Imperfect Perfectionism

[Introspection, and a bit of unoriginal psychology.]

Like many people, I tend to think of myself as having a perfectionist streak, and I think that’s reasonably justified. Upon entering my school’s french immersion program in grade 7, I had a fairly major meltdown due to the sudden increase in difficulty and workload, and the concomitant reduction in my grades. I used to think of myself as having “gotten over” the worst of my perfectionism in working through that incident, but that’s giving myself too much credit. Perfectionism is in my blood.

My belief that I’d “gotten over it” was surely bolstered in part by the oft-repeated descriptions of perfectionism coming from other people I talked to, the media, etc. as a little voice saying “you’re not good enough”, or “you’re not talented enough”. After all, these are phrases that I basically never say to myself, or believe of myself in most aspects of my life. If anything my ego is flawed in the other direction; I have a deep-seated confidence that I have the capacity to do just about anything if I put in the necessary time and effort. Obviously there are physical limitations – I’ll never play in the NBA at my height – but I sincerely believe that I could become a successful doctor, lawyer, actor, pro curler… standing in my way of these goals is time and effort, not talent.

But as I learned recently, perfectionism comes in many guises. For a lot of people, it seems to come in the way I described, to question their talent. This certainly seems to be the predominant form talked about. But for me and surely for others, perfectionism never doubts my talent. Instead, it doubts my effort.

When something I do doesn’t measure up to my impossible standards, I don’t hear a little voice saying “you’re not good enough”, I hear one saying “you didn’t try hard enough”. When I got a question wrong in school, it was never “you’re not smart enough”, it was always “you didn’t study hard enough”. And when I somehow end the workday further behind on my to-do list than when I started, I don’t hear “you’re not good enough for this job”, I hear “work harder”.

This makes it really difficult to disconnect at the end of the day.

Oh, it’s easy enough now to close the laptop and physically walk away from my desk; I built that habit through sheer force of necessity. Dinner won’t make itself. But it’s really hard to get that stress out of my head. It seems wrong to spend my evening on something frivolous like TV or a book when there’s something imperfect at work, and I can fix it by working harder. After all, anything that goes wrong is my fault because I just didn’t try hard enough.

I guess the stress is better than the alternative, which seems to be workaholic tendencies. At least when I distract myself with something sufficiently engaging I can usually forget about it until it actually goes away. But I think perhaps I would do better to acknowledge that perfectionism is still a major force in my life, and try to deal with the problem at its root.

Maybe then I’ll be perfect.

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