When “Good Enough” Isn’t: The Curse of Perfectionism

Oct 14
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September, 1976.  A few weeks into my Kindergarten experience.  The teacher distributed worksheets to the class so we could build and perfect a solid understanding of the concepts that would lead us to master Euclidean geometry.  The entire worksheet was filled with shapes, and not just one but two different ones:  squares and circles.  I was giddy.  I knew these, and I could show my teacher that I was smart!  I was too excited, too busy envisioning how she would praise me, that I didn’t listen to her instructions.  When she set us loose to demonstrate our intellectual prowess, I whipped through the assignment all the way down to the last exercise, where I colored the circle black and the square blue.

When the teacher returned these important assignments the next day, I waited for mine with eager anticipation.  I would have not just one star, but probably two because my coloring was surely the best she’d ever seen in her whole entire life.  I all but jumped out of my seat to grab the paper from her.  I looked at it, and I saw something that literally changed my life forever.  She had drawn a frownie face on my paper because I colored the shapes incorrectly!  I was devastated and ashamed.  I knew my shapes!  How could that happen?  The teacher certainly thought I was very dumb or a bad listener or both.  I flipped my paper over so no one could see it, for I was sure that all the other students would look down on me for making such a horrible mistake.

If there were a headline written about that event, it would read:  “Five-year-old girl makes grave error in classroom; embarks on a life-long quest for perfection.”  (A bit of proof that this incident did indeed affect my sense of self and the world:  I still vividly remember said incident.)   I have indeed been on a quest for perfection since that moment.  Unfortunately, perfection is a holy grail, forever out of reach yet forever sought.

Perfectionism.  It’s a common term in our collective vocabulary.  We accuse (or applaud, depending on one’s opinion of perfectionism) people of/for being perfectionists.  What does the term even mean?  A desire to succeed and excel in one’s field?  I’d call that ambition and talent, but not quite perfectionism.  Perfectionism includes this desire for success, yes, but it goes beyond a desire to succeed.  Perfectionism is not just a desire to do well; it’s a need to be the best.

Perfectionism says "good" is bad. But is it really?

Perfectionism says “good” is bad. But is it really?

A perfectionist pushes him/herself to literally be perfect, to be better than everyone else in anything he/she is doing.  To achieve this, a perfectionist will spend huge amounts of time on a project or task making sure every single aspect is flawless and the best it can be.  For if the product is flawed, certainly the creator of the project is flawed, too.  And what will people think of that?  For a perfectionist, most things are seen as absolutes:  something is either right or it is wrong.  There aren’t varying degrees of “rightness,” nor are there varying degrees of knowledge or ability.  One either knows something perfectly, or he does not know it.  One can either do something perfectly, or she can’t do it at all.

I’d like to think of myself as flexible, but when it comes to myself and the standards I place on myself, I must admit that I’m completely inflexible.  In graduate school, if I earned a 93% on a test and was told I did a great job, I scoffed and thought to myself that such a grade was awful—after all, it’s almost a B, and there’s no way something that low could be the highest in the class.  I received five new likes on my Facebook page?  So what?  That’s nothing.  I’m clearly doing something wrong because other people receive far more.  Not only do I analyze everything I do to determine what it is I’m doing very wrong, I catastrophize about my future as I’m doing so.  Surely if I don’t have the most fans of all authors on Facebook, I will never succeed.  These are but two examples of where my mind goes when it perceives I’m not perfect (and since I’m not, it goes there constantly).  For a very long time, my personal motto was “Good enough never is.”  Consequently, noting I ever achieved felt good enough.  I was never content.  I never experienced a sense of pride in a job well done.   If I’m honest, which I am, I’ll admit that it is still automatic for me to think and feel this way.

Why do we do this to ourselves?  Why do we think that no matter what we do it’s not good enough?  There are lots of us out there.  (I’ve read estimates that just under one third of the US population is perfectionistic, but because I’m not perfectly certain that this is accurate, I’m not stating it as definitive fact.)  The answer to that is multi-faceted and often individualized, so to go into the “why” would require a full-length book.  The “why” isn’t incredibly important right here, anyway.  The important issues here are what perfectionism does to people (The Mental Health Consequences of Perfectionism) and what can be done about the curse of perfectionism.

Are you perfectionistic?  In what ways?


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