The Perils of Perfectionism

Had you ever had moments where you faced a challenge and your attempts to resolve it perfectly led to a bigger quandary? We all have moments that cry for a do-over, but those of us with sensitive nervous systems must try even harder to reign in our reactions and keep negative situations from spiraling.

“Leaving Well Enough Alone”

For instance, early in the days of my recovery from CRPS, a rare pain disorder, I spent a large portion of each day reclined in bed. Having recently purchased a new foam mattress that cost more than my first car; I had procrastinated over the additional expense of a waterproof cover. This oversight haunted me, as a stain would void the warranty and my new latex mattress had already developed a slight dip.

As I eased back in bed, my water bottle toppled over and rolled into a channel in the center of the bed.  The partially unsealed cap had produced not a slow leak, but a geyser. I yanked back the covers to inspect the damage. My husband offered to help, but I had a better idea and hobbled off to find a blow dryer. The water had almost evaporated but it left a border behind. In my mind, it had morphed into one of the Great Lakes. I vigorously scrubbed it with a stain remover, only to make it stand out more.

In the end I had to laugh at myself as I was reminded of the classic Mr. Bean episode Guarding Whistler’s Mother. For those of you unfamiliar with the bumbling Mr. Bean, he is given the task of guarding a famous painting on loan to a museum, when suddenly he sneezes and sprays phlegm all over the painting. Panicked, he pulls a handkerchief out of his pocket and proceeds to frantically rub the prized painting, unaware that his fountain pen had sprung a leak and saturated the hanky with blue ink.  A series of ridiculous attempts to cover up the giant blotch soon follow.

While most of us do not make blunders of epic proportions, we all are familiar with overworking or overthinking a problem until our “monkey brain” cannot find a way out.  Our drive to optimize a situation is often propelled by a tendency towards perfectionism.  My obsessive scrubbing – and Mr. Bean’s- was fueled by fear. Fear that my mattress might need to be returned and that the warranty would be rejected due to the stain. Ironically the mattress I fretted over was fine after all; the problem was the sagging frame that it sat on. Things do sag when not properly grounded, including our emotions!

Are You a Closet Perfectionist?

Perfectionists are not just people who have their clothes color-coded by seasons and shoes lined up in military precision. Psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD offers more clues on perfectionism in an article in Psychology Today and suggests that”You may be a perfectionist and not even know it.”  So what are the signs, according to Lombardo, of obsessive thinking and perfectionism?

• Fixating on mistakes (you will focus on the one thing that you got wrong.)

• Viewing events or people in extreme terms (a “bad” day is a disaster. You take an all or nothing approach to life).

• Acting in a controlling way (micromanaging, as you cannot trust others to do the work as well as you).

• Over-using the word SHOULD (as if there are unspoken rules to follow – you or other people).

• Setting high standards for yourself and for others (and expecting others to share the same standards).

• Depending on accomplishments for self-confidence and validation (and the reactions of others to these achievements).

• Setting new goals – as soon as you meet a goal, you start thinking of the next one.

• Fearing failure (fretting over whether there is a better choice or action- which can lead to inaction or procrastination).

The Paralysis of Perfection

Several of these themes are paralleled in an article by Paula Prober on a website for sensitive people, Highly Sensitive Refuge. Prober describes how sensitive people often feel that they fail to live up to their full potential. The joy of pursuing passions pales next to the pain of not measuring up: “The internal pressure to be a high achiever can lead to a perfectionist paralysis and a sense of letting people down.”

Ironically, overachieving can look like underachieving, as the fear of not doing something perfectly can prevent people from finishing– or even starting. I have seen elementary school students too paralyzed by perfectionism to even put their name on their paper, lest it be on the wrong side or not written neatly enough. They will obsessively redo their work and create holes in their paper from all the erasing. This kind of fear would make it hard for any of us to complete a task that requires vulnerability, whether turning in homework, sending an email, or delivering a work report.

It is interesting to me to see digital-age students in schools today gravitating towards witeout or liquid paper. (For the perfectionists out there, this is the product name, not a typo!) A product invented in the 1950s has maintained a 10% increase in sales in the last 2 years, even with the decline of paper and printer sales. It is the written version of a do-over!

