Perfectionism is a Pain in the Butt


Lesson one of a recovering perfectionist is recognition that pain pf trying isn't worth it

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?"

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.)

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.

Then, during the workshop, which was on personality styles, Lynn Jacobs, a psychologist and excellent instructor, began describing the obsessive-compulsive personality, of which perfectionism is a sub-species. As she went through a long list of characteristics, I was flabbergasted to discover how thoroughly I met the criteria of perfectionism.

My first clue was when she said that "the polarity that defines the perfectionist is one of omnipotence" — at which point she held one hand so the fingers were facing straight up — "versus impotence." Then she moved her hand so the fingers were perpendicular to the floor.

I was shocked! That's a gesture I had often used to describe myself, although when I did it, I would say that I felt either "Okay" or "Not Okay." That day she called a spade a spade and really caught my attention. I didn't like those terms, although I recognized them as very accurate.

She had me pegged all right. I could sometimes feel empathetic toward (and envious of) the middle ground where others lived and worked. But when it came to myself, I was caught in the land of either/or, black or white, up or down, with me or against me, success or failure, omnipotence or impotence.

The Beginning of Perfectionism

What starts this pogo stick approach to life? Well, it begins when we (and here I include my fellow recovering perfectionists, as well as those who haven't yet admitted their affliction) were young. We decided that our parents, good souls though they may have been otherwise, didn't think we were okay unless we met their expectations. Their expectation may have been perfectly reasonable, but we concluded we weren't okay just as we were — only when we performed. Come home with all A's and one B? I'd be questioned on why I got the B.

We didn't learn that mistakes were a natural and acceptable part of life, that they were to be honored because they offered a chance to learn.

As the workshop leader proceeded to describe the obsessive-compulsive/perfectionist, I was both appalled and relieved. Appalled that I had to admit I was a member of this group — lumped in with the obsessive-compulsives — and yet relieved that someone understood my pain.

Yes, as the title of this lesson indicates, it's a major pain being a perfectionist. Why? Don't we get praise for all the good stuff we produce? The problem is that few of us are either omnipotent or impotent. Pretty much we all inhabit the central ground. So a great deal of the pain comes from the realization that we're ordinary, which, of course, is nowhere near omnipotent, which is what we think we're supposed to be.

You Are Invited to Become a Recovering Perfectionist

Are you tired of feeling you must either do everything super well or you're a slouch? Are you tired of carrying the burden of feeling no one understands the terror that lurks under the need to feel superior? Well, friend, I invite you to join my self-help group for recovering perfectionists. True, we don't have a "real" group and we haven't put together a chat room, which means, I guess, this isn't a perfect organization. But know what? I'm perfectly happy with it. Must mean I'm on my way to recovery.

If you want to read other lessons by a recovering perfectionist, see the perfectionist section of Support4Change.

This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission from the author.