Perfection: The Myth and the Magic

Admitting the Problem

What I call myself now is a recovering perfectionist. Like any good program of recovery, this involves a journey to move from problem to solution. And, like any good program of recovery, it begins with being willing to admit that you have a problem. Are you, too, a perfectionist or in your recovery?

As far back as I can remember I was a perfectionist. I have vivid memories of staying up into the middle of the night in elementary school desperately working on the finishing touches of a school project, dragging my ever-willing mother into the chaos. This is also poor planning. What’s fascinating is that so many perfectionists are also procrastinators. That was me for sure.

It’s kind of ironic, because if you were so obsessed with perfection, you’d think that you would also have the perfect plan to execute the whole thing. But instead, the impending weight of achieving perfection status looms large; the pressure to achieve perfection is heavy – how does one attempt to crawl out from all this weight and pressure? Where does one even begin?!

People who aren’t perfectionists don’t get it. They do well-adjusted things like start on projects ahead of time and tweak as they go. They accept when something is great, maybe even good enough. If you are a perfectionist reading this, you just cringed a little at the words “good enough.” I did, too. Old habits die hard.

When I was in high school, my AP English teacher was a sadistic man who took a whole class of over-achieving perfectionists and conducted what I can only imagine was a sick social experiment. He invented a new grading system.

Instead of only being able to strive for an A, he created a double-A and a triple-A. Let me point out that these grades did not improve your grade point average because they were entirely made up. But every single one of us in that class over-achieved and strived for that illusive triple-A. You could not have convinced me to strive only for a lowly A. I wasn’t some chump that only got A’s when there were AAA’s to be had.

The Heart of the Matter

This is the heart of perfectionism: it has little to do with outside standards and comes entirely from within. No one outside that class even knew what a triple-A was and there was no proof we had even achieved them since it couldn’t change our grade point averages. We did this solely in the pursuit of our own perfection.

Now, having inner drive should not be confused with being a perfectionist. Having an intense inner drive can be a great thing when used appropriately. When I’m at the gym, I don’t need anyone yelling at me to “TURN IT UP” or “GET IT.” I’ll get it myself just fine, thank you. I have an inner drive, but I am also a perfectionist.

We also see people striving for perfection in sports or athletic endeavors and it’s usually hailed as a good thing. No one says, oh that guy made it to the Olympics? Pssh what a perfectionist. Or, why are those guys trying so hard, what are they trying to do – win a Super Bowl? What about the Oscars, the Grammy’s, the Nobel Prize? It’s not always a bad thing to strive for this level of achievement.

So why do perfectionists get such a bad rap?

The Mythical Place of Perfection

Past the point of grand achievement lies a place called excellence, and past the place of excellence lies a shiny, fictional place called “perfection.” The problem is, perfection doesn’t exist. When we spend all our time trying to achieve something that doesn’t exist, we drive ourselves crazy.

There’s a fine line between achieving excellence and being a perfectionist. Perfectionism is something that an outsider likely couldn’t pinpoint in a stranger. But if you yourself are a perfectionist, you know. You know the feeling of driving yourself batty chasing after these unicorns in the sky (they don’t exist).

The Road to Recovery

So how can we use our perfectionist tendencies for good? I have two solutions.

  1. Don’t BE a perfectionist.

Be someone who strives towards perfection, and on the way lands at achievement or even excellence. When you get to achievement or excellence, stop there and take it in. Revel in it. Be extraordinarily happy. No one is saying you have to give up this drive to achieve greatness and stop at so-so, good enough, or half-assery.

We NEED people in this world who dare to strive for greatness. Just don’t let it stop you from getting started. We don’t help anyone and we don’t change anything if we don’t get started.

Like my husband once told me:

It doesn’t have to be perfect. It WILL be perfect, but it doesn’t have to be perfect before you start.”

  1. Change your perception of perfection.

There are two kinds of perfection in this world. There’s the kind that drives us batty as we strive so hard towards the pursuit of something that doesn’t exist. It’s the kind that makes us feel like we can’t let go of control and allow the world to just flow because we have to make sure we put all the pieces together just perfectly.

But there’s also a second kind of perfection. This is the kind of perfection we can see after the fact. After we’ve let go of control and allowed the world to flow in its mysterious and magical and confusing ways. The kind that allows us to look back and go: “wow, funny how that all worked out. That was PERFECT.

That kind of perfection requires a degree of trust – in ourselves, in the world, in something greater than us perhaps. It’s the kind of perfection that might not make any sense at all while it’s happening. But how many times have we gotten through a period of time or a project or a relationship and looked back only to realize it couldn’t have happened any other way, or that the timing just wasn’t right until it was, or that we learned something amazing along the way?

When you start to notice that kind of perfection in your life – smile. Laugh out loud at how confusingly perfect everything is.

That kind of perfection does exist. And it’s truly magical.

Daily Mantra Practice:

Worried that life isn’t going according to your plan?

Finding it hard to let go and allow things to flow in their mysterious ways?

Are you carrying that heavy weight of perfectionism?

Instead of letting the stress overwhelm you, try this simple everyday practice that helps to promote a sense of peace instead.

Pause, take three deep breaths, and repeat this mantra:

Everything is unfolding perfectly.

Try repeating this throughout your day; the key is to really FEEL it as though it’s already happening. Picture yourself standing tall and vibrant without that heavy weight on your shoulders, imagine the peace you’ll feel when you can gently begin to relax your grip of control, envision yourself radiating joyfulness and ease as you begin to witness the mysteries of life unfolding.

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  • Bill Goins May 27, 2018, 6:32 pm

    Very interesting story about your AP English teacher when you were in high school and the AAA system he created.
    A good story to tell in this blog.

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