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Perfectionism itself isn't necessarily a problem--there are many instances in which a perfectionist attitude can be desirable.  If I owned a factory, I would be glad to have perfectionists working for me, for I would know that the quality of the product that we produced would be very high, indeed.  The perfectionist rarely will bounce checks, for the checking account always will be balanced.  The perfectionist in research won't let any possibility go unchecked, won't let any doubt go untested.  In many cases, the perfectionist has an advantage over the person who is content to allow mediocrity to be the standard.

Perfectionism often becomes a weight around our necks, though, a burden that hurts us and the people we live and work with.  When perfectionism becomes an obsession, or when a person expects everyone else to live up to his or her perfectionist ideals, then we have major problems--problems that hurt many people and that dim the lights of the lives of many people who must deal with the perfectionists

Unfortunately, when perfectionism gets out of hand, it has strong effects in two ways:  first, on the perfectionist him or her self, and second, on the people who have to deal with the perfectionist on a regular basis.  Perfectionists can be so critical of their own efforts that they're critical of themselves before they even start.  I've known students who had this problem so bad that they wouldn't even start papers and would end up failing them when they didn't turn them in.  

Their logic ran thusly:  It's not going to be good enough, so why even bother?  They often expect their first drafts to be perfect "A" papers, even though most writing teachers stress the revision process that requires at least three drafts.  When those first drafts don't get the high grades, they consider themselves to be "bad writers."

Those people who feel that everything they do has to be perfect are out of touch with two great truths in life:  first, nothing's perfect, and second, almost nothing needs to be perfect.  The first one's obvious, but the second one takes more thought.  When we painted our living room, we got some blue on the white trim, and we got some white on the blue walls.  It's not noticeable, though, unless you look very closely, and in the three years since we painted, not one person has even noticed the "flaws."  No one cares.  It's that simple, and it's that way for most of the things we do.  Some people take hours perfecting something when it would have been perfectly acceptable with much less work.  We could have spent a few more hours painting our walls to make them perfect, but the trade-off of our time for "perfection" wouldn't have been worth it.

When perfectionists affect others, though, things tend to get ugly.  They become micromanagers, trying to control every facet of every process in order to make sure there are no errors, no mistakes.  Everything has to be explainable and quantifiable, and everyone is held to the same standards, no matter what their job.  I even have a book called How to Live with a Perfectionist, a title that illustrates the difficulties involved when "normal" people have to deal with abnormal expectations.  This can be especially harmful for children, who always have unattainable expectations to live up to, and who can grow up with low frustration tolerance, unrealistic expectations of others, and many other problems that will harm them when they try to make and keep friends.  Perfectionist take the light out of the brightest situations, and they take the satisfaction out of the tasks that we do because we love to do them.  When standards get too high for normal, everyday situations, our normal everyday lives become trials rather than joys.

As Naomi Remen says below, perfectionism is "curable."  It's not something that we have to resign ourselves to as a permanent part of our lives.  But we have to recognize it and deal with it effectively if we want to make our lives--and the lives of those who have to live and work with us--brighter and less stressful.



When we get caught in the myth of perfectionism, we see our faults
as glaring and horrible reminders that we are not as we should be,
that we have failed and are indeed ourselves failures.  This point of view
doesn't leave much room for humility, forgiveness, love, acceptance, or growth.
In short, this view is pretty self-destructive.  Our imperfections are not the problem;
our attitude toward them is.  This negative attitude toward the reality of imperfection
is fertile ground for self-hate and negativism toward others.

Anne Wilson Schaef


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The pursuit of perfection often impedes improvement.

George Will


The pursuit of perfection has become a major addiction of our time.  Fortunately,
perfection is learned.  No one is born a perfectionist, which is why it is possible
to recover.  I am a recovering perfectionist.  Before I began recovering, I
experienced that I and everyone else was always falling short, that who
we were and what we did was never quite good enough.  I sat in judgment on
life itself.  Perfectionism is the belief that life is broken. . . .
   Few perfectionists can tell the difference between love and approval.  Perfectionism
is so widespread in this culture that we actually have had to invent another word
for love.  "Unconditional love," we say.  Yet, all love is unconditional.
Anything else is just approval.

