The ugliness of perfectionism

Things are going better today. Since I have working brain cells today, I've been thinking a lot about our little episode yesterday and the idea of perfectionism in general. There's nothing like seeing your own worst traits reflected in your children to bring you up short, huh?

You see, I am a recovering perfectionist.

And when you couple the perfectionism with a strong competitive streak, I'm afraid the results aren't always pretty. I've known I am perfectionist for as long as I can remember... even before I had a word to describe the need to do everything right. Like most perfectionists, it came out in one of two ways, really depending on how successful I imagined I could complete something. If it was something I felt capable of, I was insanely driven to do it 'just right'. (Um, this would be not unlike how I recently tackled my school planning for the year... remember I'm recovering.) Or, if it was something I knew I would not be able to do as well as I thought I should I would either not try at all (sports of nearly any form) or put it off until the absolute last minute so I had an excuse for how shoddy the result was (many college papers). "Just do your best' was not really part of my vocabulary because what I deemed 'my best' was always rather unobtainable.

So what was going on in my head didn't always match reality. Take my gifted class in sixth grade, the one I eventually begged my mother to pull me out of, for instance. I would do an assignment, I'm sure it was fine, but in my head it was not 'my best', and the teacher would tell me what a good job I had done. Well, instead of making me feel good about myself, all it did was to make me feel a sort of contempt for the teacher that she could not see that I wasn't truly trying. Since I was one to only do the absolute minimum of work that was not my own idea, I'm sure I didn't make a huge effort, but I am also sure that my little perfectionism trait had played in as well. I'm not sure I would have really thought I had ever done 'my best'.

Ridiculously, even though this type of encouragement had the opposite effect on me, I still use the phrase today with my own children, and I'm not sure it works any better. If I think back to that classroom, what would have helped me was to have the teacher ask me some questions... How did I feel about the assignment? What would I like to have done better? What did I think I did well? Would I like to try doing it again? And that was because they would have aimed discussion at the process of completing something and taken the focus off the product.

This is what I do with myself as I work on getting past my perfectionism. I force myself to focus on the process, the act of making or doing, and seeing that as the most important part. I may not be happy with the dress I made for myself, but did I enjoy making it? Did I learn something that will help me sew I dress I would like better in the future? The house may be messing again, sometimes in seconds, but there is something enjoyable about the act of putting things to rights. I can feel I am doing something. I am restoring some order that wouldn't have been there if I just left it. I am modelling behavior that I want my children to emulate.

Particularly in homemaking, if we focus on the product rather than the process, we are asking for frustration. The product in never finished and if we think it's going to be we will be disappointed. There is always something more to clean, always something more to cook, always something more to wash. We need to focus on the process... of enjoying the way clean laundry smells as we fold it, to enjoy the shiny counter (if only briefly) when it is decluttered and clean, to enjoy the smells and tastes of preparing food.

There was a always a secret part of me that was a little proud to be a perfectionist. That meant that I had high standards, that I didn't do things in a sloppy, half-hearted way, in some way it made me superior. I have now lived with enough perfectionists (more than one of my children shares this trait with me) and to be on the other side is just not that enjoyable. Being a perfectionist also means that we are easily frustrated when things don't work out how we would like. That frustration usually finds its outlet in some way, either directed at another person or at ourselves, neither of which is fun to live with. It means we watch people we love not enjoying something because it will never be 'perfect'. It means being unhappy more than being happy. You just want to shake the other person and tell them it just doesn't matter. Seeing it in someone else is clarifying, because who wants to be like that and who wants to make someone you love live with that?

And really it comes down to being able to accept ourselves, imperfections and all. If we are not perfect than we are not valuable is really what we are saying. Once again, by thinking this we hurt those who love us, who do love us despite our imperfections. Most especially, we turn our backs on what God has said to us. He loves us even though we are not perfect. In fact, He loves us so much that He sent Jesus to die for us BECAUSE we are not perfect. Our only hope for achieving perfection is accept that work of Jesus, and even then, it won't happen in this world. We can let go of that expectation and enjoy the life that we have before us, knowing we'll make mistakes, because of that love. It is a blessed relief to let it go.


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