“Perfectionism is the world’s greatest con game,” says cognitive and behavioural therapist Dr. David Burns. “It’s a concept that doesn’t fit reality.”
What it does fit is the distorted set of beliefs that perfectionists have about themselves. Somewhere in their lives they get the message that “love, respect and reward will be theirs, if only they can be bigger and better and more wonderful than they really are,” Burns says.
OK, your house is messy and you can’t balance your chequebook. You may still have a deep-down wish to be perfect. Do you procrastinate, maybe putting off having new friends over because the carpet really needs to be changed, and you didn’t have the perfect success with that new fudge recipe?
And your diet — so you slipped and had that piece of chocolate cake with the 1,000-calorie icing. Do you feel that you’re weak, your whole diet went down the drain and you don’t ever deserve to be slim again?
Take the compulsive car washer, for example, the guy who insists on washing his car every Saturday, even when it’s not dirty. What advantages might there be to that behaviour? Maybe it feels good to have the cleanest car in town — and that’s probably about it.
Some people simply cannot live up to the unrealistic expectations that they have for themselves, and when they fall short, their belief is that they’re a total failure and deserve to suffer. Frequent results are depression and anxiety, and difficulty in forming and/or maintaining relationships.
How well I remember feeling much less than perfect when I was a child: six older brothers (the youngest 10 years my senior) and a mother who wished she didn’t have another child to raise — particularly a girl — at 45 years of age when life should have been easing a little. Now she has my full sympathy!
So I wound up trying harder and harder to win the love and approval that simply wasn’t there (or so I thought at the time). What I know now is that love and assurance shouldn’t be connected to being perfect, but it took me decades and lots of mistakes to realize that fact.
It was after I began studying stress management techniques that I learned to identify my negative thoughts, see how distorted they were, and substitute more realistic and positive thoughts. At last I realized that I didn’t have to know everything, or do everything perfectly. What a relief! And as I started being a bit more compassionate and realistic toward myself, I found that my self-confidence began to improve.
So I’ve learned to celebrate smaller goals. I’m not a world-class chef — but I am a darned good cook! Just ask my husband — it’s one of the main reasons he wants to keep me. If you don’t go looking for perfection in yourself, you may surprise yourself and find satisfaction!
Remember, true perfection exists only in obituaries and eulogies. (I sure hope they don’t make me out to be a saint!)
Mary Underhill is a stress therapist and grief counsellor.