I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it.
— Anne Lamott
As I typed the title of the first lesson in a section on Lessons of a Recovering Perfectionist for Support4Change for recovering perfectionists, I could hear my mother's voice: "Couldn't you have used a more delicate phrase?"
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For just a moment I considered changing it. But I think it says just what I want to say — and besides, it's this very attempt to please others that has caused so much distress in my life.
If you've never met a perfectionist, you live on a planet where this personality style has been outlawed. On earth, however, there may be one of them living in your house, in which case I pity you. If you're like me, you have to live with one under your own skin, in which case I feel sorry for you as well.
Trying Our Best All the Time
Twenty years ago I wouldn't have said I was a perfectionist. Then I was just trying "to be the best I could be," which didn't seem like such a terrible goal. After all, one of my websites, Support4Change, is devoted to helping people be the best they can be. The problem is that what I think of as being my "best" isn't doing 80% or 90% of what the most superior individual could do with a given job, but doing it at 110% capacity. 110% of the time.
You may not realize it, but when perfectionists are in the midst of striving to make something as absolutely good as we possibly can, we don't experience ourselves as trying "too hard." We simply feel as though we're trying to do a quality job with whatever I do (which as I say, ain't too shabby a goal). The problem is that other people (those lucky souls who were handed other personality styles) can stop at a reasonable point and proclaim a project "good enough." I have a very hard time knowing what "good enough" means.
For example, when I painted the garage some years ago, I put two coats of paint on the wall behind the power saw. The saw never gets moved. No one will ever see that wall unless we sell the house. But I had to make certain it was well painted! Or take this article for another example. Is it as good as it needs to be after I've written the second draft (I figure no one stops at just the first draft)? Or do I need to do a third, or fifth, or tenth? (Not sure which one this is, but I think the final version is the third draft.)
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Omnipotence Versus Impotence
The point of this first lesson comes from a workshop I attended perhaps twenty years ago. Until then, I had certainly known I had high standards for myself and for others. I knew I was controlling. I knew I felt much more judgmental toward others than I knew was good for me. But I never realized there was a name for what I was.