Defeating Perfectionism Before It Defeats You!

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by Dr. Bill Gaultiere
Executive Director of New Hope

After nearly two decades of toning down my perfectionistic tendencies and learning to be happy and at peace being an imperfect person in an imperfect world I finally gave in. Enough is enough I decided! I indulged my irrational, dysfunctional desire for perfection and just gave in. I sought perfection in one part of my life - my closet!

I have a small walk-in closet in our master bedroom and I decided to go all out and make it perfect. I got a closet organizer system, new hangers, and arranged all my clothes. Now my closet is clean and white and organized. All my clothes are in there, where they belong, and hanging on nice, wood hangers. It makes picking out my clothes in the morning so much easier. And when I'm having a bad day or things in my life seem messed up I can go in my perfect closet and stay there until I feel better!

The Problem of Perfectionism

All kidding aside (I don't hang out it my closet), perfectionism is a serious and painful problem for many people and their loved ones. You can see that if I spent hours every day basking in the perfection of my closet and neglecting God, my family, or my work I'd have a problem! Or if I insisted on neatness and order in my wife's closet or my kid's rooms or tried to control the choices of my family and friends or was critical of people who weren't perfect enough then it'd be a problem not only for me, but also for other people. Fortunately, I've learned not to do those things!

I've talked to many different types of perfectionists - people who are compulsively perfectionistic about how they look, what they achieve, what others think of them, what they feel, a relationship, their romantic partner, their expectations for other people, or keeping their home or office immaculate. For these perfectionists, when their compulsion is not ideal (which is almost all the time) they feel bad, beset with inner feelings like inferiority, inadequacy, guilt, anxiety, jealousy, or emptiness. They think, "If it's not perfect then it's bad" or "If I can't do it right then I won't do it at all." This kind of black and white, all-or-nothing thinking gets perfectionists into trouble. They often procrastinate, neglect responsibilities and commitments, or isolate from others. And even when they have succeeded they don't enjoy their success. "It could've been even better," they think, or they've already moved on to perfecting their next project.

For some perfectionism has a tragic end: suicide. One apparent and well-known example is that of former deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster. Prior to his time in Washington D.C. his life looked super successful and spotless: first in his law school class, highest score on the Arkansas bar exam, partner in a prestigious law firm, stable marriage and family, popular, a sterling reputation. It all unraveled, especially the sterling reputation, when things went wrong at the White House in the early months of the Clinton administration. He couldn't remedy the situation and he felt responsible. To make matters worse, the media was all over him, questioning his integrity and competence. His reputation had been destroyed. He killed himself in July of 1993.

Most perfectionists never take it to this tragic end, but Vincent Foster's story illustrates just how increasingly consuming and destructive a problem perfectionism can become if its not addressed. If you or someone you know struggles with perfectionism know that there is hope. There is help for perfectionists! It all begins with identifying that the perfectionism is a problem that has gotten out of control.

Are You a Perfectionist?

Take the following short survey to help you see to what extent you may have perfectionistic tendencies. For each question below answer "yes" if it's generally true of you and "no" if it's generally not true of you.

  1. I often think that I should've done better than I did.
  2. I tend to put things off if I don't have the time to do them perfectly.
  3. I'm afraid to fail when working on an important project.
  4. I strive to impress others with my best qualities or accomplishments.
  5. I think less of myself if I repeat a mistake.
  6. I strive to maintain control of my emotions at all times.
  7. I get upset when things don't go as planned.
  8. I am often disappointed in the quality of other people's work.
  9. I feel that my standards couldn't be too high.
  10. I'm afraid that people will think less of me if I fail.
  11. I'm constantly trying to improve myself.
  12. I'm unhappy if anything I do is considered average.
  13. My home and office need to be clean and orderly always.
  14. I feel inferior to others who are more intelligent, attractive, or successful than I.
  15. I must look my very best whenever I'm out in public.

