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Seeking Perfectionism?

Body+Soul, Volume 2 June 2005

Our life coach helps a client see that when it comes to happiness, making mistakes is an essential part of the mix.

A drive to make things "right" is pretty central to day-to-day life -- the dirty dishes would never leave the sink otherwise. But some people consistently take "right" to an extreme, and that's a problem.

I had an opportunity to explore this issue with Kendall, a Seattle woman who felt paralyzed by perfectionism, which was negatively affecting her health and happiness -- and her marriage.

Kendall is a 44-year-old physician, a thoroughly together grown-up -- except for the childhood legacy she carried into adulthood: a drive to get everything "just so." My suspicion was that this stemmed from having a parent who had a comment for everything. "My mother was extremely critical," she told me. "I was constantly on guard, waiting for the next blow."

Perfectionism like Kendall's is a common trait caused by, among other things, the pressure of our too-fast-paced society and the unrealistic expectations of others.

What's interesting about perfectionism is that it's both a blessing and a curse. At its best, it inspires excellence. At its worst, it creates an obsession with meeting inhumane standards that can cause anxiety, low self-esteem, and the feeling of never living up to one's potential. The trick is to find a healthy balance.

Are You a Perfectionist?
If you answer "yes" to three or more of these questions, perfectionism may be negatively affecting your life. I highly recommend these two books: "Too Perfect" by Dr. Allan E. Mallinger and Jeannette DeWyze, and "Never Good Enough" by Dr. Monica Ramirez Basco.

1. Do you spend too much time trying to get things "just right"?

2. Does taking time off to rest, relax, or have fun make you feel so guilty that you can't enjoy yourself?

3. Do you have trouble making decisions, laboring over details until you reach the point of exhaustion?

4. Would your friends or others close to you call you a control freak?

5. Do you have a hard time accepting help or delegating because you're convinced that no one can do something as well as you can?

6. Do you often feel afraid that you'll never live up to the standards you imagine others set for you?

7. Do you often procrastinate on completing tasks because of the pressure you feel to do them perfectly?

Kendall had a big challenge. In four weeks of work together, could she unlock the hold that the desire for perfection had over her life and get to a happier medium? Here's what happened.

As a first step toward finding a better balance, Kendall needed to really examine how perfectionism was affecting her life -- both the bad ways and the good.

I suggested she start making a list that would include a detailed account of the perfection-driven behaviors she engaged in as well as a description of the costs and the benefits of living this way. A week later, Kendall and I got together and went over her notes.

One thing was clear: Her perfectionism expressed itself in the unreasonable way she judged herself against the perceived expectations of others -- an agonizing way to live.

"I see my perfectionism in the way I look -- not leaving the house until my clothes, hair, and makeup are in perfect order," she says. "I see it in my emails, being so anal about punctuation and grammar and spending a ridiculous amount of time reading and rereading them before I hit 'send.' I worry about having said something 'wrong' in a meeting or something that offended a friend."

And she reluctantly admitted that she didn't expect perfection from just herself. "My husband would tell you that I'm very good at recognizing and pointing out the mistakes that others make, too."

The Price of Perfectionism
Listening to Kendall, it occurred to me that although these behaviors might seem like little things, they extract a high price. When we constantly monitor our actions, it's like living under the scrutiny of an inner tyrant -- a critic who robs us of joy, personal power, and the satisfaction of a job well done. We only see what doesn't work.

And by this time in Kendall's life, the costs had gotten steep. She was "exhausted all the time," she said, both physically weary and tired of being the "hard-working gal," always so disciplined and hyper-responsible.

Her obsessive work habits -- the overattention to e-mails, excessive note-taking at meetings, chronic second-guessing of her business decisions -- were adding to the stress.

And her tendency to be overly critical of others was affecting her relationships, especially her marriage. Kendall's husband had expressed feeling like he walked on eggshells around her, afraid of being reprimanded or criticized for making a mistake, and she could feel his defensiveness becoming a barrier to deeper intimacy.

But as unpleasant as all this was, our goal wasn't to eradicate Kendall's perfectionism altogether. When we looked at the gifts of Kendall's need for perfection, it was clear that she was a woman of honesty and integrity who cared deeply for others.

Her attention to detail at work was a boon to her patients. Her work ethic earned her the respect of her boss and her colleagues. And her reliability made her a trustworthy friend; Kendall always kept her word.

It was important that she see the good things about this trait of hers. Like most perfectionists, as much as she judged others she was ruthless with herself; developing more self-compassion was critical.

