Perfectionism: Are you stuck on the perfectionist merry-go-round?
One evening last week a girlfriend dropped in for an impromptu visit and said she needed a glass of wine. Being the good friend I am I dutifully shared a bottle with her. Which was all fine until the next morning when I realized that I’d forgotten to set my alarm and missed one of my kids parent teacher interviews at 7.15. Needless to say, when I rang him to apologize I felt very badly. He couldn’t have been nicer but still, I dropped the ball big time.
And then, over the weekend, I snapped at my son as I was driving him to basketball… or was it soccer or a friends house… too long ago to remember. He was flipping through radio stations to the point that it was doing my head in. I could have gently asked him to leave the dial alone. But no, I snapped. He recoiled, hurt. Aggggh…I am sooo not a perfect mum.
And now, today I am writing this article. Or trying to. Wishing I could up with the perfect words to write to change your life forever. Alas, I’m guessing I will fall far short.
And so it is that I go through my days, often slipping up, messing up, and failing to live up to the expectations and standards I have for myself. I am sooo not perfect. In fact if you were to measure the distance between me and perfect, it would have be done in light years.
At the heart of “perfectionism” lies a fear of not being good enough; of not being “worthy” just as we are. This fear drives us into an illusive quest to live up to a standard that is simply unattainable.
Which has me thinking – who ever said I was supposed to be? More so, how can I respond more compassionately and constructively with myself when I slip up, mess up, and fall far short of being the model mother, wife, friend, writer, courage evangelist, and human being that I aspire to be. I know that I’m not alone in my tendency to beat myself up when I fall down and compare myself to those who seem to be sooo much better (and closer to “perfect”) than I am.
Don’t get me wrong though – I have no bone to pick with perfectionists. Well not those who might find themselves operating on my heart, building my home or fixing the brakes in my car. But we need to discern between those times when aiming for perfectionism is serving us (and those around us… in the case of the heart surgeon) and when it is holding us back. Being a perfectionist is not the same thing as being a person who wants to be the best version of themselves that they can be (even though it may sound the same.) Wanting to improve ourselves is distinctly different than wanting to prove our worthiness to others. Or even to ourselves.
When I snapped at my son I immediately felt guilty. I pulled the car over to the side of the road, took a few deep breaths and when I’d regained my composure, I told him I was sorry. He didn’t want to look at me initially. He was wounded. Angry too. I asked him if he’d forgive me and he told me he needed to think about it a few more minutes. By the time we’d arrived at basketball he said “I forgive you mum. Just don’t do it again.” I told him I’d do my best. And I will.
But do you think I can guarantee never to lose my temper again, to snap at one of my kids, be thoughtless with a friend, or judgmental about someone? If only! I will do my best to do better, but I know that I am going to slip up again. What I’m learning, albeit rather slowly, is that when I fail to be the person I’d like to be, the most fruitful way I can respond is by being honest with myself about my behavior, forgiving myself for it, and then doing what I can to make amends and not do it again. What doesn’t help me is to beat up on myself for being a pathetic and faulted human being, to blame others or make excuses to justify what I’ve done.
The quest for perfectionism leaves us stuck on a merry-go-round that takes us around and around in circles, but never forward. The merry-go-round has no place for compassion. It intolerant of vulnerability. There is no embracing those aspects of us that flawed; only berating them or trying to cover them up lest they be expose to those we seek to impress or prove our worthiness to. While we are stuck on that merry-go-round we are also stuck from moving forward in creating a more rewarding and meaningful experience of life in four core ways.
1. Perfectionism isolates and undermines intimacy
Acknowledging our shortcomings, fears and failures makes us vulnerableto disapproval. Possibly even rejection. But it also allows us to connect more deeply with people around us. It’s very hard to feel comfortable with someone who seems to be “perfect” (even when we know that they can’t possibly have it as together as they portray). We connect to people most deeply through our vulnerability, our struggles and sharingthose aspects our inner (and sometimes outer) lives which aren’t as we would like them to be. When we are driven to prove to others how smart-beautiful- successful-loveable -organized-capable-together- thoughtful-etcetera we are we create a barrier. That doesn’t mean that we can’t be all of those things. But remember, there’s a distinct difference between trying to improve yourself and prove yourself to others. One brings you fulfillment, the other brings you constant striving but never arriving.
2. Perfectionism hampers learning and stifles growth
Perfectionism can profoundly limit accomplishment. It keeps us from taking risks that might result in a greater accomplishment or professional mastery because we are afraid of messing up or looking, being exposed as a fraud or looking, well. . . less than perfect. Think about how many adults who never learned to swim as children refuse to learn as adults. Why? Because they don’t want to go through the same learning curve that every child must go through in order to stay afloat. I have to admit, there is nothing I admire more than the courage I see in adults who decide to learn a skill that the rest of us learnt in our youth (whether it be swimming, driving a car or riding a bike).
3. Perfectionism limits productivity and confines us to “Immaculate Mediocrity”
There are too many people living lives of immaculate mediocrity – perfect on the outside but scoring low when it comes to doing anything of real value. Perfectionism can impede our ability to use the time we have each day in an optimal way and drive us to spending it on “stuff” that really doesn’t matter. For instance, I would not have sat down to write this article if my house first had to be perfect. With four typical messy kids, I’d never even step outside my home each day if it had to be perfect. Whether it’s our home or our hair or the formatting on the power point presentation we are creating for a meeting, it pays to continually ask yourself: “Is this the best use of my time? How much does this matter versus the other could be doing with my time and energy?” It’s very easy to slide down a slippery slope into a quagmire of low value “small stuff” that can, if we let it, consume all our energy and squander our ability to do something more worthwhile.
There’s a distinct difference between trying to improve yourself and prove yourself to others. One brings you fulfillment, the other brings you constant striving but never arriving.
4. Perfectionism diminishes gratitude
of people who would love to have the life you live. But when we are caught on the perfectionism merry-go-round, we are unable to be truly present to, and grateful for, our many blessings. Whether it’s your body, your spouse, your home, your kids or your job, when you are focused on everything that isn’t “just right” and good in your life it keeps you from being truly present to all that is. Life’s perfection actually exists in its imperfection. The truth is that if life were perfect, it wouldn’t be! You can’t always see the perfection of life in the moment through the narrow lens of where you stand today, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
The only way off the perfectionists merry-go-round is to acknowledge your fear of not being “good enough”and embrace your innate worthiness just as you are – flawts and all (flawt = flaw + wart). Making it a practice to ask yourself if the stuff you are expending your precious time and energy on is worthy of you frees you up to face your challenges more powerfully, pursue your goals more powerfully, and enjoy each day more fully. There is no-one on planet earth with the same combination of talents, experiences and skills as have. And while there is also no-one on the planet with the same magnificient combination of flaws and failings, I invite you to consider:
1. What makes you feel vulnerable when you think about giving up your quest for perfectionism? Why?
2. How would owning your own imperfectness free you up to be more forgiving of yourself and of all the equally imperfect people around you?
3. How might you enjoy your life more if you could accept your current life circumstances as they are right now despite those aspects which aren’t as you’d like them to be?
I invite you right now to embrace life’s imperfection more fully and give up the thankless quest for “perfect”. It will take years off your life. It will also free you to connect more deeply with others, enjoy a deeper sense of gratitude and, most importantly, give you the courage pursue your aspirations more boldly.
Now. . . what could be more perfect!?
Now, off to prepare a very imperfect meal for my family. For most things in life, good enough really is good enough. DITCH PEREFECCT… however you spell it. I’m not that good of a spella either. 😉