Perfectionism may sound like a positive attribute but the truth is it stifles creativity, undermines relationships and is the cause of untold misery. Because its roots are buried deep in our childhood, it can be difficult even to realise we suffer from this affliction (as opposed to simply having high standards) and it can be even harder to eliminate its pervasive poison from our system – but that is exactly what we have to do if we’re going to be free to fulfil our potential and enjoy life.
If our early lessons in how to survive were taught by controlling, demanding parent-figures dispensing performance-related love, we emerge with the belief that our value (at least in the eyes of others) is dependent on our never doing anything wrong. Far from leading to success, perfectionism can paralyse those in its grip, preventing them from experimenting or pushing any boundaries. The problem is that the perfectionist is so afraid of making a mistake or failing in any way that he/she ends up unable to take a risk or even, in really serious cases, to make a decision at all. As pointed out in this article on the School of Life blog, mistakes are an integral part of the creative process, a necessary phase without which nothing worthwhile ever comes to fruition. Look at the big picture and embrace your mistakes; they are moving you towards your ultimate breakthrough.
As far as relationships are concerned, perfectionism really gets in the way. This excellent article from the University of Illinois, offering advice to perfectionist students, draws attention to two specific issues. The first is that the perfectionist may give the impression, at least, of asking a very great deal of others. The second is that, anticipating criticism and rejection, the perfectionist may often be defensive and hide his/her own perceived failings, keeping him/her at arm’s length from the world.
I have certainly noticed these phenomena in my own life. I’m getting a bit better now but I used to hold people to excessively exacting standards because I believed they were doing this to me. I felt highlighting their failures was somehow buying myself some latitude for next time I made a mistake. For the same reason, I appeared to be competitive and I suppose I was, but not through any desire to demonstrate I was superior. I only wanted to protect myself by not granting my detractors anything to criticise.
Even now, in my 40s, I feel a pull to get the tiniest decision ratified by someone else. A nagging doubt plagues me, suggesting there must be some factor I’ve missed, which will later, once the die is cast, reveal how foolish I am. Historically, I was criticised, ridiculed and punished for any behaviour or opinion that didn’t fit what my mother or father had in mind and this is what made it so tricky. It’s impossible to be perfect even when the yardsticks are clear but when they depend on the whim of a parent, life becomes a minefield.
To combat this, I have to have the courage of my convictions, to make my decision and trust that it’s right. I have to break the patterns of my childhood and establish new ways of thinking, train myself to see that if my mother disapproves of whatever it is I’ve chosen, the sky is not going to fall.
It seems to me a large part of the cure for the perfectionist condition lies in strengthening our sense of self. By this I primarily mean detaching what we are from what we do. Making a mistake does NOT imply we are a bad person. As I was saying last time in relation to procrastination, bullying ourselves and reinforcing the message that we’re a useless git if we don’t achieve our aims only makes things worse. As long as we go on conflating accomplishment and self-worth, we’ll never know peace.
Along with ceasing to judge ourselves (harshly) by our performance, we have to dislodge the tenacious belief that the world judges us (harshly) by our performance. Gradually, I am beginning to realise that I don’t have to do anything in order to have intrinsic value as a human being – and neither do you.