Friday, February 15, 2008

On being perfectly imperfect

Artists who seek perfection in everything are
those who cannot attain it in anything.

~ Eugene Delacroix (1798 - 1863)

“Why haven’t you written on your blog?” my friend asked the other day. “It’s been a month since your last post!”

I know, I know. I have a half-dozen, half-written posts, but can’t seem to finish any because they aren’t, well, perfect. None of them are perfectly humorous, or perfectly insightful, or perfectly inspiring, or perfectly relevant, or perfectly thought-provoking, or perfectly anything – except perfectly incomplete.

For as long as I can remember, people have called me a “perfectionist.” In my youth, I was secretly pleased at this label, for in my limited understanding of that word, I believed that meant that when others looked at my work or my accomplishments, they saw perfection in them, and, therefore, perfection in me, as well. At the same time, I never quite believed that could possibly be true, because all I ever saw were flawed, damaged goods – both in the things I created, and, sadly, in this person God created, this incredibly imperfect person staring back at me in the mirror every morning.

I take some small comfort in the fact that I’m not the only one who thought of “perfectionism” as some sort of positive trait, albeit one with negative undertones. I’ve read many-a “job interviewing how-to” article that suggested answering, “I’m a perfectionist!” when asked by a potential employer what your weaknesses are because, these experts reasoned, what kind of employer wouldn’t want to hire someone whose primary “flaw” was their desire for perfection?

What I’ve come to realize over the years is that it truly is a negative trait (at least, as it is manifested in me), and one that has severely hampered my ability to find pleasure in life. That sounds somewhat maudlin (perhaps this post will be perfectly depressing in the end!), but as I come to understand this undeniable trait of mine, I recognize that my perfectionist tendencies tend to rob me of joy.

While some researchers might suggest that perfectionism is a healthy motivator for reaching goals, I am living proof that, quite frankly, it has altogether the opposite effect. I do believe there are “healthy strivers” who desire to excel, but they are not to be confused with perfectionists, who will often not even attempt to reach a goal for fear of failure.

Why this sudden introspection? As I sat here in my office staring at my whiteboard, still covered with lengthy lists of New Year resolutions, I came to a startling realization: aside from a couple of items which were immediate, must-do tasks, I had not accomplished a single goal I had set for January, let alone for the year as a whole; nor had I even begun. My procrastination in getting started on my list had eventually led to complete paralysis.

Let me tell you: it was an ambitious list. And after doing a bit of research on what it really means to be a perfectionist, it made perfect sense that I would set these kinds of goals for myself. The Counseling and Mental Health Center at the University of Texas-Austin has a web page devoted to perfectionism, and they don’t pull any punches:

Perfectionism a double-edged sword… a duel with oneself, the ultimate “no-win” situation. Perfectionism is not a healthy pursuit of excellence. Those who strive for excellence in a healthy way take genuine pleasure in trying to meet high standards. Perfectionists on the other hand are full of self-doubts and fears of disapproval, ridicule and rejection. The healthy striver has drive, while the perfectionist is driven.

They then proceeded to list differences between perfectionists and “healthy strivers,” including the fact that perfectionists set standards (goals) beyond reach and reason (versus the healthy striver who sets high standards, just a bit beyond reach).

The site continues with a list of myth-busters regarding perfectionism, including this gem, which perfectly (pun intended) sums up my own inability to post regularly to this blog, among other things:

MYTH: Perfectionists get things done and they do things right.

REALITY: Perfectionists often have problems with procrastination, missed deadlines, and low productivity.

Psychologists find that perfectionists tend to be "all-or-nothing" thinkers. They see events and experiences as either good or bad, perfect or imperfect, with nothing in between. Such thinking often leads to procrastination, because a requirement of flawless perfection, in even the smallest of tasks, can become fearfully overwhelming. The perfectionist believes that the flawless product or superb performance must be produced every time. Perfectionists believe if it can't be done perfectly, it's not worth doing.

Such beliefs often lead to undesired results. A perfectionist student may turn in a paper weeks late (or not at all), rather than turn it in on time with less-than-perfect sentences. A perfectionist worker may spend so much time agonizing over some non-critical detail that a critical project misses its deadline.

What does it matter if one is a perfectionist or not? Because the costs are high: According to multiple sources, perfectionists are vulnerable to clinical depression, low self-esteem, performance anxiety, writer's block, workaholism, obsessive behavior, compulsiveness, suicidal thoughts, loneliness, impatience, frustration, and anger. And that’s the short list.

So, upon further reflection, I began to see a repeated pattern in my life – in my professional life, my personal life, even my spiritual life:

Perfectionism –> Procrastination –> Paralysis

No doubt identifying the problem is the first step towards overcoming it. And, so, a revised list of New Year goals may be in order. I’ll be writing those down… just as soon as I come up with the perfect list.


Tony M said...

Unfortunately, I, from experience, am able to agree wholeheartedly with the information you've shared. Personally, I think that my perfectionism, especially when coupled with a pride issue (not "I'm proud of myself" but "I don't want people to see my weaknesses and failures" - that's a worse kind of pride than the first type), also tends towards a critical nature - if I point out flaws in others, maybe no one will pay attention to my own shortcomings. But the points you made (or shared, even if you didn't make them initially yourself) are definitely accurate regarding perfectionists.

Know this: you're not alone.

Tony M said...

Weird... "perfectionism" seems to be the topic of the day... showing up in a post over here and in a comment on this post. Weird.

Lisa S said...

Cecily, this blog is going to touch so many people. It made me sad to read it because I find you to be an interesting and dynamic woman who I would love to know more. I want you to be freed of this. I am a "recovering perfectionist" and for the most part live free of the pain of perfectionism...except for one week of every month. I can't pin point when or how God freed me from this, or I would share the secret. But I do know that every perfectionist has a gift gone awry. God gave us a desire to do things well and wants us to do everything as unto Him. Satan would love to twist that. Keep handing it over to the Lord, every time, and see what He will do for you.

Christy said...

This is too weird! As you know I wrote about this too! I wonder if God is trying to tell us self-proclaimed perfectionists something b/c evidently it is on our minds at the same time. Weird!

Anonymous said...

I wanted to leave some insightful comment like the other readers have, but couldn't think of the perfect words to write . . . so . . . I obviously suffer from the perfectionist paralysis syndrome! Thanks for letting us know we're not alone!

Anonymous said...

All right woman............where's the next blog?


Tony M said...

I, too, am wondering about "the next blog"... ? I guess it's in there somewhere, waiting to get out... :)

Lisa said...

Oh wow! You so nailed it! I can relate and identify. (I picked this up from Amy Jo's link).