Prevention Magazine . May, 2004
How our flaws make us human—and lovable
Gordie, my beloved, was standing by the kitchen stove cooking up a giant vat of vegetable soup. “My May column about perfectionism is due,” I told him, “and it’s hard to know where to start. There are so many stories to share that choosing the right one isn’t so easy.” Are those the words of a perfectionist or what?
If you’ve ever doubted yourself, you will understand why my wanting this column to be perfect launched a train of self-defeating thoughts about whether I was good enough to even write it. My superego—that part of the psyche that can act like a punitive drill sergeant on speed—began preaching the gospel of perfectionism and filling me with self-doubt: What if this article is lousy and they fire me?
Mired in perfectionist thinking, I temporarily lost my center of awareness. I was on autopilot, stuck in the miserable trap of procrastination, self-blame, anxiety, rigidity, and stress that being a perfectionist keeps you in. The “coulda-woulda-shouldas” took over and I lost my footing in the present, the now, which is where your best self flourishes and you do your most creative work.
Then the irony of the situation struck me: Writing about the pitfalls of perfectionism had turned me back into the perfectionist I once was! But not for long. In laughing at myself, I remembered one of the most important tools for getting unstuck: humor. It’s a great way to put things in perspective and recognize automatic, self-defeating thoughts. But how do you know when you are simply striving to do your best and when you are a prisoner of perfectionism? There is a crucial difference. Here are three clear distinctions to help you recognize when you’re doing your best—and when you’re asking too much of yourself.
You’re realistic and set goals that are achievable.
This avoids the perfectionist’s trap of making over-the-moon plans and then wallowing in self-criticism, blame, shame, and guilt when they prove too hard to reach. Realism also cuts down on procrastination, which often sets in when perfectionists bite off more than they can chew.
The goals you set are your own, and they resonate with a deep internal calling.
Perfectionists, however, scramble to please others. It is important to realize that you can’t please everyone all the time—and there are some people you can never please.
The journey to your goals is fun and fulfilling.
You can relax and enjoy the process of creativity while you’re moving toward your objective, rather than living only for the final result. John Lennon once quipped that life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans. Working from your best self means living life as it unfolds—with all its delights, setbacks, and surprises. Being a perfectionist means being rigidly stuck in the plans and unable to enjoy the way that things naturally unfold.
Children who grow up to be perfectionists learn that love is conditional on continued achievement. So as adults, it feels natural to be defensive and oversensitive to criticism. But being constantly vigilant about how you’re doing and how people are responding to you makes it hard to joke or be flexible. Perfectionists tend to be sourpusses who find fault in others because they’re so used to looking for shortcomings in themselves. And in a sad footnote, perfectionism is a turnoff that makes it even harder to get love.
Vulnerability—being imperfect—is what makes us human, authentic, and lovable. Case in point: I recall a study from a college psychology class in which researchers showed people two pictures. The first was of a perfectly groomed, poised woman. The second was a picture of another well-put-together woman who’d just spilled a cup of coffee onto her lap. They were asked which woman was more attractive. Can you guess their choice? The one with the lap full of java, of course. She was more human and down-to-earth than the perfect woman, so they could relate to her better.
At the end of the day, we have to acknowledge the impossibility of perfection and try to attain authenticity instead. It’s a goal you can move to moment by moment as you stay aware, keep your center, and dare to tell the truth about what you’re thinking and feeling. As the famous 12-step adage goes, strive for progress, not perfection. Everything changes, including you. Each moment brings the possibility of new choices. Being fully present allows you to make the choices that bring you into your deepest, most authentic self. It’s the only kind of perfectionism worth practicing.
Tips for Recovering Perfectionists
- Reflect on what perfectionism costs you. Have you dropped a friend who didn’t live up to your high expectations? Have you given up painting—a hobby you love—because you’ll never be a great artist? It’s easier to change when you realize the high price you pay for trying to be perfect.
- This week, choose one activity to do at the 50 percent level. I once had a yoga teacher who instructed me to stretch only half the distance I could in each posture. His advice took away the need to compete and be perfect. I had twice the fun and was finally able to relax. I learned that the process of mindful stretching was more important than my final position. So if you’re used to walking 3 miles with clenched teeth and knitted brow, call it quits after a mile and a half, but enjoy the walk and smell the roses.
- Try living with a little abandon. Leave the kitchen counters cluttered, the dishes dirty, or the bed unmade. Did the housekeeping police come? You probably survived the day and realized that the world continues to go round—even if your to-do list gets only partly done.