Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas: “Perfection: Uncrossing the line”

NOTE: This is the first draft of the “Perfection” essay in my forthcoming book, Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.
Responses and comments welcome, no matter how brief.

Perfection: Uncrossing the line

Copyright 2013 David J. Bookbinder

My father was a storekeeper and the son of working-class immigrants. He wanted his children to do better than he had, and he believed the gateway to a successful life was education. Consequently, he held me, his firstborn, to high academic standards. This meant I had to get straight A’s if I was to receive his approval. Doing exceptionally well in school, however, got harder as I grew older, and to meet my father’s expectations I eventually abandoned most other activities to homework. By the time I completed high school, I was book smart but naïve in many other ways.

It was not until college that I started to see how narrow I had become. The summer after my sophomore year I hitch-hiked across the U.S and Canada. After a four-month, 7,500 mile trip, I returned with the realization that in pursuing academic “perfection” I had learned next to nothing about building things, making art, and most importantly, how other people lived, what they cared about, or how to connect with them. So I created a curriculum of study aimed at filling in those gaps.

As the poet Charles Olson said, “I have had to learn the simplest things last.” Forty years later, I’m still working that program. I think I’m finally getting close to completing it.

The roots of the drive for perfection are wide and deep.

Buddhists are encouraged to practice the Six Perfections as part of the path to enlightenment. The ancient Greeks saw perfection as a necessary criterion for beauty and high art. St. Matthew exhorted, “Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” Beginning with Genesis, the message of the Old Testament is to cleave tightly to the holy laws or else endure the wrath of the Lord.

Cultural idealization of perfection goes beyond religion, philosophy, and art. Our leaders, we learn from an early age, should also be perfect. (As a boy, I was taught that George Washington never told a lie and Abe Lincoln walked miles to return a penny.) For decades, the media has projected the ideal of perfect skin, perfect hair, perfect teeth, perfect bodies, and perfect lives.

Many of us see perfectionism as a motivator: Having high standards helps us be all that we can be, right? And who can dispute the argument that striving for excellence has been a factor in great contributions in the arts, sciences, philosophy, law, spirituality, and in many other fields of human endeavor as well?

But striving for excellence and perfectionism are not the same thing. Striving to reach an ideal is a longing that draws us toward our goal. Those of us who strive for excellence see our defeats and mistakes as learning experiences, growth opportunities, challenges to overcome. Those of us who tend toward perfectionism, on the other hand, get our self-esteem from “perfect” behavior, appearance, or accomplishments. When we fail to achieve a goal or to conform to our often unrealistic standards, we feel defective.

Perfectionism is a major factor in anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.

One of the most extreme examples of perfectionism I have encountered was a 19-year-old client whose motto was “Number 2 is the first loser.” He was very good at what he did, both vocationally and avocationally. However, he could not tolerate being anything but “the best,” and by the time I met him, he had managed also to become the most accomplished substance abuser I had ever seen. His goal was to try every drug known to man, and he had come perilously close to perfection.

Another extreme of perfectionism shows up in clients capable of imagining themselves in a wide variety of lives – but none of them is “good enough.” They languish in a state of potential, overwhelmed by intense self-loathing for failing to achieve anything “important” while at the same time unable to choose a “worthy” path.

A less extreme but more commonplace form of perfectionism afflicts those who cannot be seen in public unless their appearance is “perfect.” When they do discover the inevitable spot on their clothing, mark on their face, or some other “defect,” they are mortified. They spend hours, sometimes days, mentally running through every encounter they’ve had, calculating the probability that someone might have seen them in this “imperfect” condition. They are paralyzed, not motivated, by perfectionism.

Has your own striving for excellence crossed the line into perfectionism? Here’s a simple screening tool derived from a book on anxiety by Dr. Edmund Bourne. Rate each of the following statements “1” to “4,” where “1” means you do not believe the statement to be true, “2” means you somewhat or sometimes believe it, “3” means you believe it strongly or frequently, and “4” means you believe it very strongly.

  1. I should be the perfect… (rate each one): a. employee, b. professional, c. spouse, d. parent, e. lover, f. friend, g. student, h. son/daughter.
  2. I should be able to endure any hardship.
  3. I should be able to find a quick solution to every problem.
  4. I should never be tired or fatigued.
  5. I feel anxious about making mistakes.
  6. I demand perfection of myself.

The maximum score is 52. A total score of 25 or more indicates that you tend toward perfectionism.

Like other defense mechanisms, perfectionism typically begins as protection. Children who are conditionally loved or rewarded based on their performance often try to gain immunity from criticism by striving to be perfect. But that protective function soon devolves into a limiting and often self-defeating pattern.

