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COLUMN: Perfectionism: It’s really not all that it’s cracked up to be

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By John Lapp

Over the many years I have been a professional counselor, I have met many people who would qualify as perfectionists. Some are easy to be around, very pleasant and non-judgmental. Others seem to have an attitude that things should be done a certain way, usually projecting that too many people do things the “wrong” way, of course with the belief that they actually know the “right” way.
Perfectionists are often that way about some things, with high standards and orderliness included in their definition, but other areas do not get the same attention. Apparently so much energy is generated to maintain standards in some of these areas that other areas are completely neglected. An example of this is the person who keeps the interior of his automobile immaculate, with not a crumb or spot that could be noticed, so perfectly clean that one who becomes a passenger wonders if getting into the car with any sign of dirt on his shoes would irritate/ anger the owner, while the owner’s desk at his office, or living room at his home is quite messy, maybe even dirty.
Another prime example is the man whose shoelaces on each of his shoes must be tied the same way and the bows laying in the same direction, that his wife became irritated at this fastidious behavior. When she confronted him about this over-rigid behavior, he became quite angry and the marriage almost ended.
Perfectionism is basically unfulfilling because the goal is often beyond one’s ability to actually reach that goal, and it can even extend to being redefined to a higher level, a very exhausting and demanding task. It also makes relationships with other people more difficult, because they actually tire of it. It may even belittle the efforts of others because perfectionists may be as demanding on other people as they are on themselves. They often cause pain in others because of a supercritical attitude, correcting mistakes that others make because the others don’t do things the “right” way. They believe that others seem to be totally unable to understand the way things must be done. They don’t make for healthy members in a “team” effort.
Another example is that of a man whose garage was immaculate; pictures were hung on the walls of the garage.
This man would come home at night, would empty the contents of his pockets onto his dresser and arrange the items in a certain geometric pattern. His wife reportedly found great fun in occasionally spoiling the geometric patterns of the objects. (It is not known if he ever found out about this “fun”, perhaps believing that he occasionally not done it correctly.
One of the sad things about this type of behavior is that the perfectionist sees his self-worth as built on what he does, not so much, unfortunately, on who he is. He may believe that he is doing significant things and because of this, he actually does have some self-worth. The final result of this pattern is that he never quite arrives where he wants to, but he never stops striving because the goal is outside of his actual ability to reach. As a result, he has many regrets, with sounds of “could have”, “should have”, “would have” , and “if only”. It is often the case, finally, that he may work hard on a project until it is almost finished, but stops before it is completed because if it is not finished, it is not subject to an evaluation of how well, or not well he did.
Whether you or someone in your family, they may be spending an inordinate amount of time and energy striving to reach a goal that is actually unreachable. It’s good to have goals, and it is also good to do the best that you can, but it is not so good to always attempt to reach an “optimal” level. In fact, who is the one who has set the parameters of what is actually “optimal”. You can measure this against the following example: a perfect batting average in baseball would be 1.000, but anybody who know anything about the sport of baseball would say that a player whose batting average is .300 means that of 10 times at bat he got called ‘out’ seven times. This player is considered one of the ‘superstars’ when he plays at this level, no consideration given to the fact he got a ‘hit’ on only 3 of 10 times he was given the opportunity to get a ‘hit’ on all 10 of his chances.
So much for perfectionism! Do the best you can, whether baking a special dish, or playing a certain sport, or doing well in school or college, or in your employment, or being the best wife or husband ... but avoid trying to be perfect, it will not be worth the effort, spiritually, emotionally, or physically. For more information, call 477-2818.