Step Out of the Performance Trap

Perfectionists need to learn is to step out of the performance trap. Ironically, many perfectionists try so hard to earn love and acceptance from others by being outstanding and yet end up feeling rejected and inadequate. For instance, consider Kristen's story. She's the mother of three children and wife of a successful CEO. She's in her mid 40's, but looking at her you'd think she were 29 and spent most of her time at the health club and the beach. She's attractive, thin, sports a tan, and wears a bright smile. She and her kids seem to always look like they stepped out of a catalogue. And usually when you see them they're on their way to an activity. Kristen took a leadership role in all their activities: Room Mom in all three kids classes, teaching Sunday school, Scout Master for the local Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, and assistant soccer coach. And she loves to gather her friends and her kid's friends in her immaculate home. Other Moms get tired just hearing about all she's doing, but Kristen just keeps going.

No one would argue that Kristen is impressive and successful. Yet, inside she feels empty. Sitting on the couch in my office she cried, "It isn't enough. Nobody really loves me." I replied, "I think your family and friends would love you if they knew you. It's time that you shared your true self with them. Don't try to impress them so much. Just be yourself, and share some of your struggles and your inner feelings."

What Kristen learned was that she wouldn't feel loved and accepted by her family and close friends until they knew how she felt inside. She wasn't the seemingly perfect person people saw on the outside. Indeed, she was a high performer and a good person, but she also was an imperfect Christian woman, a wife with emotional needs, and a mother who struggled with her kids at times like any other mother. In addition to being more honest, she had to start putting limits on her activities and not worry so much about her accomplishments and her appearance. Instead she started paying more attention to her inner self and put more priority on developing her relationships.

Strive for Excellence, Not Perfection

Don't misunderstand me by thinking that I encouraged Kristen to settle for laziness and mediocrity. Quite the contrary, I encouraged her to strive for excellence. But first she needed to be free to be herself and to achieve more balance in her life between work and play, accomplishments and relationships. This enabled her not only to feel better about herself, but also to focus on what was most important to her and to her family. She decided to put most of her energy into her home life and into being an excellent Sunday School teacher and Room Mom and in doing so she had more to be proud of then ever before. The key to her success was that she focused on doing an excellent job in what was most important to her.

Focus. Perfectionists often have great trouble with focusing on priorities. They need to learn not to obsess about minor details, not to get compulsive about things that are irrelevant or of secondary importance, but to instead focus on putting their heart into the things that are most important. By taking a step back from her life to think about her activity level and her lifestyle and then to reprioritize Kristen was able to make some adjustments. She learned to spend less time dressing herself and her kids and more time relaxing and talking with them at the dinner table. She decided that being Scout Master and Assistant Soccer coach weren't as important to her as being involved in her church and her kids' school.

If you're a perfectionist, you too can defeat perfectionism before it defeats you. By being honest about who you really are and focusing on what's most important to you you'll find that you enjoy yourself more and achieve more than ever! Here are ten steps to help you get there.

Steps to Defeat Perfectionism with Excellence

  1. >Take a realistic look at how you're living and how you relate to others and yourself. Think and pray about the results of the Perfectionism survey above. (You might need to ask a friend to offer an objective opinion on this.) Set a goal to rebalance or reprioritize your life accordingly and get someone to hold you accountable to changing.
  2. Admit that you're imperfect and be honest with those you trust about your struggles and needs.
  3. Be balanced. You're a human being, not a human doing. There is more to life than what you can accomplish. Family, friends, and fun are important too.
  4. Step out of the performance trap by separating personhood from performance. You (and others) are loveable and valuable for who you are, with your unique personality, gifts, dreams, feelings, experiences. Hold your head high and develop good self-esteem!
  5. Don't "should" on yourself or others. Instead of making demands or unreasonable expectations on people and yourself take an attitude of "I would like to›" "I'm going to work towards›." "I'd appreciate it if you could›"
  6. Beginning is half done, so get started on realizing your goals. Don't let yourself procrastinate on your priority goals or you'll be moving towards failure.
  7. Strive to do an excellent job at what is most important to you, remembering that excellent means "very good," not perfect.
  8. When you're working on a project remember to enjoy the process.
  9. When you do a good job feel proud of yourself. When someone compliments you say thank you.
  10. Realize that no matter what your past failures and sins may be God loves you and offers his forgiveness to you through Jesus Christ. (Read John 3:16, Romans 8:1, and 1 John 1:9.)


By Dr. Bill Gaultiere

© 2003 NewHopeNow.org. Used by permission.