or no answer to a problem) can wreak havoc. It's especially difficult to be the child or the employee of a perfectionist.
The poster child of the perfect life, Gwyneth Paltrow, wrote about the topic on Goop. She called her own perfectionism, "a misguided belief in my life, often leading me down the wrong path." Having learned that perfect isn't everything, Paltrow asked several experts to weigh in on the perils of perfectionism and, most importantly, what's behind the compulsion to be flawless, and what we can do about it.
First, this list of the downsides of perfectionism are useful to keep in mind — it's easy, as a perfectionist, to think that is the only or best way to do things. "The perfectionist embodies the gifts of being wise, principled and conscientious; but, also runs the risk of being too idealistic and judgmental to the point of becoming critical, intolerant, self-righteous and, perhaps, punitive. Perfectionists have a gift for detail but also have an inner critic than finds flaws automatically," writes Susan McNary, an Enneagram scholar. Gripping tightly to a perfectionist mindset often results in a very critical worldview, which is an easy way to miss out on the positive, fun stuff of life. If you are always looking for the incorrect, it makes the sublime hard to see.
Dr. Jessica Zucker, a practicing psychologist who has seen plenty of this in her practice, weighed in with this thought-provoking statement: "What I have seen firsthand as a clinician is an increase in the wish to create more in the world — to "be" something, while hoping that the feelings of smallness that exist inside will diminish as a direct result. The ethos of perfectionism is tucked deeply in the fabric of myriad messages strewn throughout our competitive culture. We’re tempted to think that if we do more, we will feel less insecure, less afraid, and less anxious/depressed. It’s the fuel that catapults people into despair when they realize that perfection is not possible 100 percent of the time."
Zucker points out, "Perfection isn't possible." I like that, because once you realize that basic truth — that what you're striving for is not realistic, it's easier to let it go. And it benefits all of us to let the idea go.
Because what perfectionism is, at its base, is fear. Fear of doing something wrong, being perceived as lesser, making a mistake. But the way we change and grow is by making mistakes. While we often see errors or non-ideal outcomes (or whatever you want to call them) as negative, they are really neutral. They are just steps on the road to figuring out a better answer to your problem. If you avoid mistakes because you're afraid of being imperfect, you've stopped yourself at the beginning of the learning process. It's like stopping at the egg-cracking phase of baking cookies because you're afraid of the drippy egg whites. You get stopped there and never go on to realize the great treats later on, when it all comes together. So clean up after your mistakes, but don't let them (or your fear of them) stop you from moving forward.
Entrepreneur Peter Sims suggests a way forward: "We can move from a mindset based on fear of failure and perfectionism ... if we just start taking small steps toward our dreams and goals." Make mistakes, deal with them, move on. You'll be surprised how far you can go while being imperfect along the way.
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