Cranky Tuesday: Perfectionist edition

December 4, 2007

The NY Times today takes up one of my current topics of rumination: am I really unhappy, or am I just unrealistic? Do I need to figure out what to do with my life and then do it with all the effort I can muster, or do I just need to sit back and learn to love my mediocrity? Hmm, that question came out wrong. Anyway, perfectionism is the topic of the day in the Tuesday health section. This is well-time for consideration on LS, having just yesterday changed my tagline to reflect my more concerted engagement to embrace the fact of my own humanity (in place of humanity read “glaring imperfections”) and having a tradition of venting on Tuesdays. So, am I really cranky, or am I just too much of a perfectionist?

The proverbial “recent studies” reported on by Benedict Carey find that there are three flavors of perfectionism, each likely to end up creating a big pile of unhappy all around you if you are not careful: “Self-oriented strivers who struggle to live up to their high standards and appear to be at risk of self-critical depression; outwardly focused zealots who expect perfection from others, often ruining relationships; and those desperate to live up to an ideal they’re convinced others expect of them, a risk factor for suicidal thinking and eating disorders.” True dat.

Carey, though, makes a move early on in the piece that kind of places perfectionism in an arena that I’m not altogether sure it belongs. He describes “platitudes of achievement” such as “Believe in yourself. Don’t take no for an answer. Never quit. Don’t accept second best” as outgrowths of perfectionism. I’m not entirely sure I do–I don’t think that those platitudes are always harmful (they do lack a certain imagination, but there are plenty of people who don’t believe in themselves and should, or who too often volunteer for second best when they deserve better), and I rarely find them troublesome when they are being used by people who have at least some characteristics of perfectionism. I hate them most when they are used by people who really have no intention of working hard or pushing their own limits, but who instead use them them to mean they deserve the rewards and esteem that comes with achievement, right now, no additional effort required: “I’m better than second best just the way I am.”

Perfectionism in the right contexts is indispensable. Carey quotes an author who says as much: ““It’s natural for people to want to be perfect in a few things, say in their job — being a good editor or surgeon depends on not making mistakes,” said Gordon L. Flett, a psychology professor at York University.” The real trouble comes when you start to generalize your perfectionism, expecting perfection from all areas of life, like your closet, your wardrobe, and your souffle. This makes sense. I can’t imagine trying to do everything perfectly all at once even for a week. I’d go crazy or get sick, I’m sure of it. Something has always got to give, and as I get older I’m more and more okay with that. Like Gornick says about memoirs, sometimes we become who we are by finding out what are limits really are and going with it.

Now, I think I’m pretty much a closet perfectionist these days. I’m much, much better than I used to be. Through the gentle but persistent efforts of my mother, I’ve come a long way from that day in kindergarten when I came home bearing a certificate of achievement for sitting still:

SJ: “Mama, look! The teacher gave me a certificate for sitting still! She told us to sit still, and I sat so still my hands sweated!”

Mother of SJ: <disconcerted look> That’s, uh, nice, sweetie.

A couple of months after that incident, she gave me an ultimatum: if I didn’t get my name on the board for misbehavior at least once that week, I was going to be in trouble at home. It was rough, but I didn’t, and I’ve pretty much been an incorrigible scofflaw ever since.

Anyone who knows me also knows that I am not a perfectionist when it comes to dressing myself or cleaning my house, although I do routinely berate myself in small doses for not doing either of these things well enough (probably a good thing, or I’d never must the effort to wear anything but jeans and a t-shirt).

However, I’m finding out that I’m kind of unhappy being anything less than a perfectionist when it comes to my professional life, whatever that turns out to be. And that’s kind of the million dollar question around here these days, what exactly will I be doing? And as I think about that, I’m realizing that sitting back and enjoying the ride is just not in me, at least not yet. The “safety” of a sensible career track hasn’t really felt that safe at all so far, because I have not been able to shush the part of me that wants to be doing something else and wants to be doing it as well as I can. I’d hate to think that this is part of some form of mental illness and evidence of an obsession with achievement–b/c I have thought that, and look where it got me–even more mentally ill than ever! Just kidding. Perhaps recognizing this, though, is an important step. It’s good to have your own goals and sense of yourself to live up to, and perfectionism can help get you off your ass. Although doing that also means getting past the fear of failure that perfectionism can breed, the part that would rather never try than give it a genuine try and not have it work out.

The balance here, I think, is realizing that the perfection of hard work and the perfection of achievement are two very, very different things. One is in your control, more or less, and the other definitely isn’t. One is a good area to spend energy and th other isn’t. I’m talking about the difference between writing the best poem or essay you can and getting it published–those two are not the same thing for the purposes of mental health, and if I want to keep mine I need to start making the distinction and start, you know, doing whatever that thing is that I want to do…

so off I got to do, as the article suggests, my worst, and in doing so find out that I’m still alive and well and the same me that I always was.

And Montaigne would definitely agree w/ Carey’s closings lines: “If you can’t tolerate your worst, at least once in a while, how true to yourself can you be?”

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