Dr. Bill Gaultiere
Executive Director of New Hope
nearly two decades of toning down my perfectionistic tendencies
and learning to be happy and at peace being an imperfect person
in an imperfect world I finally gave in. Enough is enough I decided!
I indulged my irrational, dysfunctional desire for perfection
and just gave in. I sought perfection in one part of my life -
I have a
small walk-in closet in our master bedroom and I decided to go
all out and make it perfect. I got a closet organizer system,
new hangers, and arranged all my clothes. Now my closet is clean
and white and organized. All my clothes are in there, where they
belong, and hanging on nice, wood hangers. It makes picking out
my clothes in the morning so much easier. And when I'm having
a bad day or things in my life seem messed up I can go in my perfect
closet and stay there until I feel better!
All kidding aside (I don't hang out it my closet), perfectionism
is a serious and painful problem for many people and their loved
ones. You can see that if I spent hours every day basking in the
perfection of my closet and neglecting God, my family, or my work
I'd have a problem! Or if I insisted on neatness and order in
my wife's closet or my kid's rooms or tried to control the choices
of my family and friends or was critical of people who weren't
perfect enough then it'd be a problem not only for me, but also
for other people. Fortunately, I've learned not to do those things!
to many different types of perfectionists - people who are compulsively
perfectionistic about how they look, what they achieve, what others
think of them, what they feel, a relationship, their romantic
partner, their expectations for other people, or keeping their
home or office immaculate. For these perfectionists, when their
compulsion is not ideal (which is almost all the time) they feel
bad, beset with inner feelings like inferiority, inadequacy, guilt,
anxiety, jealousy, or emptiness. They think, "If it's not perfect
then it's bad" or "If I can't do it right then I won't do it at
all." This kind of black and white, all-or-nothing thinking gets
perfectionists into trouble. They often procrastinate, neglect
responsibilities and commitments, or isolate from others. And
even when they have succeeded they don't enjoy their success.
"It could've been even better," they think, or they've already
moved on to perfecting their next project.
perfectionism has a tragic end: suicide. One apparent and well-known
example is that of former deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster.
Prior to his time in Washington D.C. his life looked super successful
and spotless: first in his law school class, highest score on
the Arkansas bar exam, partner in a prestigious law firm, stable
marriage and family, popular, a sterling reputation. It all unraveled,
especially the sterling reputation, when things went wrong at
the White House in the early months of the Clinton administration.
He couldn't remedy the situation and he felt responsible. To make
matters worse, the media was all over him, questioning his integrity
and competence. His reputation had been destroyed. He killed himself
in July of 1993.
never take it to this tragic end, but Vincent Foster's story illustrates
just how increasingly consuming and destructive a problem perfectionism
can become if its not addressed. If you or someone you know struggles
with perfectionism know that there is hope. There is help for
perfectionists! It all begins with identifying that the perfectionism
is a problem that has gotten out of control.
Are You a
Take the following short survey to help you see to what extent
you may have perfectionistic tendencies. For each question below
answer "yes" if it's generally true of you and "no" if it's generally
not true of you.
Step Out of the
- I often
think that I should've done better than I did.
- I tend
to put things off if I don't have the time to do them perfectly.
- I'm afraid
to fail when working on an important project.
- I strive
to impress others with my best qualities or accomplishments.
- I think
less of myself if I repeat a mistake.
- I strive
to maintain control of my emotions at all times.
- I get
upset when things don't go as planned.
- I am often
disappointed in the quality of other people's work.
- I feel
that my standards couldn't be too high.
- I'm afraid
that people will think less of me if I fail.
- I'm constantly
trying to improve myself.
- I'm unhappy
if anything I do is considered average.
- My home
and office need to be clean and orderly always.
- I feel
inferior to others who are more intelligent, attractive, or
successful than I.
- I must
look my very best whenever I'm out in public.
Perfectionists need to learn is to step out of the performance trap.
