Being a perfectionist tends to have a negative connotation in our society nowadays. When we picture a stereotypical perfectionist we see perfectly cleaned rooms with perfectly organized shelves and perfectly ironed cloths. The Oxford dictionary says perfectionism is “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.” Meaning a perfectionist is “a person who refuses to accept any standard short of perfection.”
In my mind, when I hear these definitions I think of Monk from the TV show and sort of shudder thinking of any being like that. At least I do when its meaning pushes this image of perfection. It is like Elder Cecil O. Samuelson said. “These good people suffer from exaggerating their minor mistakes, weaknesses, or shortcomings to the point that they may become dysfunctional.”
It is so ironic that we most often associate the word perfectionism with dysfunctional. That a perfectionist, who is trying to have such a high standard for themselves, is slightly broken.
This was how I pictured perfectionism until my church mission in Russia. I remember talking to the counselor in Moscow about certain problems with Obsessive Compulsive Thinking I seemed to have. She then asked me a very pointed question: “Aubrey, do you think you are a perfectionist?” I was taken aback. There was no way I could POSSIBLY be. I mean, I was no Monk. But then, after reading some articles she sent me, everything from my life started clicking together.
I looked at the signs of may be perfectionists and surprisingly saw myself (Refer to this article for more information.)
- All or Nothing Thinking, where anything less then perfect isn’t good enough. Yep. Throughout my schooling I always had very high expectations for myself in regards to grades, reading and how much I knew. If I did not meet my intended vision, what I did wasn’t good enough.
- Critical Eye, being very critical of themselves and others. I see every aspect of my weaknesses and I remember them. I have an uncanny memory for my mistakes and weaknesses. I also am very observant of others’ shortcomings.
- Push vs. Pull, to be pushed toward their goals by a fear of not reaching them and see anything less than a perfectly met goal as a failure. I was not one to pull myself up to meet goals. I tended to be pushed by this ever present fear of failure.
- Unrealistic Standards, having unreasonable self standards. The best example I can think for this in my life is when I started learning Russian. I wanted to know the entire language in 8 weeks. A feat which usually takes 8 years. I set a bizarre standard on my self and consequently, I was miserable most of those 8 weeks.
- Focus on Results, seeing nothing but the goal and hardly any of the journey to get there. This manifested most profoundly in my writing. I had to either write the entire paper perfectly in one go, or it was no good. I barely ever used outlines or drafts.
- Depressed by Unmet Goals, being unable to bounce back or be positive about failure. Failure has always, always been hard for me. I remember each failure years later. “If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.” is a phrase I have therefore struggled with for a long time.
- Fear of Failure, so much is stake in the results, the fear of failing is overwhelming. I have many times been frozen in place mentally because I am so afraid of failing. Example, I tried to do handstands in my B3 yoga class several years ago. As I watched everyone so much farther along than me physically, I faced the wall and immediately laid down. The thought of me be unable to succeed was almost unbearable.
- Procrastination, “fearing failure as they do, perfectionists will sometimes worry so much about doing something imperfectly that they become immobilized and fail to do anything at all.” Such a mindset has often possessed me. Like from my aforementioned example, it manifests most in yoga. I oftentimes freeze while trying to do hard poses because I know in my heart I can’t do them perfectly yet and I don’t want anyone to witness my shortcomings.
- Defensiveness, taking constructive criticism is hard. When I am at my lowest, I do everything in my power to never have to receive criticism of any kind because I do become defensive and unable to think clearly beyond the weaknesses they have pointed out.
- Low Self-Esteem, because they have such high standards, it manifests as low self-esteem. I see this most in myself in my physical health. I have had to fight hard to gain a love for myself and how I look.
Looking at this list is very daunting. I see all these signs in myself and wonder how I have been able to achieve anything.
I have to wonder if have these tendencies are necessarily a bad thing. Though I sometimes find myself falling into a pit of fear or even self-criticism, I have come along way from the small third grade self who lamented not getting hundreds on her multiplication tests.