Embracing Imperfection

Are you the type that goes through 20 sample colors to paint one room and still remain undecided? What looks no different in color to the rest of the family is glaringly obvious to you. (I confess to having shelves of quart paint cans in my garage.)

Similarly, when a publisher sent me the cover proofs for my book, What Could Go Wrong? I agonized over the cover proofs.  The brightness of the color was perfect, but the clarity was not. When the printer remediated this little crisis, the fuzziness was fixed, but the colors were now a darker shade. I approved the print run anyway, afraid to invite new problems. Then the first bound-book arrived in the mail and I immediately stressed over typos that I -and the editor and proofreaders- all missed. That were suddenly all so obvious. Ten years later, people are still enjoying my imperfect book.

In fact, just this month a stranger wrote me to say:  “I feel as if I know you from the way you write. I usually don’t read a lot but this book has got to me where I don’t want to put it down. To say the least, it is a great read. You have really outdone yourself. Do you have any future book writings on the horizon? If not, you should consider it.”

Maybe we all need to give ourselves a boost of encouragement like this stranger did for me. And learn to quiet that inner critic and become our own biggest cheerleader. Sometimes less than perfect is good enough!  

Passion or Obsession

Perfectionist types can also plunge into a topic with an intensity that borders on obsessive. We think it’s normal to read health journals for fun. And may inundate friends and family with details, assuming everyone will be equally interested. Paula Prober writes, “Your passion for learning is the fire hose to their garden hose.” Thus a desire to know everything about a topic can overwhelm both the perfectionist and the listener and manifest in too much talking, questioning, or analyzing.

This tendency, however, lends itself well to certain job fields–we perfectionists can be compassionate, empathetic sorts who enjoy helping others. And there are other advantages too, as perfectionists might discover challenging health diagnoses sooner than those who do less research and who will better tolerate an imperfectly functioning body! But all that ruminating and overthinking can result in anxiety or sleeplessness.

Facing Fear

A perfectionist mindset can also lead to unfinished projects or untapped potential, which takes a toll on self-worth. We may never discover if we will write the next New York Times bestseller or find a cure for cancer, though we creative types have lots of ideas–they just do not always make it out it out of our heads or our hard drives. Our mind brims with good intentions, causing us to plunge enthusiastically into new projects. Only to stall when we are not fully satisfied with our efforts. We hear “practice makes perfect,” but who really sets that standard and is it really reachable?

As writer Suzy Kassem says, “Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.” In working with gifted high school students over the years, I discovered that insecurity is universal. When asked what they were most fearful of, many students’ responses revolved around not doing enough or being enough.


“Regret… Mediocrity… Never being satisfied…That I’ll never be happy…Not being my best self…Not living my fullest self.. Doing nothing with my life. Not being intelligent enough..Not being good enough…Disappointing myself and others…Failure…Disappointing my parents and being a disgrace to my family…Being rejected…Being alone…Forgotten…That no one will love me.”

Finding Calm

It is hard to become our best selves, help others and save the world if we keep second-guessing ourselves! To fully tap into our abilities, we need to give the brain a break and embrace mindfulness or retreat into nature. That happy place or Zen state looks different for all of us. For some of you that might be reading a book, photographing a flower, or simply acting silly with friends. But we all need to give ourselves permission to take down time without the need to be productive. And find contentment in just “being.”

Perhaps before figuring out what we most out of life and our relationships, we have to first answer what holds us back. Or what feeds our passion. And accept the fact that there is no perfect plan to finding our purpose. Psychotherapist Paula Prober reminds us to embrace our sensitive, dramatic, emotional, curious, and smart selves. “Your goals of balance, beauty, harmony, precision, and justice just might create a better world.”

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2 thoughts on “The Perils of Perfectionism

  1. This is a great article. I laughed out loud at the mattress/Mr Bean stories! Lots of good food for thought! Thank you.

    1. Thanks Rie! It is good to see humor in the predicaments we get ourselves into. Even if they seem funnier after the fact. 🙂 I was struck with how many overlaps there were between sensitive people and perfectionists.

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