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Thoughts from a Recovering Perfectionist

He cried all the way to his first swimming lesson, but not for the reasons you might expect. At six, he wasn’t afraid of the water. In fact, he had actually enjoyed splashing and playing in his grandparents’ pool for years. His father and I just thought it might be better if he and his younger sister had actual, formal swim lessons from someone other than a parent, so when we heard about the opportunity we signed them up.


“Why are you crying?” I said, looking back over my shoulder at the tearful child in the rear seat. “I thought you liked swimming.”


“I do,” he said, “but I don’t know how to swim.”


It had never occurred to me that he would think he had to know how to swim before taking swim lessons.


Though I wouldn’t have exactly described our son as a perfectionist, I could see he had many of my perfectionistic traits. He thought he had to be able to do it perfectly—even the first time—if he was going to do it at all. Sadly, this perspective had already interfered with many potential opportunities in my life. I held back from trying new things I actually wanted to do because I thought that if I could not do them well enough, there was no point in trying.


Signs You Might be a Perfectionist

There are exceptions, I know, but I’m guessing that many, if not most, of us fear failure and making a fool of ourselves in front of others. That’s part of perfectionism, sure, but there’s more to it than that. It can be a positive attribute leading to success. It can also cause a lot of stress, anxiety and depression. Here are some of the less positive aspects of perfectionism:


· Avoiding tasks or opportunities unless you feel you can do it flawlessly.

This typically manifests itself when someone wants to do something and might actually enjoy it, but also fears they will appear silly because they“ don’t do it right,” e.g. riding a bicycle, dancing, water skiing, swimming, skating – anything new where the possibility of “failure” exists.


· Being goal-oriented to the point of overlooking the process, i.e. the joy in the journey.

Goalsare great, but if you can’t enjoy the process of learning something new becauseyou’re so focused on scoring a perfect score on the exam, you’ll likely dreadthe entire experience. Likewise, an inability to enjoy what one has—a car, ahome, an occupation—unless the end goal is flawless greatly limits one’shappiness in life. One scratch, one clogged drain, one disagreeable coworkerwill greatly diminish your satisfaction and contentment.


· Having nearly impossible standards for completion, i.e. unless it’s done “right,” it’s not done.

Children who erase and erase and erase their penmanship to the point of almost wearing a hole in their paper are good examples of this. So are adults who spend 30minutes to write a two-sentence email. Folks who won’t do a task, e.g. wash dishes, fold laundry, do yardwork, unless it’s completed to almost extremely high criteria also fit in this category.


· Procrastinating, i.e. putting off a task until you feel you can do it perfectly.

One woman accumulated dirty dishes on the counter and in the sink for days until she had the time to wash them in a very precise and meticulous manner. She was a busy, young professional who felt she could not take the time to keep ahead of her daily dishes unless she was able to do it the “right” way. Not surprisingly, she often felt overwhelmed. Many men and women behave similarly in the face of paperwork, yardwork and other routine tasks to the point of being debilitated by the accumulated clutter.


· Focusing on fussy details that prolong the length of time required to do a routine task.

While scrupulous attention to detail is necessary in some aspects of life (e.g. surgery, pharmacology, aerodynamics), most tasks can be accomplished without the same intense scrutiny and painstaking attention to detail. If you take longer than most to accomplish a routine task, you may be struggling with perfectionism.


Helping Yourself and Your Child

If you struggle in this area, you know it’s not easy to let it go.  I can speak from personal experience, which is why I often refer to myself as a “recovering perfectionist.” I still get picky about certain things. I have been described as OCD (the obsessive-compulsive personality, not the disorder) by family and friends, but over the years I’ve gotten better. Part of it has been living with someone who is definitely not a perfectionist. Part of it has been seeing how much I could miss by endlessly focusing on small, unimportant details. Part has been on seeing the bigger picture—what I really wanted in life and how perfectionism interferes with that. Here are a few thoughts on ways to help yourself and your child.


1) Recognize and accept your desire for flawless outcomes as part of your personality.

This is why I say I’m a “recovering perfectionist.” Like most people who overcome an addiction, this is something I’ll probably always struggle with—at least to a certain extent. It is part of me and it’s not all bad. I just need to decide how much space it will have in my life.


2) Determine when “good enough” is good enough.

It’s unrealistic to think we can do everything at 100%. It’s humanly impossible and cannot be done. If we followed half the advice we get from the media about when, where, why and how to brush our teeth, wash our hair, cleanse our skin, etc. we’d have no hours left in the day to accomplish anything meaningful. Often times, good (not perfect), is good enough.


3) Push yourself and your perfectionist child to try new things.

New things need to include opportunities and activities where you may fail, make a mess, or otherwise appear silly. Try art lessons. Check out dance lessons. Do something you’ve never done where “failure” is a possibility. Celebrate the wonder of experience more than the thrill of achievement at least some of the time. Sometimes it is great to win; other times it’s just fun to play.


Anyone who studies personality theory will tell you—some of us are just born that way. We’re achievement-oriented and we want things to be done right. If that’s you or your child, embrace the obvious and push yourself to grow in new directions.


Jennifer L.Baker, the Founder and Director of Good Dads, is a licensed clinical psychologist and a marriage and family therapist. If you have questions for Dr. Baker, feel free to contact her at [email protected].

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