Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Why I've Kicked Perfectionism to the Curb (and you should too) PART 1

Perfectionism , is a belief that perfection can and should be attained. In its pathological form, perfectionism is a belief that work or output that is anything less than perfect is unacceptable. At such levels, this is considered an unhealthy belief, and psychologists typically refer to such individuals as maladaptive perfectionists.
I had one of "THOSE" mornings this morning. My sweet hubby, who is up before me, usually wakes me up at the same time every morning, woke me up late and my whole morning was off to a rocky start. I was running late, and it seemed the kids were moving in slow motion! I was barking at everyone. I was grouchy. I was stressed. I didn't want my youngest daughter to be late to school and so I was running around like a crazy woman and did I mention I was grouchy?

After I dropped my daughter off at school ( she made it on time, but barely), I took a moment to look at why I was feeling so much anxiety. I concluded it's my old friend and nemesis, Perfectionism, rearing it's ugly head again.

I have struggled with perfectionism most of my life. As a child I remember when I was learning to print in school, erasing my letters over and over again to get them "perfect". As a teen it surfaced in other ways. On the surface I didn't look like a perfectionist. My room was messy, I would often procrastinate on my homework, then cram to get it done at the last minute. ( I found out later that procrastination is a sign of perfectionism).  But here's the thing, despite my messy room, I wanted to look perfect and went to great lengths to do so. Even though I crammed, I still wanted to get really good grades and for the most part, I did. The perfectionism was still there, under the surface, pushing me. 

My struggle with perfectionism really kicked into high gear in college. I started college as a single, unwed mother at age 19, with a 12 month-old daughter. To say I was overwhelmed, is an understatement. Alone in Seattle, balancing parenting, a full load of college classes, and two jobs, at times it felt impossible. But I was determined. I was driven. I would not accept failure. At that time perfectionism was my friend. I used it to my advantage. During most of those 4 years I was seriously sleep deprived. I would go to class and then to work, take care of my daughter in the evenings with dinner, bath time and bedtime, and then would start my homework after she fell asleep. For most of those four years I slept an average of 4-5 hours per night. It wasn't the perfectionism that motivated me, I wanted my daughter to have a better life and I knew I had to get a college degree in order to do that. She was my biggest motivator, but perfectionism was the faulty coping mechanism I drew upon in order to get it done. I ended up graduating with a B.A. in Communication with a minor in Journalism in the top 10% of my class. Yes, perfectionism does have a positive side.

I continued to use perfectionism as a coping tool in my career and saw the benefits. I tended to be a workaholic, and was loved by my employers because I was always willing to go the extra mile to "get it done". I was an employers dream. I needed no outside motivation, I provided it for myself. I was my own worst critic and judge. I kept striving to do better and better and to be more and more perfect. I didn't need my boss to give me a pep talk, I was always pushing myself. The result?  I was really good at my job. I won awards. I was recognized as one of the best in my field. My clients loved me because I was constantly striving to make them happy. A strong work ethic I learned from my mom and wanting to help people, were my motivation, but Perfectionism drove me.

According to the authors of the book "Too Perfect" perfectionism can have a positive and negative side:

"In a positive form, perfectionism can provide the driving energy which leads to great achievement. The meticulous attention to detail, necessary for scientific investigation, the commitment which pushes composers to keep working until the music realizes the glorious sounds playing in the imagination, and the persistence which keeps great artists at their easels until their creation matches their conception all result from perfectionism".

Further more, researchers have found, high-achieving athletes, scientists, and artists often show signs of perfectionism. For example, Michelangelo's perfectionism may have spurred him to create masterpieces such as the statue David  and the Sistine Chapel. Perfectionism is associated with giftedness in children. (Perfectionism in psychology,

So, perfectionism can have a positive side, but I argue the down side of Perfectionism outweighs any potential benefits!

Inits pathological form, perfectionism can be very damaging. It can contribute to underachievement, procrastination, fear of failure, the all-or-nothing mindset, paralyzed perfectionism, and workaholism.
In intimate relationships, unrealistic expectations can cause significant dissatisfaction for both partners . Perfectionists may sacrifice family and social activities in the quest for their goals.
Perfectionists can suffer anxiety and low self-esteem. Perfectionism is a risk factor for obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, self harm and clinical depression.

So how does the negative side of perfectionism affect my life personally? Oh, let me count the ways!

I'm never fully happy with myself.
I don't enjoy compliments, awards or accolades because deep down I don't feel I deserve them.
I often feel like a failure.
I often feel I could have done better.
I have a hard time admitting I am wrong.
I put unrealistic expectations on myself. 
I put unrealistic expectations on others.
I'm often critical of myself.
I'm often critical of others.
I have a need to feel in control.
I don't feel joy when I should.
I'm often afraid of failing.

Reading this list reminds me of how much perfectionism has cost me, no ROBBED me of the some of the joy in my life. It's really such a terrible trap. It's a trap because even when you strive and strive and achieve success, the perfectionism doesn't allow you to enjoy it! So, is it a good way to cope? Obviously, the answer is NO. And of course, there's the obvious fact: NO ONE IS PERFECT, EVER. We know all this logically, but unconsciously, we are driven to keep trying. WHY? Because it is a way to feel safe.

According to Mallinger and DeWyze, the authors of "Too Perfect",  "Perfectionists are obsessives who need to feel in control at all times to protect themselves and ensure their own safety. By being constantly vigilant and trying extremely hard, they can ensure that they not only fail to disappoint or are beyond reproach but that they can protect against unforeseen issues."

Growing up with an alcoholic and abusive father, who abandoned his family only to return periodically and terrorize them, my home life was often emotionally chaotic. I can see why I developed perfectionism as a faulty coping mechanism. I wanted to have control over something in my life. I couldn't control my parents divorce, my father's alcoholism and subsequent anger and violence, but I could control me. As a child I thought if I was good enough, my father would love me and everything would be better. This began my life-long struggle with perfectionism. 


See you then! Would love to hear your comments on this post!
Thanks friends,

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