Perfectionism is self abuse in the highest order.
-Anne Wilson Shaef
And so it starts. My 4-year old came home today describing the party she is going to have at our house so she can invite her boyfriend over. Her boyfriend. After a few questions, I discovered her “boyfriend” doesn’t know he is her boyfriend. He is a friend. He is a boy and she says she loves him forever. Tonight she wanted to draw an elaborate picture for him. She wanted one of them surfing at the beach. She asked me to help draw the surfboard. She hated it. She wanted a unicorn. Nope, not good enough. She tried to color a heart by herself. Big crocodile tears came rolling down her cheeks. “It’s not perfect”, she kept whining. She cried until her eyes were bright red and the snot was covering her lips. She never finished her picture.
This isn’t the first time. The waterworks start just about every time the crayons come out lately. She can’t put what is in her imagination on paper. What is in her beautiful head just doesn’t translate. My son never tormented himself like this. Is it a girl thing? If so, when do we grow out of it? Because in that moment, I clearly saw my reflection in my daughter's tear streaked face.
Before this, I thought perfectionists must be pretty close to perfect because they try so hard. I didn’t relate to the label at all because you can’t be a perfectionist and still feel so imperfect, right? But that is, in essence, the textbook definition of a perfectionist. Always striving to get rid of that feeling through the next big thing.
My adult way of dealing with it is to remind myself to live in the present, let go of expectations. Enjoy the journey, not just the destination. I try to focus on what I do have, instead of what I don’t. I try to dwell on my accomplishments, not what is yet to be achieved. But still, there it lurks. Impossible perfection. Nothing will ever quite compare to my imaginings. It is why movies are always a disappointment compared to a favorite book. It is why my happy memory of a friend or a vacation destination is far more flattering than the pictures.It is why my plans for the holidays often lead to anxiety and It is why enough is an elusive, frustrating word when in comes to myself and the ones I love.
My emotions ranged from concern and empathy to complete frustration and dismay when I couldn’t console my daughter with her pile of crumpled papers. I wonder if that is how my husband feels when dealing with my occasional irrational tantrums. A dose of healthy perfectionism can motivate you to realize whatever your imagination can dream up. But there is a dark side. A neurotic side that can push loved ones away, leave you feeling depressed and pessimistic when you fail to reach unattainable goals. A side that makes you procrastinate or give up without ever trying because you feel overwhelmed, guilty and anxious. Psychologists say that it can be caused by genetics or environment or both. There are many rational suggestions on how to parent a perfectionist child. The one that struck a chord with me was to model behavior. Be flexible. Set reasonable expectations. Don’t take yourself and your mistakes too seriously. Learn from them. Try again.
Whether it is in your career, your role as a parent or just looking in the mirror, beware of perfectionism. It is fear disguised as drive.
Are you a perfectionist? Take the.Perfectionist quiz