Hence Kendall's next assignment: a field trip designed to open her heart. She was to visit a local park and observe young children playing. I suggested she focus on one child -- a girl maybe 5 or 6 years old -- and imagine what it's like to be that young and constantly scrutinized and corrected.

To describe her in-the-park observations as "eye-opening" would be an understatement: "I watched this beautiful little girl playing on the swings and found myself remembering what it was like growing up in my house," Kendall told me. "I heard my mother yelling at me; I felt that old fear of not knowing what I had done wrong. I imagined that little girl having to live up to those standards, and it broke my heart," she said. "No wonder I'm such a control freak! I'm still trying to be the good girl who doesn't make waves. I need to give myself a break."

This revelation set the stage for our last phase: softening the hard edges of Kendall's perfectionism so she could relax a bit and start to enjoy her life. "Good enough" would be a new standard in certain areas; a few harmless "mistakes" would be fine, even preferable.

So up went a sign on her bathroom mirror that read "Go Ahead, Make Mistakes," so she was reminded every day to take a few risks.

I then had her do simple things to underscore the fact that the world wouldn't fall apart if she were less than perfect, like sending emails to friends in lowercase letters without reviewing them for errors, and leaving for work in the morning with the house in disarray.

And to begin lowering the wall between her and her husband, I suggested that when she noticed him making what she'd normally consider to be mistakes, she stop and ask herself, "How important is this?" before saying a word.

Small steps, yes, but these were the small things that had been chipping away at Kendall's happiness; addressing them had made an appreciable difference in the quality of her life by the end of the four weeks.

By then, Kendall was enjoying the freedom of sending emails without suffering over the content. She was worrying less about her appearance, worrying less about whether she'd said something "wrong." Already her husband had noticed a difference, and his reaction was noticeable, too. "He seems more relaxed and is opening up more," she said, "something I've wanted for a long time."

We had met our challenge. Kendall was well on her way to feeling more relaxed and at ease with herself and less trapped by her perfectionist tendencies.

"This work has taken me to places I couldn't have imagined before; I've regained some movement and momentum," she said. "I know in my soul that perfectionism is part of who I am and that it has its place in my life, but it won't hold me hostage again."

Sounds perfect to me.

Cheryl's Imperfect Plan
If perfectionism affects your quality of life, try this three-phase plan over the next four weeks to achieve a happier balance.

Phase 1: Examine Your Perfectionism
Awareness is the key when it comes to making positive change. To begin the process of making peace with perfectionism, answer these three questions in a journal or notebook.

1. How does perfectionism express itself in your life? For one week, note the behaviors and habits that reflect an obsessive need to do things perfectly. Because it can be tough, especially for a perfectionist, to see one's own behavior, ask a friend or family member for his or her observations. It's important to choose someone who can share this perspective in a safe and loving way.

2. What does perfectionism cost you? Make a list of the ways in which trying to be perfect is affecting your life in a negative way. To make it easy, create separate lists for how it affects your work life, your social life, or your relationship with yourself, for example.

3. What are the benefits? Finally, how does your perfectionism actually serve you; what are its gifts in your life? What strengths or positive qualities have you developed because of it?

Phase 2: Go Easy on Yourself
Perfectionists are notoriously hard on themselves; developing compassion for yourself is key. Like Kendall, you might want to visit a playground and, as you watch the kids play, imagine your childhood through their eyes.

Ask yourself: What were the expectations placed on me by my parents? What did I need to do to meet those expectations?

Or take out a photograph of yourself when you were between 5 and 10 years old. As you look at the picture -- your eyes, your hands, your expression -- imagine speaking to that child in the critical way that you speak to yourself now.

Phase 3: Embrace Imperfection
Finally, begin relaxing your perfectionist tendencies. As you practice being imperfect, you'll find it getting easier.

1. Make one small "mistake" each day. It can be as simple as putting the dishes in the dishwasher in a haphazard way, leaving your clothes on the bathroom floor, or leaving the office despite a disorganized desk.

2. Make "good enough" your new benchmark in certain areas. When you feel stressed or frustrated, stop what you're doing and check in to see whether or not you can relax your standards a bit. Can you finish that work project tomorrow, keep the videos for an extra day, or allow your child to go to school wearing what she wants?

Note: Some people may need to delve more deeply to loosen perfectionism's hold; a great psychotherapist can help the process. Ask close friends, your doctor, or your company's employee-assistance program supervisor for referrals.

Cheryl Richardson is a renowned life coach and best-selling author. Her most recent book is "The Unmistakable Touch of Grace." Find her at cherylrichardson.com.