Fixing Families

Tools for walking the intergenerational tightrope

Perfection or Perfectionistic?

Know who's doing the driving

There is a documentary that is making the round of theaters lately: Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Here we meet Jiro Ono, an 85 year-old Japanese gentleman who works 6 days a week in his 10-seat restaurant in a Tokyo subway. He also happens to also be considered the world’s greatest sushi chef. Over the course of the movie we see him traipsing to the fish market to pick out the best catch of the day, methodically slicing slivers of fish, engaging in detailed discussions with growers about various textures of rice. He has so fine-tuned his craft over the decades that at his nightly group dinners (booked months in advance), he deliberately gives the women slightly smaller portions so that everyone in the group can finish their meals at exactly the same time.

While no master chef, Matt readily admits that he enjoys cooking, and actually does most of the meals for him and his wife. Like Jiro, he too has high standards. But if, for whatever reason, the meal doesn’t turn out meeting his expectations, he throws it all out then and there (and despite the frequent protests of his wife) and starts all over. 

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Obviously both men are working out of different mindsets. For Jiro creating sushi is an art; perfection may be strived for but never fully achieved; he makes the best he can from the best his world offers him on any given day. He also strongly believes that learning one’s craft only comes from years of experience (apprentices train with him for minimum of 10 years), but that mistakes will be made and are part of the process. Matt thinks differently. For him cooking is less art and more accomplishment. Perfection is expected from the start and should never waiver. And when the outcome if different from what he visualized, he assumes mistakes and incompetence; it becomes an opportunity for endless self criticism. 

The driving force for each is different. For Jiro it is creativity and a vision of an ideal, For Matt it is anxiety and fear of ever-present all-or-nothing disaster. Dedicated striving for perfection vs. endless throttling of perfectionism. Jiro becomes the master; Matt submits to a master. 

Can Matt, or you, become Jiro-like? Absolutely. Here are some ways to start: 

Realize what is driving you. It is not you, nor your creativity, or high ideals. It is perfectionism and perfectionism is a bully. While you may think you are just being you, perfectionism is doing the driving. Take control of the wheel, drive yourself. 

Shut it down. When you hear that old voice barking orders, whacking you with that mental stick when you didn’t do “good” enough, ignore the orders, take away the stick, and instead pat yourself on your back. Again let you, your visions, your talents, your creativity guide you. Ignore the inevitable ranting that relentless mommy or daddy in your head. 

Realize not everything is important. Matt’s approach to food is his same approach to everything else in his life—all or nothing—his work, his appearance, even having sex with his wife. Everything he does gets a grade, and less than perfect grades wind up in the mental trash. Jiro, on the other hand, may dedicate his life to sushi, but likely has some dust bunnies under his bed that he never looks at.

Perfectionism perpetually levels the playing field. Absolutely everything becomes a test, another unreasonable measure of your skill and character. Give it up. It’s both unattainable and stupid. Life is relative. Some things can only become important because something else is not. Will what you are worrying about now really be important 3 days, 3 months from now? You, the adult, not perfectionism, need to decide what is important in your life to focus upon. And, by the way… you’re free to change your mind and focus at any time you want.

Decide what you want. The doorway to creativity is knowing what you want to do; the doorway to perfectionism is doing what you should. They are obviously not the same. Wanting is gut-driven and determined; shoulds are heady and burdened with guilt and anticipatory fear. A judicious sprinkling of shoulds may help form your values and character, but with too many and few wants you merely wind up constantly in an anxious heap.

Cut yourself some slack. Perfection on the first try is another perfectionistic-talking irrational idea. We’re not robots; learning and creativity are messy. Try, learn, fine-tune, repeat. Anything less is unreasonable. 

Can you become Jiro? No. But you can become you.

So get off the perfectionistic train. And feel free to mess up anywhere along the way.

Bob Taibbi, L.C.S.W. has 40 years of clinical experience. He is author of 6 books and over 300 articles and provides training nationally and internationally.

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