Ironically, many perfectionists try so hard to earn love and acceptance
from others by being outstanding and yet end up feeling rejected
and inadequate. For instance, consider Kristen's story. She's the
mother of three children and wife of a successful CEO. She's in
her mid 40's, but looking at her you'd think she were 29 and spent
most of her time at the health club and the beach. She's attractive,
thin, sports a tan, and wears a bright smile. She and her kids seem
to always look like they stepped out of a catalogue. And usually
when you see them they're on their way to an activity. Kristen took
a leadership role in all their activities: Room Mom in all three
kids classes, teaching Sunday school, Scout Master for the local
Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, and assistant soccer coach. And
she loves to gather her friends and her kid's friends in her immaculate
home. Other Moms get tired just hearing about all she's doing, but
Kristen just keeps going.
No one would
argue that Kristen is impressive and successful. Yet, inside she
feels empty. Sitting on the couch in my office she cried, "It
isn't enough. Nobody really loves me." I replied, "I think your
family and friends would love you if they knew you. It's time
that you shared your true self with them. Don't try to impress
them so much. Just be yourself, and share some of your struggles
and your inner feelings."
learned was that she wouldn't feel loved and accepted by her family
and close friends until they knew how she felt inside. She wasn't
the seemingly perfect person people saw on the outside. Indeed,
she was a high performer and a good person, but she also was an
imperfect Christian woman, a wife with emotional needs, and a
mother who struggled with her kids at times like any other mother.
In addition to being more honest, she had to start putting limits
on her activities and not worry so much about her accomplishments
and her appearance. Instead she started paying more attention
to her inner self and put more priority on developing her relationships.
Excellence, Not Perfection
Don't misunderstand me by thinking that I encouraged Kristen to
settle for laziness and mediocrity. Quite the contrary, I encouraged
her to strive for excellence. But first she needed to be free
to be herself and to achieve more balance in her life between
work and play, accomplishments and relationships. This enabled
her not only to feel better about herself, but also to focus on
what was most important to her and to her family. She decided
to put most of her energy into her home life and into being an
excellent Sunday School teacher and Room Mom and in doing so she
had more to be proud of then ever before. The key to her success
was that she focused on doing an excellent job in what was most
important to her.
often have great trouble with focusing on priorities. They need
to learn not to obsess about minor details, not to get compulsive
about things that are irrelevant or of secondary importance, but
to instead focus on putting their heart into the things that are
most important. By taking a step back from her life to think about
her activity level and her lifestyle and then to reprioritize
Kristen was able to make some adjustments. She learned to spend
less time dressing herself and her kids and more time relaxing
and talking with them at the dinner table. She decided that being
Scout Master and Assistant Soccer coach weren't as important to
her as being involved in her church and her kids' school.
a perfectionist, you too can defeat perfectionism before it defeats
you. By being honest about who you really are and focusing on
what's most important to you you'll find that you enjoy yourself
more and achieve more than ever! Here are ten steps to help you
Defeat Perfectionism with Excellence
- Take a
realistic look at how you're living and how you relate to others
and yourself. Think and pray about the results of the Perfectionism
survey above. (You might need to ask a friend to offer an objective
opinion on this.) Set a goal to rebalance or reprioritize your
life accordingly and get someone to hold you accountable to
that you're imperfect and be honest with those you trust about
your struggles and needs.
- Be balanced.
You're a human being, not a human doing. There is more to life
than what you can accomplish. Family, friends, and fun are important
- Step out
of the performance trap by separating personhood from performance.
You (and others) are loveable and valuable for who you are,
with your unique personality, gifts, dreams, feelings, experiences.
Hold your head high and develop good self-esteem!
"should" on yourself or others. Instead of making demands or
unreasonable expectations on people and yourself take an attitude
of "I would like to›" "I'm going to work towards›." "I'd appreciate
it if you could›"
is half done, so get started on realizing your goals. Don't
let yourself procrastinate on your priority goals or you'll
be moving towards failure.
to do an excellent job at what is most important to you, remembering
that excellent means "very good," not perfect.
- When you're
working on a project remember to enjoy the process.
- When you
do a good job feel proud of yourself. When someone compliments
you say thank you.
that no matter what your past failures and sins may be God loves
you and offers his forgiveness to you through Jesus Christ.
(Read John 3:16, Romans 8:1, and 1 John 1:9.)