So I re-looked at the list and found my strengths resting nestled among my weaknesses. I have also found ways to overcome the greater challenges I mentioned in the list before.
- All or Nothing Thinking. Because I have high expectations for myself, it has helped me avoid unnecessary debt, addictions, and self destructive behavior. The all doesn’t have to come now. I’ve learned to slowly, over time, take small steps towards self improvement.
- . Critical Eye. To be critical is not necessarily a negative thing. The definition of critical can also mean, ” expressing or involving an analysis of the merits and faults of a work of literature, music, or art.” Because I am very observant of faults and failures it means I am ALSO very observant of masterful or beautiful things. I created for me a love of reading, watching and observing the wonders of this world and really analyzing them. All to bring to my life a greater understanding of the world.
- Push vs. Pull. I’ve found as time has gone forward I have switched more to a push and pull mindset. I know my goal, feel the internal push toward it and then methodically take smaller steps to reach it. I’ve learned to use such a vice as a spring board towards higher achievements.
- Unrealistic Standards. Tricky as this one is I’ve learned that unrealistic standards can also be interpreted as “high aspirations”. I’ve also learned to shift my focus from myself to others. For example: “I have to learn Russian in 8 weeks” vs. “I want to learn Russian as fast as I can so I can really speak to the Russian people.” Truly this mindset would have really helped me on my mission. But I needed to grow into it.
- Focus on Results. Again, this is not really a bad thing unless the end goal completely overwhelms me. I keep in the forefront mind what I expect from myself and work hard to achieve it.
- Depressed by Unmet Goals. This has been one of the hardest for me. The best I can say is, I try my hardest to look past the failure and the opportunities still before me. I keep in my mind Walt Disney’s phrase, “Keep Moving Forward.”
- Fear of Failure. This trick is to push through the fear and see it for what it is. Once I see it for what it is I take a step back, breathe and envision puling myself up if I do fail. I think, I will be alright. There is always one more try than the one before to get it right.
- Procrastination. Catch it. Then move on. This is no longer a vice which plagues me.
- Defensiveness. I have to tell myself if ever I receive criticism that it has nothing to do with my worth as a person. I have also learned to embrace the phrase, “I don’t know.” There is such relief in not having to know everything. If I can do these two things, I find I become less and less defensive when being corrected.
- Low Self-Esteem. I have learned to turn my low self esteem into humility. But also I’ve tried over the years to take care of and love my body the best that I can. It is hard to hate one’s self if one tries their best to take care of themselves physically, mentally and spiritually.
There you have it. Even though there are times where I wonder about my imperfections and feel frozen by fear, I’ve felt such relief over the years as these aspects of my character no longer seem like a burden.
I can’t take complete credit for myself for these breakthroughs in my life. Honestly, the greatest joy I’ve found is in creating a relationship with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. These relationships have helped me the most.
I’ve had so many experiences on and since my mission where I have simply sat, meditated, and felt God’s love for me. The best changes in my life have come not through my merit of character but when I stopped to feel and know how much God loves me. It has meant so much to know him and want to change. At the root of my change isn’t an overshadowing feeling of guilt but a firm desire to become like Christ.
It is hard to feel love such as Heavenly Father’s and not want to change for the better.
I believe most perfectionists fail to know they are not alone on life’s journey. That is why they are stuck. True relief comes in knowing and living with god day to day.
“The difficulties of life do not have to be unbearable. It is the way we look at them – through faith or unbelief – that makes them seem so. We must be convinced that our Father is full of love for us and that He only permits trials to come our way for our own good.
Let us occupy ourselves entirely in knowing God. The more we know Him, the more we will desire to know Him. As love increases with knowledge, the more we know God, the more we will truly love Him. We will learn to love Him equally in times of distress or in times of great joy.”Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God
Being a perfectionist is not a bad thing unless we let our imperfections and fear take over us. We must strive towards better goals and seek the divine.
Thank you for reading!