Open Gently

Musings on the introspective life.

Do Your Best: It's a Tough Demand

Time to stop being a perfectionist....Now!

When I was thirteen, my mother said she found me curled up in a ball on my bed in mid-afternoon weeping. My tragedy? An unsuccessful shopping trip for pants. Naturally, she thought I was disappointed that I didn't look good enough in the hundred pants I'd tried on. But that wasn't what was bothering me. I was weeping--she says--because I was ashamed to be so shallow that like any teenager, I cared about how I looked in my pants. "It's so nothing. So trivial. Why do I care so much?" I wailed.

"You were just so brilliant, darling," she says to me now. "I never knew what you'd come up with."
No one has ever told me I am a perfectionist, but I wish they had. Labels are powerful. They clear the mind. In my case, I didn't have a harshly critical mother-did you notice?--or an obsessively tidy handwriting or room. I wanted to be perfectly good.

My friend Evan is fussy: he recalls which of his girlfriends remembered to close the toilet seat lid before she flushed (preventing germs from entering the air) and he worries about whether the matte or shiny side of aluminum foil should touch his food.

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If you are perfectionistic, you like your high standards. You think they are the key to any success you've had (trivial, besides your many failures).

It's true that teachers often see perfectionism in gifted children, although psychologists disagree over whether it comes with intelligence or arises from the social response to a child's gifts. A gifted child who is overpraised, or rewarded solely for achievements, could easily learn to associate love with her performance. To a literal child, even the apparently supportive "Do your best," is a tough demand, says Robert Slaney, a psychologist at Pennsylvania State University.

Martin Antony, a psychologist at Ryerson University in Toronto, believes that the business principles of ever-growing profits and continuous improvement have created a society that makes us expect this of ourselves. Every year the world's athletes beat a record. In big cities, young men as well as women are waxing their privates to remove all hair. We're equally dedicated to "inner growth," at least in theory. Self-help books pile up besides our beds as we work longer hours to advance in our careers and finance ever-fancier lifestyles. It's not enough to do a good job-you need to be scoping out your next one. Dating sites encourage singles (and mentally wandering spouses) to seek fantasy mates. We're asking more of our marriages, and leaving them if they don't measure up.

Perfectionists may veer wildly from arrogance to self-hatred and back. My friend Amy recalls a phenomenon she called "Harvard syndrome" among her classmates at Harvard Law: "We'd measure ourselves against Mozart and Wittgenstein and feel like complete failures but then we'd look around the room and say, ‘I'm better than anybody else here.'"

Not all perfectionists do well in the world. Sometimes they're slow workers, procrastinating and secondguessing themselves. Their motto: "If at first you don't succeed, failure may be your thing," "If you can't do it well, don't do it at all," and "The more you do, the more they want."

So how do you know if your high standards are healthy? Here's the key: you're not terrified of failure. When you succeed, you're not sighing with relief-you're happy. If you have a setback, you don't feel worthless. You don't beat yourself up. You revise your expectations, move on, or try again.

Curing Perfectionism

Perfectionists tend to have trouble bonding in therapy. They try to be the perfect patient, criticize the therapist, or grow dissatisfied and leave. If that's you, here are some things you can try on your own that psychologists ask perfectionists to do.

1. Apply the label to yourself. Does it fit? In what areas of your life? Ask someone you trust for an opinion.
2. Imagine placing your expectations of yourself on another person. Do they still seem reasonable?
3. Think back to the feedback you received at home. Was it appropriate? How did you feel?
4. Write down your deepest feelings three days a week. Are you driven by fear?
5. If you're overburdened, think about what you could give up. Can you delegate?
6. Perfectionists look for ways to measure themselves. Stop measuring.
7. Put the person ahead of the task. See it her way.
8. If you fear mistakes, make a small one deliberately. Send an email with a typo and see what happens.
9. Expose yourself to a challenge, if you tend to avoid them. Start small and work up.
10. If you always have to be the best in class, audit a class where you're unqualified.
11. Confess a small error. If telling a family member is hardest, start with a coworker or friend.
12. Build an accepting, supportive social network.

 

Temma Ehrenfeld is a New York-based science writer, and former assistant editor at Newsweek.

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