Many years ago I spotted a newspaper column by Episcopal Bishop Paul Marshall, entitled “Is Perfectionism a Sin?” Since I thought of myself as a perfectionist, and was rather proud of the label at the time, I was intrigued by the title. But I gulped as the writer described his experience of playing the organ joyfully as a young man and then being assigned early in his career to minister to students at the Yale School of Music and realizing his playing was mediocre at best. He stopped playing for years because he thought he wasn’t good enough. It described me to a T, although I didn’t need to go to a prestigious music school to figure out that my playing was never going to be “perfect” no matter how much I practiced.
I, too, had stopped playing for many years. If you can’t be the absolute best at something, why even bother doing it? Marshall, however, posed a different question: “What have we missed because we have not dared to be less than the best?” As I thought more about the author’s message, I realized that perfectionism had defined my entire life and prevented me from doing things at which I might have been successful and that I might have enjoyed doing as well (writing, for example).
I came by perfectionism naturally, via my family, in the same way that we acquire a lot of behaviors and patterns that don’t serve us. Growing up as an only child, I was the person who could live out the dreams my parents never achieved, possibly because of their own perfectionism. If I got an A- rather than an A+ there were knitted eyebrows and questions about what went wrong, and the time in high school when I got a D in advanced placement math was possibly the end of the world. My parents expected me to marry the perfect man (not necessarily the perfect man for me), live in the perfect house (kept perfectly clean), have the perfect career (ideally in a high profile role where everyone could see how perfect I was), and be perfectly adorable in every way.
But it’s funny how life happens, because I seemed to thwart them at every turn: I battled a bad case of acne, buck teeth and scrawniness during my teen years, I didn’t marry a rich doctor or lawyer or even a college professor, the houses we lived in always seemed a bit shabby to them, and I didn’t become a Katie Couric or Oprah Winfrey. But all those negatives didn’t stop my constant striving for perfection, or at least the appearance of it. To most of the world, I was Little Miss Perfect, at least in my behavior. People were sometimes shocked to discover that I was human just like them.
Since I could make my parents so happy with those A’s and academic awards, it made sense to me that I could make my bosses really happy by doing my job perfectly. For years I worked tirelessly in large corporations to do my job absolutely perfectly, to get those “excellent” performance ratings and to tend to every last detail even though I almost worked myself to death. If you’re an employer, you might be thinking that you would love to have an entire staff of perfectionists to handle everything perfectly and propel your company to fame and fortune.
But perfectionism has a downside. The first time I was confronted with the idea that perfectionism might not be the best thing was in a discussion with one of my mentors, who had been my boss for a short time. He told me that if I expected to move forward in the company, I needed to let go of the need to be perfect in everything and learn when good enough was good enough. My initial reaction, although I kept it to myself, was annoyance, with him and with the idea of being less than perfect. The second time I heard a similar message was from a colleague who admitted that he liked the fact that I handled all the details of our workshops perfectly, but he was sometimes annoyed by my “overfunctioning.” I began to wonder how many other colleagues and those who reported to me were annoyed by my desire for perfection.
So now we begin to get to the crux of the problem with perfectionism. Not only does it almost kill the perfectionist and remove all joy from life (because who the heck has time for joy when you’re trying to be perfect), but it annoys everyone else around that person, especially those who are closest. Perfectionists not only want perfection for themselves, but also for everyone else. Since no one can ever attain that state, it’s an endless source of conflict and frustration for the perfectionist’s family and friends as the perfectionist urges them ever onward to impossible standards.
As I was searching online for Paul Marshall’s article, I came across page after page describing perfectionism as a “sin,” a “torment” and a “prison.” Strong words, but quite accurate. It’s interesting that the word “sin” showed up in both religious and secular sources, likely because the more perfect we try to be on our own, the farther we journey from both God and our true selves. Bob Edelstein, in a Psychology Today article entitled “The Sin of Being Perfect,” said: “By releasing the need to be perfect, you become resilient. You experience more flexibility, spontaneity, and self-acceptance in your life. You are interested in how you can grow from your experience.”
I am certain that, had I not at least become aware of my perfectionism and made big strides in wrestling it to the ground, I could not have developed the resilience I needed to survive the past few years. First, we built a house a 12-hour drive from where we were living, having seen only photos of the construction progress, provided by our realtor, until we saw it for the first time just a few days before closing. Then, there we were in our beautiful new home, and I thought, finally, we’re living our dream, the house is perfect, we’re a few miles from the ocean, our life is perfect.
But no, once again I was reminded that chasing perfection is not productive. Our “perfect” home turned into a hospital of sorts: wheelchair and walker added to the living room décor, along with a sofa covered with a sheet where my chronically ill husband sleeps much of the time, along with one of the dogs. Martha Stewart doesn’t tell you how to decorate perfectly in these circumstances, or how to get rid of the smell of illness—a mixture of bodily fluids, medicines, and at least one infrequently showered person.
But I have definitely gotten the message about the sin of perfectionism and how I need to stay out of this prison for my own sanity and everyone else’s. I’m still in recovery and will be for the rest of my life. Perhaps there should be a Perfectionists Anonymous for those of us who have worshipped at the altar of perfection and left empty.
Originally published at marywilsonsblog.wordpress.com