If you catch yourself thinking or behaving in perfectionistic ways – trying too hard to complete something that may be impossible, worrying excessively about how others might perceive you, beating yourself up for some misstep, neglecting self-care because you feel you must be perfect, stop. Then try the following:

1. Record the thought. Write down the thought that best describes your perfectionistic belief. Perhaps it is one of the  “I should” statements above. Or maybe it’s a more global belief such as, “If I am not perfect, I am nothing.”

2. Question the belief. Is this belief always true, not only for you but also for other people? Did it come from something you learned, directly or indirectly, from your family of origin? And most important, does it contribute to your sense of peace and well-being? Just asking these questions and answering them thoughtfully is sometimes enough to loosen the grip of perfectionistic beliefs.

3. Create an affirmation. If perfectionistic beliefs are poison, affirmations are an antidote.  When you capture a perfectionistic thought you’re willing to question, try counteracting it with an affirmation. To be effective, the affirmation should apply to the same circumstances as the perfectionistic belief, ring true, and come from a gentler, more sympathetic place. For example, if you catch yourself thinking “If I am not perfect, I am nothing,” you can substitute an affirmation such as “I don’t have to be perfect. I can be loved, and happy, just the way I am.” Instead of “I should be the perfect parent,” substitute something like “I am the best parent I know how to be, and that’s good enough.” If your initial affirmation doesn’t pass your internal credibility test, change it. For instance, “I’m not perfect, but I’m pretty good, and I’m working on getting better,” still carries a hint of perfectionism, but it also has an optimistic spin. as long as the affirmation rings true, a little different is different enough to gradually allow change to occur.

Our inner critics drive us, inhibit us, and castigate us. Though they might once have helped us deal with difficult childhood situations, later on they interfere with being who we truly are. An exercise that can kick off the process of disarming the inner critic that drives perfectionism is to literally sketch the relationship between it and your true self.

1. Tune in. Spend a few minutes tuning in to the feelings, thoughts, memories, and bodily sensations you experience when you feel driven to achieve perfection, are anxious about making mistakes, procrastinate, or are chastise yourself for missteps you have taken.

2. Draw. On an ordinary piece of paper, draw your true self in relation to your inner critic. You do not need to be an artist to do this; a quick sketch is all you need. Stick figures, shapes, and symbols are all okay. Spend no more than 10 minutes on this step. It doesn’t have to be perfect!

3. Write. Spend another few minutes recalling what your inner critic says and how your true self responds. Write both sets of phrases down as they come to you. When you’re finished, you’ll have a snapshot of your inner critic in action, both visually and in words.

Though simple, this exercise is frequently a game changer. My own inner critic often kept me from trying things I might not do well, no matter how much I wanted to do them. To represent my true self, I drew a stick figure of a small boy looking out the barred window of a huge concrete building that signified the county prison in Buffalo, NY, where I grew up. My critic’s message was “Don’t get your hopes up.”

My unconscious response had often been to give up before I even tried. But for the next several days, as challenges arose, I heard that critical voice in a new way. I began to ask what good it had done me. What good was it doing now? In the years since then, the voice has grown progressively softer. Now, I seldom hear it, and when I do it is usually easy to dismiss.

The ultimate antidote to perfectionism is radical acceptance. Radical acceptance  is taking stock of things as they are and allowing them to just be. It is a gradual letting go of strivings, regrets, and self-recrimination. It is saying, “Whatever is, is.  What has been, has been. This is where I am now.  I accept myself, warts and all. Now is the start of something new.”

There are many paths to radical acceptance. Practices such as metta and self-forgiveness open the heart and allow compassion to ease the pain that perfectionism tries, unsuccessfully, to protect us from. Techniques such as Eugene Gendlin’s Focusing can put us in touch with that perfectionistic protector and persuade it to let us go. Guided visualizations in which we meet our younger selves and, as if we had encountered a lost child, offer our help, can build a pathway between the part of us that can love and accept and the part that needs our love and acceptance. Or simply we can, in the pragmatic words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could.”

Those of us who tend toward perfectionism may not want to give it up entirely. Choosing to do a few things “perfectly” can be satisfying in ways that attempting to live our lives to perfectionistic standards is not. For example, I freely indulge my desire to keep my computer functioning perfectly, to perfect a photograph, to arrange my books in perfect order. I know that in perfecting these tasks I am expending more of the limited time I have on the planet than might strictly be necessary, but that’s okay. We don’t have to avoid perfectionism … perfectly.

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Text and images © 2013, David J. Bookbinder. All rights reserved.
Permission required for publication. Images available for licensing.

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