“We walk around wrapped in our stories, and it only takes a small poke from the outside world to unleash a flood of them in all their velocity. Over time, we become packages of predictable responses. We forget there’s any other way to respond.” Margaret Wheatley, Perseverance
My name is Barbara and I am a perfectionist.
The drive for perfection is a nuisance, frankly. As a lifelong perfectionist, I know what I’m talking about.
When I was a little girl just starting school, I came home after the first day and dissolved in tears. My mother was horrified. Imagined something terrible had happened. To my six-year-old mind it had. I didn’t know how to read.
Throughout my public school years my mother would frequently get phone calls from the school saying, Barbara’s crying again. Why? I didn’t know the answer when called upon. Didn’t get a perfect mark on a test. Didn’t get the highest marks in the class. (I was something of a smartypants and often was top of the class so when I slipped, it was nothing short of disaster.) The distress from not being perfect was aggravated by feelings embarrassment over the tears. A further sign of imperfection. And so it went.
As I progressed through public school and on to high school, I accelerated through the grades and wound up graduating two years younger than my classmates. I was in the “brain class”, a curse for sure from a social perspective. No boyfriends, painfully shy and for a few years the target of a vicious girl clique.
The only way, I thought, to survive the pressure was in the constant pursuit of perfection. And of course I couldn’t succeed. Nonetheless it became a story I told myself. It became part of my story. And here it was: Success and acceptance require perfection. I will never reach perfection. I will never reach success and acceptance.
Not good. Not healthy. Not a recipe for happiness.
As I grew older, the need for perfection drove me harder. I had to do the best possible work. And it paid off with recognition and awards. Not that I was ever satisfied. It also meant those who worked with me or for me were held to the same impossible standard. I developed a reputation for being difficult. It didn’t win me a lot of friends. My family too were expected to be perfect. Fortunately I have been blessed with a deeply loving – and forgiving – family.
My first real inkling that I could change the story was when I happened across a magazine article – ironically while I was waiting to see my psychiatrist. The writer talked about the potential destruction caused by the need to be right. It caught my attention. Needing to be right is closely tied to the need to be perfect. After all, if you are perfect, then you must be right. Right?
The article was written by a woman who was desperately unhappy. As was her family. She concluded the unhappiness was caused by her need to be right. About everything. Small stuff. Big stuff. Didn’t matter. It was the principle. Consequently everything became a battle. One day, perhaps because she was exhausted, she let something go that she knew was wrong. Didn’t press it. Even though she knew she was right. And two things happened. The sky didn’t fall. And there was a glimmer of harmony within her family. What a revelation. She tested the experience. What she discovered was that family harmony increased in direct proportion to her letting go of the stuff that didn’t really matter. She didn’t need to be recognized as right all the time. She also became happier, recognizing the gift she’d been given by changing her internal story. It hit me hard. I recognized myself.
Sadly this recognition came long after the end of my first marriage and my children were grown and living on their own. But it helped me change my current story. Seeking perfection has been replaced with aiming for the best I can do. The best I can be. Not perfect but for the most part, pretty good.
To the best of my knowledge, there is no Perfectionists Anonymous so I’ve been forced to develop my own steps to recovery.
- Admitting that I can’t control the compulsion
Actually, now that I think about it, I don’t agree with Step #1. There’s a difference between accepting who you are and controlling it. Which leads me to #2.
2. Learning to live with a new code of behaviour. Or a new story. More productive thoughts.
Says Meg Wheatley:
“The good news is that at any moment we can refuse to be triggered in the old, familiar ways. This takes practice and a lot of discipline… We illuminate the road to freedom each time we make a conscious choice to stay out of our stories. The road gets easier to see in the light of each pause.”
No kidding. I still find myself wrestling with perfectionist attacks from time to time. Sometimes self-flagellating, sometimes focussed on those around me. Taking two steps back before being able to move forward once again. Which means that I suspect I will always be needing Step #3.
3. Making amends
I am offering my deepest apology to everyone who’s suffered from my need for perfection. And/or my need to be right. I’m pretty sure you know who you are.
I’m doing the best I can.
- The Problem with Perfection (psychologytoday.com)
- Annette Bening’s Role as a Perfectionist (psychologytoday.com)
- It’s Just Fine to Make Mistakes (nytimes.com)