As part of a homework assignment, I recently asked a client to write an essay on perfectionism. I was astounded at how well he did this. I think his points will strike a chord with many people. Part of his essay is reproduced with his full permission.
Perfectionism is not perfect!
I first thought it would be easy to write about this topic, but somehow I just couldn’t find the motivation to write. I also didn’t know where to start.
I wasn’t aware that perfectionism is affecting so many areas of my life, until I was showed in which ways it does. I was always aware, that I’m a bit perfectionist, but it didn’t really bother me much nor others around me. I thought there were other reasons why I couldn’t find a partner in my life, but wouldn’t have thought, that perfectionism is the main cause. I also always thought, that trying to do things in an exact way, considering as many details as possible (thus in a perfectionist way) is desirable. In some areas it is, like in my work, but in others – especially ones personal life and in relationships, it’s not. People and the world aren’t perfect, so pursuing to live in a perfect environment is comparable to the quest of finding the holy grail. Aside from that, there is also much to learn and benefit from imperfection: if everything would be perfect, flawless, equal, there would be not much variety, and variety is what makes the world the interesting place it is. I suppose a perfect world with perfect people actually wouldn’t be a place we would feel comfortable in. The next problem which arises is the define, or rather decide or distinguish between perfect and imperfect.
I’ve for the last years have been pursuing perfectionism in many areas of my life. As far as I understand it now, this behaviour was motivated by specific circumstances in my younger years, of which some didn’t change until today. I think the predominant was my father. I understood that he was an unhappy man for most of the marriage with my mom. Life brought him into a situation, where he was stuck in a world he didn’t feel happy in, and he didn’t find a way out of it. As a result he always pointed out the flaws of others to us kids, at the same time never admitting or supposedly not even noticing, that he is “faulty” in the same way as the people he is complaining about.
But our parents are the people we want most of all to be proud of us. So I concluded, that if I want dad to be proud of me I shouldn’t be like any of the people he is complaining about. The only problem was, that there were no such people, but I didn’t notice that back then. But there were visible character and appearance characteristics dad usually complained about, so I would just have to avoid those.
Applying these rules to myself was not hard, as I had a lot of endurance and strength to accept this idealistic regime and try to become such an idol. But it was always difficult to accept that most of my friends and people around were showing these claimed imperfections in their behaviour and appearance. The outcome sometimes being, that I thought of them as less worth or not good enough. A feeling of pity for them also came up just as well as disappointment, when I tried to show them a different way – a way to “improve” themselves – which they wouldn’t follow. Instead of enjoying the time spent together, my mind – set to perfectionism – was usually labeling it as a waste of time and the people as not worth it. My personal pursuit of being perfect and wishing others to follow only alienated me more from them. Being a foreigner in the country I grew up in made it harder to notice these erroneous thoughts, as in many ways we were different anyway, so them being “lesser” was just a part of their difference. But for dad there was always something to complain about everybody, including fellow countrymen, so even them were usually lesser and not worth spending too much time with.
It’s difficult to have friends, when one usually only sees their imperfections, instead of their positive sides! And the world without friends is a lonely place. In my case this also manifested itself in trying to find the “perfect” girlfriend. The girl had to fulfill all of the wishes both, my mom (had to be good-looking, thin, intelligent, …) and dad (not exhibit one of those gazillion flaws he picked on) rather indirectly postulated. In addition to that, she was not allowed to be like my mom, as I was perfectly aware that mom and dad didn’t get along well at all, so if the girl I would be with was similar to my mom, and me being similar to my dad (which I am in many ways). The main insight I had recently is that perfectionist behaviour always comes with a price. In the examples above it was the feeling of loneliness just as well as guilt for thinking bad (they are “lesser”) about people and friends. The other price tags that follow are time, effort, sacrifices, and even harm.
When one tends towards perfectionist behaviour simple things suddenly become a science in themselves. Something as simple as writing a letter or email can be done “quick & dirty” or perfect. Usually one writes to communicate. Our brains cope very well with spelling mistakes, some additional or lacking spaces, too many empty lines, wrong punctuation marks, missing or double words (when one stops to think a sentence over and writes the same thing twice;). But sending a letter like that for the perfectionist is not acceptable. The spell checker is constantly on, a non proportional font which shows too many spaces is used, and the text is reread before sending, just to make sure there are no mistakes in terms of grammar or misplaced/redundant words. In addition it would not be acceptable for the text not to have logic transitions. So the time to write a “perfect” mail is much higher than one without all of the effort put into it, while both – the normal and perfect ones – communicate the same ideas to the receiver. Of course, a nicely written email definitely is nicer to read by the recipient, but often the invested time could be used for more enjoyable things in life, than rereading ones own words. (Btw. this text was not reread before I send it off;).
The other side of the coin with writing perfect emails is reading emails and noticing all imperfections. They don’t really make a difference, as the content is understood, but they do bother the perfectionist eye. Instead of concentrating on the content, one feels disturbed by the flaws with negative and often despising thoughts about the author.estined not to work out. Thus this “wonder woman” would have to satisfy traits, which are written in a book with endless pages.
I think like with everything in life, perfectionist tendencies need to be in balance. They have benefits (I made many interesting experiences during my quest for perfectionism), but also – as just pointed out – a great deal of disadvantages, up to a point where they become disturbing, impeding, destructive, or even pathological. For them to stop causing problems in one’s life, one needs to become aware of them and find their initial motivations. Then one can learn to use them constructively, instead of letting them take over our lives. In my case, it was the wish to be appreciated and recognized as somebody worthy by my dad which caused most of them to manifest themselves. Connected with that came a lack of self-esteem and a resulting fear of being dismissed by society as somebody unworthy if one wouldn’t do everything in a perfect manner (“what will somebody think of me, when I send them an imperfect mail”, with the assumption, that they will feel equally “distracted” as one oneself does when receiving an imperfect mail). But I recognized that most of such thoughts simply don’t stand the test of reality (thank you for the vocabulary Dr. Jenner!:), thus are simply a waste of time and energy, which can be used to enjoy life, rather than trying to achieve an unreachable goal: there is no end in perfectionism – everything can be improved… even the text I just wrote, but who cares!!;)
Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a Counseling psychologist in private practice working with individuals, couples, groups and companies. Apart from seeing clients face-to-face, Dr Jenner also runs a thriving online therapy business bringing help to those who are housebound or located in rural locations where therapy is difficult to find. For more information , follow the link to his website HERE
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