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Musings from a Recovering Perfectionist

For most of my life, I’ve struggled with perfectionism. One definition of perfectionism, offered by Dictionary.com, is “A propensity for being displeased with anything that is not perfect or does not meet extremely high standards.” There is nothing wrong with having high standards. They cause us to be conscientious, hard-working, and reliable. They inspire us to reach for bigger heights and can lead to great personal and professional success.

The line that crosses into perfectionism is the “propensity for being displeased” when these high standards are not met. The need for things to go exactly according to plan causes suffering when they don’t. Perfectionism can trigger self-criticism, judgment of others, and controlling behavior. For many, it’s a defense against anxiety, an attempt to avoid feeling vulnerable or out of control. If you’re like me, it may show up in some areas of your life but not in others.

My own perfectionism arose as a young girl. I remember learning to write in cursive in second grade. Painstakingly I hovered over my paper, pencil gripped tightly in hand. My brow furrowed as I strained to get every letter just right. Whenever I look back over my childhood papers, I’m amazed that a seven-year-old could produce such perfect handwriting. And that was only the beginning.

One day not long ago, when I was blowing some small thing out of proportion, my husband stopped me in my tracks. “Annie,” he said, his blue-green eyes wide and focused. “Stop being so hard on yourself. You’re just a human bean!”

Just like that, he snapped me out of it. Just a human bean. I burst out laughing. I got it. The simple fact of my—our—humanity stared me in the face. What is perfect, anyway? And who did I think I was to hold myself to a superhuman standard?

As a recovering perfectionist, I’m working on dropping the desire to constantly do my best. Instead, I aim to do the “good enough” that I can. That’s…well…good enough for me. I also try to continually put things in perspective. How serious is this situation in the grand scheme? Will it really matter in one day, one month, one year? What’s the big deal if things unfold differently than I envisioned? There are many ways to achieve the same goal.

How about you? In what areas do you try to be superhuman? How do you behave when your expectations of yourself or others are sky high? When you tune in, what feelings are underneath the drive for perfection? Have you found any techniques that help you relax, ease up, let go? In my experience, the alternative to perfectionism is fluidity. It’s the ability to roll with the punches, to take a wider view, to spontaneously adapt to life’s daily surprises. And oh, what a relief this lighter, gentler attitude is when you’re just a human bean.

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  1. BeckyLee
    December 10th, 2009 at 12:36 | #1

    A perfect just as you are, beautiful Human Bean! Bless us the Recovering Perfectionists!

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