Perfectionism on the Sly

We were setting up our booth for last week’s Colorado Association for Gifted and Talented annual conference.  Just me and my cub.  We’d managed to put the banners up.  We had the primary tablecloth covering the table.  We were just trying to get the runner with our logo centered and then we’d be set to cover it with all the goodies, books, and swag.  No exaggeration, we spent about 5 minutes on that stupid runner.  As my son gave me the directions to move it “just a tad bit more to the right”, I started laughing and blurted out loud, “And we wonder why I write about perfectionism so much!”

Now, had someone asked us if we were trying to get the runner perfectly centered, we’d of course have said no.  If someone reminded us that things don’t need to be perfect, we would have said, of course they don’t.  Few people who struggle with perfectionism actually claim to want “perfection”.  They just want it “done well” or “to look right” or “to be the best I can”.  But, this is it.  The sly way perfectionism slips and squirms its way into the psyche and behaviors of our loved ones and us.

Perfectionism really can be boiled down to this . . . anxiously caring more than is necessary for something of relatively little consequence.

Would anyone have even noticed if our runner was off-center?  Probably not.  They weren’t measuring the linens; they were looking at the candy we had strewn around the table.

Does anyone care if you received a 3.8 or a 3.4 gpa once you’ve moved out of the academic world?  Nope.  In my 10+ years as a psychotherapist, only 1 person has even asked me where I went to grad school.  No one has asked me how well I did while there.

Will people storm out of my home in disgust when they see the dried paint drips down the wall of our newly redecorated office?  Hasn’t happened yet.  I can’t imagine anyone has even noticed them except myself.

Will my kids be in therapy for a toilet-phobia because I once angrily yelled about only using 3 squares of toilet paper, while flailing a (clean) plunger in one hand and duct-taping the toilet seat down with the other?  Nope.  There have been no toileting regressions since the incident in question.

And while, in the clear light of day when the lenses of perfectionism have been removed, we can clearly see that these things aren’t really all that life-altering in the long run, perfectionism casts its anxious shadow so heavily in the moment.  In the moment, it feels extremely important that the birthday cake turn out beautiful.  In the moment, it feels extremely scarring to yell at our kid.  In the moment, it feels like the world will come crashing down, the bank will foreclose on our home, and the police will deem us unfit to own property if we don’t get those edges along the sidewalk clean and tidy.

In the moment, it feels like our very worth depends on it.

But, of course, it doesn’t.

Our worth does not depend on the activities we do or how well we do them.  We are valuable and worthwhile simple because we are.  Simply because we exist.  Think of the newborn baby who literally can do nothing more than breathe, eat, make noises, squirm, and eliminate fecal matter and urine.  Would anyone argue that a baby has no value or worth?

When perfectionism skews the meaning of trivial tasks, it is imperative that we talk back to that voice and remind ourselves that our worth relies on the simple fact that we live and breathe.

We must first notice when perfectionism is overemphasizing the importance of a task.  Be mindful.  When we feel tension and pressure, take a cognitive step back and consider the actual source of the tension.  Is it because the task is truly life or death?  Or is it the voice of perfectionism?  In the words of Richard Carlson, ask yourself, “Will this matter a year from now?”

Once we put things into perspective, let’s respond with self-compassion.  What would you tell a friend in a similar situation?  How can you be kind to yourself?  Remember that every single person who walks this earth has made mistakes, and probably has made multiple mistakes just within the past 24 hours.  That doesn’t make you a failure, it makes you human.  It doesn’t isolate you and require that you hide away, it puts you in good company.

And don’t judge yourself for judging yourself, either!  This is hard work.  Even though I chat about perfectionism daily, it still took me 5 minutes to realize we were spending far too much time and being far too persnickety about a table runner.  It takes time and practice, and there’s absolutely no way you’ll be able to conquer perfectionism perfectly.  😊

Looking for more insights into perfectionism? Check out this month’s bloghop at Hoagies Gifted!