Rachel Naomi Remen

What does it mean to be "perfect"?  Would we recognize it?  We're exposed
to the near-perfect performances of star athletes and entertainers every day.
Yet they miss shots on the court, putts on the green, and high notes on the trumpet,
despite working hard to perfect their chosen skills.
    Being human precludes the possibility of being perfect.  But how often
do we get mad or ashamed of ourselves for making a mistake?  Errors
unforgiven multiply.  That's because the shame we harbor over our
imperfections affects our attitude.  The more we think we should be perfect,
the greater our chances of failure.


This idea of perfection frightens me.  We're almost afraid to do anything anymore
because we can't do it perfectly.  Maslow says there are marvelous peak experiences
that we all should be experiencing, like creating a pot in ceramics or painting a picture
and putting it over here and saying, "That's an extension of me."  There's another
existentialist theory that says, "I must be because I have done something.  I have
created something--therefore, I am."  Yet we don't want to do this because we're
afraid it isn't going to be good, it isn't going to be approved of.  If you feel like
smearing ink on a wall, you do it!  It's you, and that's where you are at this moment,
and be proud of it.  Say, "That came out of me, it's my creation, I did it,
and it is good."  But we're afraid because we want things to be perfect.
We want our children to be perfect.

Leo Buscaglia


I've yet to meet an absolute perfectionist whose life was filled with inner peace.
The need for perfection and the desire for inner tranquility conflict with each other.
Whenever we are attached to having something a certain way, better than it
already is, we are, almost by definition, engaged in a losing battle.  Rather than
being content and grateful for what we have, we are focused on what's wrong with
something and our need to fix it.  When we are zeroed in on what's wrong,
it implies that we are dissatisfied, discontent.

Richard Carlson


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Reaching for the stars, perfectionists may end up clutching air.  They suffer
from mood disorders, troubled relationships, and stress.
They may even achieve less than others.

David Burns

The healthy pursuit of excellence, the genuine pleasure of meeting high standards,
is often confused with perfectionism.  Perfectionism is based on a painful illusion,
the illusion of personal perfectibility, people measured entirely by production or
accomplishment.  Perfectionists lose sight of the quality of life in their search for
quantity.  Order ends up taking precedence over relationships.  Their expectations
are more important than acceptance and love.  They can see only perfect and
imperfect, so they are unable to enjoy any activity or person that would leave
them in between.  Perfect performance becomes confused with perfect love.  They
are never satisfied.  They never really feel safe or loved.

Recognize perfection as an illusion, not a desirable way to live.  Don't confuse
it with excellence.  Enjoy your successes, laugh at your failures and learn from
them.  Relax, become less competitive and critical.  Enjoy life
instead of controlling it.

Jennifer James


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Perfectionism has its roots in the desire... and need... to be accepted.
Perfectionists have been trained to approach everything they do in
ways that will impress the people they care about.  They want to
impress them so much so that those people will want to take them
to themselves and never let them go.  Rather than being taught to
accept themselves, they were trained to make themselves SO
socially acceptable to others that that is their only focus.

Rhoberta Shaler

Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism
is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research
shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it's often the path
to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.

Brené Brown
The Gifts of Imperfection

Our culture has a serious mental health problem:  perfectionism.  The belief in the illusion of perfectibility.

A perfectionist's inability to accept human frailty and error causes serious emotional problems.

Adult perfectionism has its roots in unrealistic parental demands and conditional love.  You will be loved only if you perform.

Parents who are never satisfied with their children's accomplishments raise children who are never satisfied with themselves.

The issue is not high standards, which we all would support.  The issue is a pattern destructive to health and relationships.

Perfectionists can change.  See if you can identify the critical voice in your head.  Try to be less competitive.  Stop keeping score.

Try not to pass it along to others, especially your children.  You may find that if you allow others more consideration, you may also be able to give some to yourself.

Jennifer James
Aim for success, not perfection.  Never give up your right to be wrong,
because then you will lose the ability to learn new things and move
forward with your life.  Remember that fear always lurks behind
perfectionism.  Confronting your fears and allowing yourself the right
to be human can, paradoxically, make you a far happier and
more productive person.

David M. Burns

She told me of a recent visit to her sister, a daughter of the same mother.
"We were sitting together in the kitchen drinking tea and talking, and I
happened to look in her living room.  She has one of those carpets that
shows every footprint.  It had been vacuumed so perfectly that every
fiber was pointing in the same direction.  At one time, this would have
given me a deep sense of satisfaction.  Now it just looked sad and lonely,
untouched by life."  She began to chuckle softly.  "There is so much more
to life than a perfectly clean kitchen floor, Rachel," she told me.

Rachel Naomi Remen
My Grandfather's Blessings




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