A lot of us have a streak of perfectionism. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. What’s sometimes called “normal” perfectionism means taking pride in what you do, especially when doing something challenging.
Serious perfectionism can become really troublesome, eating away at our self-worth and leaving us disappointed and unhappy. It becomes a problem when our thoughts and conversations are full of words like “should” and “have to.”
Little wonder that guilt and shame often shadow the perfectionist’s life. As children, they may have brought home a report card with lots of A’s…only to have Mom or Dad interrogate them about the lone B on the report and ask why they didn’t try harder. Nothing was ever quite good enough.
That’s a rough way to live. It takes a toll on self-esteem and happiness and often means we’re never truly satisfied with our accomplishments, even if we’ve done something very well. The fear of failure can turn perfectionists into procrastinators who are afraid to start a project they may not finish flawlessly.
It would be one thing if perfectionists only judged themselves harshly, but they often feel the same sense of judgment towards others. That can make them rigid and opinionated about the smallest things. And that makes life with them difficult. At their worst, perfectionists may ruin relationships by trying to prove they are right all the time.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff” is an alien thought for these folks. As a result, they sometimes drive others crazy.
Perfectionism often sabotages progress in life. There is a saying that the perfect is the enemy of the good – that is, that in striving to be flawless, we can overlook opportunities to take a step forward that moves us towards our goal.
In exercise and diet, missing one day at the gym can lead to feeling “What’s the use? I’ve blown it.” Giving in to the urge for a donut results in giving up completely.
Some gay men are particularly susceptible to this way of thinking. Call it the “Best Little Boy in The World” syndrome, an urge to magically overcome imaginary shortcomings as boys by excelling at everything else. We become very competitive. This is great training for becoming a critical, unhappy person later in life.
Perfectionism is something we learn, not something we’re born with. Here are some suggestions for unlearning perfectionism:
Learn to relax. Life is not a series of tests. Make time to enjoy yourself – maybe even doing something imperfectly if you enjoy doing it.
Set achievable goals. If your expectations are unrealistic, you’re much more likely to fail. Focus on what you do well, not on your imperfections. Give yourself credit for your accomplishments.
Accept yourself. No one’s perfect, and you’re going to make mistakes. Let go of unrealistic expectations. Stop self-criticism by focusing on your strengths, not your weaknesses.
Learn from mistakes. Failure can be a powerful teacher. Too often, needing to do things perfectly the first time means fearing trying anything new because we’re not likely to master it on the first attempt. Give yourself credit for trying if you fail at something new, and give yourself permission to make mistakes.
Listen to others. What could it hurt? Having mutually satisfying relationships is often much more important than always being right.
John R. Ballew, M.S. author & contributor to GAYTWOGETHER, is a licensed professional counselor in private practice in Atlanta. He specializes in issues related to coming out, sexuality, relationships and spirituality. If you have any questions or comments you can submit them directly to GAYTWOGETHER or John R. Ballew, M.S. - www.bodymindsoul.org. or at (404) 874-8536.