In defense of perfectionism

My son Tate has always had wisdom beyond his years.

perfectionismOne Christmas, when he was about six, he watched me struggle as I was wrapping a gift. I was using ribbon with velvet on one side, satin on the other. I tried my best to get all the loops and tails to come out with the velvet side up.

That slippery little ribbon wasn’t cooperating.

I don’t think I spewed profanity (surely not in front of a six year old!), but Tate could tell I was getting pretty frustrated. I was on my fourth try, when Tate looked at me – puzzled — and calmly said, “Mom, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Don’t you know all that energy you use trying to be perfect could be used just to have fun?”

Well, uh…I’d never really thought about life like that.

I’ve remembered his wise words ever since and I do attempt to find that delicate balance between perfectionism and knowing when “good enough” is good enough.

And yet…I’m a big fan of perfectionism.

All you have to do is watch the documentary “This Is It” about Michael Jackson to see perfectionism in motion. Watch him bring forth the absolute best from every singer, dancer and musician.

Just listen to k.d. lang sing Hallelujah at the Winter Olympics and you’ll know what perfection sounds like. (If this isn’t perfect, I don’t know what is!)

Daniel Day Lewis is a perfectionist – when he takes on a role, he stays “in character” the entire time the movie is being shot. Yes, he embodied President Lincoln for months, never sliding back and forth from Abe to Daniel. See that movie and you’ll see perfectionism at its best.

Steven Jobs was a perfectionist, and the beauty of his Apple products (not to mention animated movies) are a testimony to his constant quest for innovation.

The Ritz Carlton hotels, Nordstrom’s shopping experience, Valentino gowns are all premium brands that shoot for perfection.

I admire the effort, the dedication, the sense of mission it takes to create these performances, these products, these brands.

Yet it looks to me like we’re declining into a culture that shrugs when things go wrong and says, “Whatever.” We’ve made it fashionable to be wrinkled, rumpled and ragged. We work so hard to protect our own self esteem (and that of our children) that we tell ourselves it’s fine to settle for ordinary, mediocre or even second-rate.

Now before you start throwing things at me, you can definitely make an argument that being an all-out perfectionist is unhealthy. Without a doubt, taken too far, perfectionism burdens our lives with compulsion, anxiety and shame.

At its worst, perfectionistic thoughts can include, “If I make a mistake, there’s something wrong with me,” or “I’m never good enough.” Trying to be perfect at everything, all the time interferes with relationships and stifles creativity.

But I’m not talking about basing your entire self-worth as a person on being a perfect human being. I’m saying, Let’s embrace the pursuit of perfection in our endeavors. Let’s quit accepting mediocrity and keep shooting for the stars.

Striving for perfection doesn’t mean you never make a mistake, it means that you look at every opportunity for improvement.

I’d like to think there’s such a thing as healthy perfectionism (I wonder how many mental health professionals will disagree with me).

Perhaps the determining factor between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism depends on where the desire for perfection comes from. Does it come from fear, from shame, or the constant need for approval? Not healthy. Does it lead to being critical of everyone or everything? Not good.

But what if the genesis of pursuing perfection is a temperament for excellence? Or an eye for the most delightful aesthetics? Or an ear for beautiful music? Or appreciation for impeccable skills? Or the desire to create the highest level of customer service?

If the perfectionistic drive comes from a true desire to be committed to your endeavor, your work or your craft – to do and be the best you can be – then I think perfectionism is a worthy goal.

Like any other strength, perfectionism overused becomes a weakness. When the root of perfectionism is conditional acceptance, we’ve got a problem.

So while I strive to give my best to every worthy endeavor, I still remember my son’s words: Some of that energy I’m using to find perfection I now use just to have fun! I hope you’ll do both too.

Take care, d

Darcie Harris



P.S.  I’m not a therapist, so if being a perfectionist is ruining your life, seek professional help please!

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