I never really thought of myself as a perfectionist; more like a person who likes to do things well. But I think that’s like calling Hurricane Katrina a “rainy day.” Over the years it has become clear to me that the distress that I feel at doing things imperfectly is hurting me and others.
I conducted a long-range controlled scientific study (on my Instagram story) which suggests that 92% of peers who saw my story that day identify as perfectionists. Maybe perfectionists are attracted to perfectionists – I don’t know – but either way, that’s a lot of perfectionism. There’s nothing wrong with setting a high bar for yourself, and perfectionists are often the ones who make things happen (cough, cough) but it does lead to problems.
One issue that comes up is that “setting a high bar” usually translates into being critical of yourself when you don’t reach that bar. In fact, I think the definition of perfectionism – where “high standards” cross the line into something unhealthy – is correlated with the distress you feel when you don’t meet them. If you easily say, “Oh well, it’s good enough, let’s move on,” you are not a perfectionist (it’s a tight club). But if the inability to reach those standards gives you angst, especially when you perseverate, check again and again, and lose sleep – you’re definitely one of us.
Another casualty is that perfectionists are just as critical of others as they are of themselves. “High standards” for yourself almost always means high standards for others – especially in the areas where you excel. This of course leads to critical attitudes toward others and, in the absence of a lot of self-work, critical comments and disparaging remarks. From a purely autobiographical standpoint, us perfectionists see flaws in every restaurant, business, website, relationship, and organized system. We see imperfection everywhere. And trying to say nothing about all that, well. It’s hard.
Forget about misplaced apostrophes and superfluous commas – that’s child’s play. But when you can’t eat out or fly an airplane without noticing lists of stuff that need fixing, you need help.
The problem with all this perfectionism is that we do not enjoy life half as much as we could. We are always in “teaching tweaking fixing” mode. I counsel “let go and let G-d” in my teaching but the unpleasant truth is that I am quite bad at it. It’s something I work very, very hard at. It’s a mindful practice every day of my life. And more than anything, us perfectionists are harsh with ourselves.
There’s this toxic voice in the minds of perfectionists that spends precious little time on legitimate self-congratulation and an inordinate amount of time on self-critique. If we could only pause and remind ourselves that this is the skewed voice of perfectionism, we’d be OK – but most of the time we hear this voice and instead mistake it for truth. So we live a lot of our lives staring our imperfections in the face, and angsting about them.
We obsess about all the things we are not doing. All our physical flaws. All the lapses in our professional endeavors. The gaps in our social obligations. The inconsistency of our religious practice. The mistakes in our parenting. Because, you know, we “should” be doing it all, and doing it all right, and doing it all right at the same time.
So you think about that, and of course it sounds ridiculous. But that’s how it is.
The imperfection in this treatise is that I “should” close up with some pithy advice, how I’ve overcome this scourge and how you can too. But no. It’s just me here, imperfectly confessing my imperfections without closure. And I’m going to breathe through it, and be okay with that.