The Trap of Perfectionism

If you wait for the perfect map before departing on your journey, you’ll never have to leave. ~ Seth Godin

ICountry Road On Cloudy Day can’t tell you the number of times I’ve torn up a letter I wrote because my handwriting was crooked. Or how often I’ve scraped the elements off a scrapbook page and started over because something wasn’t quite right. I drove my publisher crazy by proofing the manuscript for This New Mountain over and over and over, making little “necessary” changes every time. Thankfully, they made the decision to cut me off and declare the book ready for the world. If they hadn’t done that, I would probably still be tweaking the thing.

I recently came across a blog post on another site that points out being a perfectionist means: 1) little tasks take a lot longer; 2) you have a compulsion to dot the i’s and cross the t’s; 3) you’re never happy with what you produce; 4) you are hypersensitive to criticism; 5) hitting “publish” on a blog post causes anxiety and doubt; and 6) procrastination rules. I agree with all of these points. I also know my perfectionism doesn’t extend beyond myself (see my post about imperfection) because I can leave a friend’s bathroom and not feel compelled to turn the toilet paper roll around the correct way. You know, so it unrolls over and not under.

In the past few years – and especially since my near-fatal publishing incident – I’ve been working hard not to be such a perfectionist. I’ve had to do some serious talking to myself. (Do people really care that my hand-written cards and letters are crooked?) I’ve had to step out and just do it, whatever “it” is.

Like taking on the editing responsibilities for SouthWest Sage (my writing organization’s newsletter ) – a perfectionist’s nightmare, making sure every page is filled up and laid out exactly right. But monthly deadlines have helped me get things done and learn to let go.

And then there’s the matter of all the photo albums I need to finish. Knowing my children would really like to have their baby albums in hand before they die (they’re all in their 30s now) motivated me to get them done. To do so, I had to remind myself that the world wouldn’t end if the paper didn’t fit the page or the colors/patterns weren’t exactly right or the photos didn’t line up. It was a battle.

If you’re not a perfectionist, you can laugh at all of this. If you know and love a perfectionist, maybe you can try to understand the person’s need. It is a hard thing to overcome, and I’m certain I won’t be able to completely – it’s one of the things that makes me a good editor, after all. 

The biggest thing that has helped me want to change is knowing that my perfectionism has interfered with reaching my goals, or even starting on a path toward them. I’ve reached the point in my life where I have fewer years ahead of me than behind. It’s time to stop wasting time and get on with it, whatever “it” is.

How has perfectionism affected your life?


Live More, Fear Less: Imperfection

beauty in imperfectionI’m not perfect, but I want to be. I accept imperfection in others because I know no one is perfect. But for some reason, it’s hard to apply that acceptance to myself.

I strive for perfection, not in my physical appearance (that’s beyond help), but in most things I do in my life. This does not include housework, however. I decided years ago to take on my mother’s philosophy that there are better things to do than clean one’s house everyday. My nagging – no, my screaming – perfectionism deals with just about everything else.

When I do something for someone, like complete a job or make a gift or cook a meal, I strive to make sure it’s done perfectly, and beat myself up if it’s not. Perfection is, after all, what others expect from me, right? It’s taken me years to realize that people don’t expect perfection from me, any more than I expect it from them. I need to remind myself of this truth just about every day.

Now that I’m aging – the proof of it in graying hair, wrinkles, and body parts that droop (yippee) a little bit more each day – I’m facing even more personal imperfection. Oddly, this lack of being perfect doesn’t bother me so much.

I look at nature. Often, the most beautiful trees are those that have grown a bit crooked, off-centered but somehow still balanced. Their imperfect shadings of leaf and bark catch my eye. And smooth, shiny stones are certainly beautiful, but it’s the ones with cracks and interesting veins of impurity that I’ll turn over in my hands and look at the most.

If I understand the concept right, the Japanese call it wabi-sabi, which has to do with finding beauty in imperfection – those things that are simple or unrefined, not quite symmetrical, that have attained beauty or serenity through age or wear.

If we live long enough, we will all be old someday. Our youth will fade, but will our beauty, really? Or will that which we think is beautiful change? If we allow ourselves, will we see the beauty in how time changes us? We cannot be perfect but we can be beautiful.

Let us strive to accept the imperfection in ourselves and in others. What do you think is beautiful but imperfect at the same time?