Perfection! Free from fault or defect, without flaw. Sounds wonderful!
I mean, who doesn’t love perfection?
But, when striving for perfection becomes constant, causing anxiety and
driving those around us nuts, or it keeps us from trying new things, then
that ideal has turned into something much less desirable: perfectionism.
When I was seven, my second grade class was given an insanely long copying assignment as a punishment. I sat at the kitchen table trying to copy the words exactly. I couldn’t get it right – I can still see the erasure marks, turning into holes, which then became another problem. My mother, seeing my tears and not knowing what else to do, just told me to stop and then kept me home the next day. I learned avoidance that day, but the reason behind what started the whole thing was more elusive.
It was fear. I was afraid of the teacher, a nun who was not mean, just stern. I did whatever I could to please her; I needed her approval. For some reason, that combination of being disciplined for talking in line and being given an outrageous task created an inescapable fear loop for me.
Years later, seeing how hard I was being on myself, one of my better teachers said, “We can strive for perfection, but shouldn’t expect to reach it.” These days I tell my clients, “If you’re looking for perfection, you’ve come to the wrong planet.”
Before moving on, it’s important to note that perfectionism is not OCD. That is a completely different animal of compulsive thoughts and actions that must be completed before you can move forward. Closer, but still more extreme than perfectionism, is being “anal,” anal-retentive, which is about order and control. That’s the person who is terribly fussy about how things are arranged and puts everything in a well-ordered line.
Perfectionism is setting extremely high standards, intense self-criticism and worry about what others think. High standards are important. It’s when standards are always or impossibly high and the internal critic is never satisfied that we get into trouble.
Perfectionism is inefficient, causing us to expend much more time, effort and energy than the task actually requires. Better to strive for excellence, when it matters, and know when “good enough” is good enough.The roots of perfectionism are in our deep stories, the ones of childhood where safety and approval were essential to survival. How we turned those stories into our own brand of perfectionism can be as variable as the stories themselves.
Letting go of perfection takes a shift in perspective, changing those things we say to ourselves.
We have to recognize the self-talk and challenge it. Will the world end if there is a dish in the sink?
At the same time, managing the anxious feelings that drive perfectionism is paramount. There is help!
EFT works to calm yourself down, so you can make those shifts in what you tell yourself. It can help to work with a professional to find those old stories, the roots of “I’m not good enough,” in order to create new stories – new neural pathways of joy, ease and contentment.