Are you a perfectionist?
If not a perfectionist, I am pretty darn close. I grew up needing the nice perfect 100% in red atop my test. A 98% meant failure. I needed to be named the very top student, not one of a group of the top 15. It’s paralyzing. It’s exhausting. It sucks.
Who knows why I grew up that way. My assumption is that I felt it necessary in order to feel worthy, or in an effort to feel loved. Certainly I was trying to live up to my parent’s expectations. If I made the very highest grade then clearly I could not have done better. Anything less and just as clearly a little more effort or smarts on my part would have led to the better result.
Elizabeth Scott, MS, in her article “Perfectionist Traits: Do These Sound Familiar,” from VeryWellMind.com, which you can read at: https://www.verywellmind.com/signs-you-may-be-a-perfectionist-3145233, gives some hints on how to tell if you are a high achiever (awesome!) or a perfectionist (not so great). Do you focus on your mistakes and imperfections, or on lessons learned and the fun you had along the way? Is “almost perfect” a failure? Does a goal pull you toward it because it sounds so alluring, or does fear push you towards it because you’re afraid you won’t reach it and must? Do you tend to wallow in self-criticism and disappointment if you fail to reach your aim, or bounce back and on to the next objective? Are your goals so high as to be unrealistic? Can you enjoy the steps along the way, or is it only finally meeting the goal that will satisfy you?
If the rather miserable sounding situation described for perfectionists above wasn’t enough to convince you to change your ways, then perhaps this will do the trick — Scott says that perfectionists generally achieve less and stress more than high achievers. This is in part because procrastination is a huge part of perfectionism. Fear of failure often means you fail to try at all.
There’s a great article on breaking the perfectionism/procrastination cycle you can read here: https://webstandardssherpa.com/reviews/breaking-the-perfectionism-procrastination-infinite-loop.html
And, for another take on the issue, check out Diana Renner and Steven D’Souza’s book, “Not Doing: The Art of Effortless Action.” In it, they point out that “doing nothing” — finding time to sit in silence and solitude, to slow down and let go of the need to know, to treat yourself to some time to simply be — can counteract the busy, stressful, go-go-go feeling so frequently found in perfectionists. Perfectionists have a flawless version of ourselves that never allow us to accept failure, so that even when a goal is reached we cannot be fully satisfied.
As someone who has grown up as a perfectionist, with my self-worth accompanied by impossibly high standards, I’ve also been driven by the inner voice drilled into me as a child by a mother who often warned me not to be “a lazy-ass” if she caught me not completing to her satisfaction some chore I’d been assigned, or completing my homework quickly enough, or if for any reason I was “wasting” time. I’ve always felt as if I am never working hard enough. As a single mother of two, I worked full time as a senior associate and then Of Counsel trying to make Partner at one of the largest law firms in the world and refused to hire a nanny or any help because then I’d spend even more time at work. It’s hard to remember much about those years, because feeling as if it would be selfish and lazy and undeserved to spend a hot minute taking a breath or a nap or a day to relax meant missing out on many beautiful moments of life, especially rested and mindful moments with my children when they were small. I may have been around as much as possible, but my mind was often elsewhere or simply too exhausted to be fully present with them. But I didn’t know any better. The thought of slowing down simply didn’t seem a viable option.
So, among the other advice on overcoming perfectionism, the authors urge you to consider spending some time in silence and solitude, to listen to the small still voice in your heart — the one that often cannot be heard over the loud chattering the inner critic in your mind. Stop listening to the doing voice for a moment and simply be. And maybe you’ll find a better way of being than being perfect. Maybe how you are and who you are is good enough, even if it isn’t the absolute best you could be. In fact, I’m sure of it. Be you, in all your messy, less-than-perfect, sometimes lazy, glory. Thank you inner critic for all of his or her hard work on your behalf, and give them a well-deserved vacation. Hey, go crazy and take one yourself, even if it’s just 30 undisturbed minutes in a hot bathtub with bubbles and the refreshment of your choice, a long walk in nature, or the luxury of a nap. Enjoy this one wild and precious life you’ve been given, even if neither it — nor you–is perfect.