When we're always playing a part, we no longer know who we really are.
In biblical terms, the perfectionist is forever straining out gnats while swallowing camels.
I am learning in midlife that the alternative to perfectionism is not complacency but contentment.
The Perils of Perfectionism
Are you a perfectionist? I am. Or, at least, I was. Webster defines perfectionism as "a disposition which regards anything short of perfect as unacceptable," and for way too much of my life I did exactly that. I refused to live with anything less than the ideal, which meant, among other things, I wasn't able to live very well with myself.
So now I'm a recovering perfectionist, recovering because the disease can be arrested but never cured. We perfectionists must fight daily against what I call the perils of perfectionism. Following are some of them.
We perfectionists can come to believe we're beyond failure. That's because we know deep down that we don't measure up to our own idealistic standards. Pride, focusing solely on our accomplishments, is a cover-up. It keeps us from seeing the truth (we do need forgiveness; we do need others).
Perfectionists can never drop their guard, never relax, never just be themselves. It's a practice that, over time, causes identity problems. When we're always playing a part, we no longer know who we really are.
Like pride, pharisaism is part of the cover-up for us perfectionists. Focusing on the shortcomings of others helps us feel good about ourselves, especially when the shortcomings in question are not things we struggle with (We perfectionists like to focus on the wrongs of, say, serial killers or drug dealers, never gossips or workaholics).
In biblical terms, the perfectionist is forever straining out gnats while swallowing camels. That's because the gnats (the trivial things in life) are much easier to control than the camels (the truly important things). It's a lot easier to maintain an immaculate house than to maintain warm and nurturing relationships with those who live in the house.
Perfectionists have a hard time accepting friendships and love from others. If we secretly don't like ourselves (and we don't because we're not perfect), how can others like us? Rather we think people are just waiting to catch us in our imperfections. Perfectionists have difficulty with close, honest relationships.
At times we perfectionists are aware that we fight a losing battle. We know that our best efforts can never produce our idealistic dreams. "Even if I'm good at this," we think, "I may not be very good; I may not be the best."
Perfectionism ultimately paralyzes the perfectionist. Afraid of not winning all the battles, we win none of them. Afraid of not being the very best, we fail to achieve our personal best. Unwilling to put up with life's frequent imperfections, we experience little of life's just-as-frequent joys.
I am learning in midlife that the alternative to perfectionism is not complacency but contentment. It's OK to keep striving for what's best; we just need to put up with some messiness as we do. We need to give ourselves permission to succeed the only way we can in a real world, imperfectly.
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