I like structure, order, and routine. I like for things to be perfect. I like things neat. I like things complete. I like things where I leave them. I like things in the order that I am used to having them in. I like complete sentences and proper spelling. I like to arrive ON TIME. I like legible handwriting. Some individuals would mislabel me as one with obsessive-compulsive disorder (These characteristics fall more closely within the scope of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, anyway).
I am a perfectionist.
This past weekend I made my roommate a birthday cake. I slightly modified the recipe – making the cake smaller (thank goodness!) and reducing some of the unnecessary sugar accents. When assembling the multi-layer cake, my need for perfection was evident – I even made commentary about it during the process. I wanted every edge to be straight and lined up. I wanted perfectly perpendicular angles. I wanted it to support itself perfectly without collapsing. I wanted the corners to match up perfectly – the candy bar border doing its job of containing the dark chocolate ganache. I wanted it to look just so. And for what? To cut it and eat it. But it was important to me that my work was presented as flawless. This cake was representative of my workmanship and abilities – nothing but the best! I wanted it to be P. E. R. F. E. C. T.
1. conforming absolutely to the description or definition of an ideal type.
2. excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement.
3. exactly fitting the need in a certain situation or for a certain purpose.
4. entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings.
5. accurate, exact, or correct in every detail.
Origins of perfectionism
I am not blaming my childhood; but rather, using it as an explanation. Childhood sets the foundation from which the remainder of life is built on. I was raised to believe that I had to be perfect – everything I did needed to be perfect or it needed to be done again. Eighteen years (and plus some hours, days, and months) of being told, “Do it right or I will have to do it myself.” or “You will do it until you get it right.” is difficult to erase – specially when the assessor is a perfectionist. As a result, I placed all of my self-worth in the ability to be perfect – produce perfect products and results.
As a near my 30th birthday, I have been working hard to overdome my childhood experiences – but it is extremely difficult to stray from what is known – particularly when you have been rewarded based on your perfection (or so was perceived). Graduating with honors and earning promotion after promotion led me to academic and professional success. The problem was, I was never satisfied. My work was never perfect (although I did have a managing editor who required 100% accuracy to meet job requirements at review time) and could always be better, in my eyes.
Perfect or not at all
“If you cannot do it right then do not do it at all.” What a mentality! But it has stuck with me. I do not do things that I am not good at. I have difficulty doing things that I am only mediocre at. It is better to not show up than to be late. I wear little to no makeup – because it is better to have none than to have imperfect makeup. I rarely style my hair – because it is better to have messy hair than imperfectly styled hair (this would show that I put the effort in and could not do it perfectly).
Similarly, I am often hesitant to try new things – for fear of not being able to do them well (not specifically failure). I like to stick with what I know and what I know that I can do well.
I do not know how to overcome perfectionism – oh, how I wish I did! A specialist once told me that he had never worked with an individual with such an ingrained need for perfection. Mental exercise after exercise have not broken through the stronghold. I do have temporary periods free from perfectionism. If I had to quantify it, I would say that I am 20% better than I used to be – meaning that I only need to be perfect 80% of the time as opposed to 100%.
I want to be careful and note that I am not labeling perfectionism as a negative personality trait. However, it disrupts my life and therefore requires change and improvement – from my perspective.
Perfectionism leads to procrastination
If I am concerned about not being able to complete something perfectly, I procrastinate until I can procrastinate no more. I will avoid things at all costs – often times even tasks that I have never performed before because I am frozen in fear that I will not complete it perfectly. I have discussed that most fears are not real. Why is my fear of imperfection so powerful and life impacting? I have vivid memories of sewing projects that had to be done over and over until done perfectly – when all I wanted to do was go outside and play. I remember baking dozens and dozens of muffins, cupcakes, breads, cookies – only done when I had enough perfect ones to present. Do you know how much time I spent re-doing things as a child? Too many – and I find myself slipping into that habit on occasion as an adult. I would rather procrastinate and avoid – and use that time for something I enjoy!
Perfectionism and this blog
My perfectionism inhibits my ability to publish to this blog. This post has sat for several days and I know that I will never be satisfied. I have several dozen posts sitting as drafts – discontent with one aspect or another. I want them to be perfect. In my mind, my posts can only be impactful if they are perfect – anything less would be a waste of my readers’ and my time. Whoa! Yes, I said that – that is my automatic negative thought process.
There are times that I post hastily, more often when I am infuriated with a health and fitness topic or gimmick.
One of my greatest obstacles in life is my perfectionism. I am aware of this and have been working to reduce its averse effects for the greater part of ten years. I have made great strides in the last few years, with the help of professionals, colleagues, and friends. But perfection is a bit of a double-edged sword. It has led to career success. It has led me to develop incredibly effective and useful strategies for completing tasks (e.g., organizational processes, routine development). My perfection continually pushes me to be better – never complacent with what I have nor where I am. Perfectionism is frequently rewarded.
But my perfectionism causes me to freeze – preventing me from personal growth. It cultivates an intense fear of failure. I know that is not healthy and I am working on it. I have written about conquering fear and I know that it is possible – it just takes baby steps sometimes.
Are you a perfectionist?