Perfect Nonsense


I am a recovering perfectionist. I’m not quite sure when it started. When I first learned how to make my bed, I couldn’t have one wrinkle on the bedspread. I would stand on my tiptoes and repeatedly smooth the sheets or just remake the bed over and over. My perfectionism soon showed up in my schoolwork. I won spelling bees, made honor roll, earned awards. Perfectionism is its own reward early on. It is difficult to separate it from other characteristics that we value in this society like drive and ambition. After all, that’s what leads to success, right?

For me, perfectionism was insidious and debilitating. It looked great on a report card, but did not help when that same rigor and discernment was applied to relationships, for example. (Who can ever measure up?) And forget trying something new! For a perfectionist, it is absolutely terrifying to try something that someone else can already do, knowing you can’t do it right the first time. (Or heaven forbid, look foolish! I don’t want others to judge me the way I judge me!)

In college I wrote a psychology paper on the relationship between perfectionism and procrastination. I was a notorious procrastinator, waiting until the night before a paper was due to begin writing. I believed – like many procrastinators – that I thrived on the thrill of the deadline and needed that intensity to do my best work. Indeed, I had received better grades by waiting until the last minute than by writing several drafts of an essay. As I wrote my paper at 2 in the morning, I posited that procrastination works, but not for that reason.

Perfectionism contains a heightened form of self-criticism that appears every time someone will evaluate you in some way. Not just by teachers or bosses, but by anyone, and especially by yourself. It anticipates every possible critique that could be made of your effort, every tiny thing that could be not just wrong but better, every perceived fault and impossible standard that exists in the mind of the perfectionist. Quite simply, perfectionism makes it impossible to move forward.

The saving grace of procrastination – and why it goes hand-in-hand with perfectionism – is that it silences that critical voice in your head. The time pressure of needing to complete an assignment allows you to focus, simply because you have no other choice. There is no time for the self-critiquing, the analysis paralysis, the beating yourself up because “I could do better.” Waiting until the last minute is a coping mechanism for negative self-talk turned into crippling inner castigation.

Years later, I did a 360 Evaluation when starting a new job. The 360 is an assessment tool that includes self-evaluation and feedback from colleagues and supervisors. I was dismayed to discover that on a list of about 50 different attributes, everyone had rated me highest on perfectionism. I immediately zeroed in on that one score, ignoring the rest of the evaluation. What did that mean? Did they think I thought I was perfect? (That would be bad.) That my work was perfect? (That would be good. Maybe. Wait…) I dreaded my debriefing with the human resources consultant. When we finally spoke, she told me that my one takeaway – the one thing that she wanted me to work on – was to not be so hard on myself.

At first, my mind rebelled. What? That can’t possibly be the most important thing for me to work on. She reiterated the point: Did you hear what I said? To grow, you need to stop being so hard on yourself. As I sat with that information for a bit longer, I began to feel a shift. It was ever so slight, but it felt like a softening, a gradual relaxing of knotted up muscles, tension, ever-lurking worry. With the softening came a whisper of hope: What if the consultant is right?

In the years following that watershed moment, I began to explore, understand and redefine my relationship with perfectionism. I used a variety of tools and techniques for self-discovery and to deepen my inner work. My biggest breakthrough came during meditation, where I began to unravel the source of the ever-present “not good enough” feeling. At an especially vulnerable time in my early existence, I internalized the erroneous message that perfect equals safe and loved. Perfectionism isn’t about control or competition or being uptight or the best. At its very root, perfectionism is about fear. Fear of being found out, exposed, shunned and discarded for who you are, which is a fallible human being. Just like every other mortal.

If you dig deep enough on any issue, it all gets back to either fear or love. The book A Course in Miracles says that the opposite of love is not hate, it’s fear. Once you name your fear, you are halfway to overcoming it. Fear lives best in silence and the shadows. It doesn’t fare well in the presence of light. And it cannot exist in the presence of love.

Perfectionism is still present for me, but it isn’t as domineering. These days I try to use it as a guidepost instead of a whipping post. When I find myself slipping into “but it’s not quite perfect” or the equally damning, “it’s not good enough,” it’s a reminder that I need to step back (preferably to my meditative chair) and find and release the fear that no longer serves me.