By Kelly Wright
I have been a perfectionist for as long as I can remember. When I was younger, I didn’t know it was perfectionism, I only knew that I felt compelled to be the best that I could be and hated the idea of doing anything wrong.
When I was in Kindergarten, my mom returned home from a parent-teacher conference with a very unusual report. My teacher, Miss Freund, told my mom she had one main goal for me: to get something incorrect. Miss Freund sensed the struggle that ultimately would cause me misery and compulsiveness – that was the struggle of perfectionism.
The funny thing about perfectionism is that it didn’t seem like a struggle, at least not in Kindergarten.
As a first born, type A, 8 on the Enneagram, perfectionism seemed to be as natural as breathing. Striving to be the best, do my best, and be seen as the best was just a part of my makeup as a person. When I did get something wrong or do something wrong, it was like being gut-punched. A hot wave of shame and embarrassment would wash over me. I’d ruminate on what happened and what I’d need to do to never let that happen again.
Perfectionism can steal our self-esteem, joy of life, and peace of mind. It can also create immense stress, judgment and fears of inadequacy. According the article, 10 Way to Overcome Perfectionism, traits of perfectionism are linked to mental health issues like anxiety, OCD, and stress.
Most times the struggle stayed internal for me – critical self-talk, exhaustion of constant busyness, and moving from one goal to the next without a pause or stop. Sadly, perfectionism only grew in intensity when I got married and especially when I started my counseling career.
Perfectionism definitely created strife in my life as a counselor. In the early years, when a client called to cancel an appointment, and definitely when he or she did not reschedule, my perfectionistic world was rocked.
I ran across an incredibly helpful book, Hope for the Perfectionist, by David Stoop. It felt as though Dr. Stoop was talking about me page after page.
He began with a simple nine statement survey to assess if perfectionism is something you experience. See which ones you agree with:
- I often put things off because I don’t have time to do them perfectly.
- I expect the best of myself at all times.
- I generally think I could have done it better.
- I get upset when things don’t go as planned.
- Other people can’t understand my desire to things right.
- I am often disappointed in the quality of other people’s work.
- I feel my standards should be the highest possible, allowing for a clarity of direction and a standard of performance.
- If anything I do is considered average, I’m unhappy.
- I think less of myself if I repeat a mistake.
I scored a 9/9 – at least back in 1998.
The most helpful thing about this book was a simple illustration entitled, “The Fine Line Between Excellence and Perfectionism.”
I so appreciated the distinction between excellence, which works for me, versus perfectionism, which works against me. Excellence has an outlook that is realistic and possible instead of idealistic and impossible. Excellence expects the best of self instead of the best in comparison to everyone else.
The biggest take-away was the difference in self-talk between excellence. Self-talk that emphasizes excellence uses phrases, like I want, I wish I would like, rather than perfectionistic phrases, such as I must, I should, I ought to. When I began to consider how I was talking to myself using perfectionistic words, I slowly began to replace those with words of excellence. That was a game changer for me!
What about you? Do you notice perfectionism stealing your joy and causing stress in your life?
Most times, just knowing and admitting that perfectionism is an issue is the first and most important step.
I encourage you to begin taking small steps towards excellence and away from perfectionism. Notice your self-talk, limit comparing yourself to others and focus on doing the best of self. In the article mentioned earlier, suggestions like focusing on the positives and allowing yourself to make mistakes is encouraged.
Remember, it’s more about the process or the journey and not so much about the product. We will continue to grow and learn every day. There is no finish line on this side of Heaven where we will arrive at perfection. Receiving God’s grace and truth about who we are in Christ reminds us that we can never be perfect, but Jesus is perfect and did everything that needed to be done to redeem and save us.