The poison of perfectionism

The poison of perfectionism

All my life I’ve tried to start everything with a clean sheet of paper and make sure it’s perfect from that moment on. It’s never worked. I’ve never been able to achieve perfection, not even close. To protect myself from this recurring abject failure I’ve ‘split off’ and rejected parts of myself that represent whole periods of my life. It’s not a particularly rewarding way of living and the psychological kicking that comes with not achieving perfection fosters inertia. A healthy dose of self compassion and valuing the process now lead me to much better, more productive outcomes.

I’ve always loved stationery. Pens, pencils, crayons. I love a new notebook. Crisp clean pages full of potential. Every time I’ve started some project or other, I’d buy a new one, taking time to select one that really appealed to me. It was going to be the place I’d make insightful notes in a beautiful script. Or I was going to set out my goals on the first page and then record my steady and consistent progress on every subsequent page. But how could the very first words I wrote be a perfect summation of all my thinking. Whatever the goal, my progress was never steady and forgiving myself for these ‘hiccups’ felt impossible. To cap it all, my handwriting is messy, as pretty much every school report I ever had made clear. As soon as I put my pen on the first page I ‘ruined’ the book and the project with it.

The ‘clean sheet’ approach goes deeper. I split off whole parts of myself associated with times in my life when I’d felt I’d failed or struggled. I couldn’t accept those parts of me. They were imbued with shame. The memories were intolerable. I couldn’t talk about them or forgive myself for anything I’d done, even if an independent assessment might suggest it hadn’t been anything too wild or radical. The focus on perfectionism, on being perfect, came with a lack of compassion for myself.

It’s not surprising such perfection can drive inertia. The internal psychological penalty for not being perfect is severe. It’s easier to do nothing, to step back, than risk incurring it.

But is perfection all it’s cracked up to be anyway? Paediatrician and psychotherapist Donald Winnicott developed the concept of the ‘good enough mother’. A ‘good enough mother’ is attuned to her infant, recognising, acknowledging and responding to her infant’s needs. In the early days, weeks and months, this attunement is essential. But as time goes on, a ‘perfect’ response from the mother becomes harmful. Little misattunements or delays in responding help the infant develop his or her own resources in a safe environment, building their autonomy and confidence.

Humans are happiest and healthiest in the midst of nourishing and rewarding relationships, something perfectionism undermines. Anyone focused on achieving perfection, on being perfect is, almost by definition, directing their attention on themselves. It’s not much fun being around someone consumed by their own performance. What’s more, there’s probably an uncomfortable comparison going on somewhere, conscious or unconscious.

When I worked in communications, I read plenty of pieces that said the ‘good enough’ news release or mailshot, which gets finished and issued, is much better than the one that’s worked on again and again in an attempt to make it perfect but is never released. The point is clear, but if you’re struggling with perfectionism, it’s not that easy. You may get the ‘good enough’ mailshot, or your equivalent, out the door but the internal retribution could be painful and destructive.

Developing compassion and care for yourself is challenging and demanding but worth the effort. It means, instead of being crushed by mistakes and ‘failures’, you can learn from them. They can become part of the process.

Kintsugi offers the perfect metaphor. Grossly simplified, the soulful Japanese philosophy of Wabi Sabi is about experiencing beauty in the present moment, however imperfect it may be. Embedded in this philosophy, Kintsugi is a way of repairing pottery that celebrates the life of the china-wear. Every chip, crack or break is made gorgeous by repairing it in gold. It’s a beautiful and thought-provoking process, in which you slow right down and engage with and appreciate the piece. Imagine the rewards of giving yourself the same care, attention and love.

The image is of a lid of a coffee pot I broke. No longer perfect, I was going to throw it out. But after repairing it the kintsugi way, it’s much more beautiful. I almost broke the pot itself, just so I could repair it!

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