One of the more interesting conversations I had when I was in therapy was about perfectionism.
I had only just been able to admit to myself that I am a perfectionist and thought that we would be finding ways to leave that tendency behind. Apparently I have no self-awareness at all. When I confessed my perfectionism to Alan, he said, “And….? You’re only just realizing this?”
“Shut up. You snore!” is the only proper response to a comment like that.
I had always viewed perfectionism as a small, tightly-wound attribute and I really want my life to be big, open and generous. It was hard to reconcile the two, but I’ve been doing some deep work and I needed to tell my therapist.
She surprised me by asking what would happen if, instead of trying to get rid of that part of me, which would involve a lot of violence to my spirit, I embraced her?
I sat in silence for a few minutes and smiled as a whole world of possibilities opened up.
“Tell me,” she said…
We view perfectionism as something to be ashamed of, something we need to deny or hide and eventually rid ourselves of. ‘Perfectionist’ is used as an insult, especially against, is it my imagination, women?
It gets conflated with ‘needy’ or ‘demanding’, turning us into the dreaded ‘high-maintenance’ person, even though those are not related tendencies.
And, yes, the kind of perfectionism that increases your stress hormones needs to be dealt with. It’s the kind of perfectionism that’s hitched to anxiety that does us damage. The kind of perfectionism that says that I am a terrible person because I lost patience for a moment or forgot to send a thank you note is not helpful.
But if you look at those situations carefully, you see that they’re more about the inner critic getting in the way than the inner perfectionist.
Cause a breakup between the critic and the perfectionist or anxiety and the perfectionist and team the perfectionist with the kind nurturer or a sense of humour and see where that takes you.
I think a perfectionist who is also curious is someone who won’t give up when the first attempt at something fails. That kind of perfectionist is someone who will practise their craft for an entire lifetime, always believing there is more to learn and to try, while being able to relax and appreciate the process, even when it is frustrating.
I have a friend, an artist. But don’t call him an artist to his face, because he won’t accept that title. He says he’s trying. He’s learning. He’s practising. He takes his sketchbook with him to concerts and coffee shops, drawing people and his surroundings. Always practising, always learning, always attempting perfection.
This is a vital, life-giving attitude, one we should embrace, rather than be embarrassed by.
And it works in every area of your life, from honing your craft to building your nest.
I thought it was shallow to want a perfect (by my definition) home. I thought there was something wrong with wanting to take the time to arrange things just so, to maintain a high level of clean, to faff and fluff and spend my time on what I was telling myself were selfish pursuits.
But is it selfish to give your soul a haven? To build a space into which you invite the people you love to share in the comfort that you’ve built?
It’s a creative pursuit, just like drawing, or writing or making music. And following that pursuit with the same kind of openness and curiosity that I bring to my writing and my friend brings to his drawing, will lead to a home that is unique and brings joy and a sense of peace to everyone who is invited in.
So now I’m looking around my apartment at all the bits I want to perfect but didn’t until recently think I was allowed to and giving myself permission and pep talks to go ahead. Reminding myself that it does not make me high-maintenance or greedy or shallow and please shut up inner critic, I’ve heard enough out of you to last me a lifetime.
I’m starting to tweak the details and obsess over the minutia and see how close to perfect, my definition of perfect, I can get it.
Because that kind of perfectionism is something I want to embrace.
What do you think? Are you able to embrace your perfectionism, or some other trait that you’ve been told is a negative? Can you see the positive in yourself?
I have ADHD and am a perfectionist. Getting those two kids to speak to one another rather than being critical of each other took a lot of effort, but I think I have a good balance now. Where they are in conflict is at that juncture where ADHD says “I’ve had enough of this, I’m out of here, and Perfectionist says “try just one more turn, one more metre…”. I’m still working on that. When they are in sync, magnificent! Perfectionist points out that the lines aren’t equidistant and ADHD jumps up and down and says “I can do that, I can do that, just watch!” Perfectionist has learned to live with the messes that ADHD creates, ADHD is often eager to jump on board when perfectionist decides to reign supreme. Anxiety only comes along now when these siblings decide to duke it out with me in the middle having to make a decision.
Brilliant Val! Keep those kids working together!