Like many Type A’s, I have struggled throughout my life with the burden of perfectionism. It is a difficult taskmaster, I can tell you that.
I think it will be instructive to relay my evolving attitudes toward perfectionism over the four decades of my adult life. I have tried many different ways to adopt a healthier and more realistic perspective. The goal has always been to at least mitigate this obsessive way of thinking and the harmful effects it can inflict.
And so, this has been my journey:
In my twenties my anxiety really took hold, since this is the time of life when emotional disorders tend to bloom. Add to this my entrance into the full-time work world after college and my decision to marry and have a family, and the result was that I was suffering a great deal emotionally. I decided to see a therapist for the first time in my life, and he provided me with my first useful perspective on perfectionism.
He characterized perfectionism as an impossible, and therefore not at all practical, ideal. He counseled me that since it can never actually be attained, it should be cast aside as a useless concept.
I decided to liken the attainment of perfection to trying to count to infinity, or travel to the edge of the universe. Why frustrate yourself?
In the midst of my busy work career and family life I gained another interesting perspective on perfectionism. I began to realize that while it is useful to strive for excellence in some endeavors, such as an important project at work, other tasks simply do not justify so much effort or care. Many routine functions at work are not that critical and therefore can be approached with less intensity. Also, at home, while caring for my children was quite important, something such as maintaining the lawn might be considered less so.
Not everything in life requires or deserves your best. If you adopt this perspective, you can both conserve energy for what is truly important and be kinder and gentler to yourself.
In my forties it dawned on me that perfection is not an “absolute,” but rather is in the eye of the beholder, like beauty. Just as some people are attracted to members of the opposite sex who are blonde-haired and blue-eyed, some are instead attracted to the darker Mediterranean or Latino types. Perfection is not a “one size fits all.”
What is the “perfect” personality of a child—creative and rambunctious, or thoughtful and quiet? What is the perfect song or movie? Perfection is not something that you would ever likely get broad agreement on, so why even worry about it?
Now I find myself in my fifties, and I am retired. I think I have finally discovered the best (but not the perfect!) response to my perfectionist tendencies, at least for this stage in my life
I simply don’t care anymore.
I really, really just can’t get whipped up about it. It doesn’t have the powerful allure and meaning it used to have. I have become much more interested in the texture of my life, the people and experiences, and not the “ideal” execution of projects and goals.
If you struggle with perfectionism, I hope my journey with it has helped you gain some perspective. If you can expose it for what it truly is, an “emperor with no clothes,” you will hopefully be on the road to much greater peacefulness.