Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Perfect Really is the Enemy of the Good

Perfectionism is a coping mechanism for unpredictability.  It introduces all kinds of comforting control.  You are not changing yourself by renouncing perfectionism; you're taking the first step to discovering who you are without armor. --Zoey Martin

A new house is a quagmire for perfectionists.  Like that first cup of coffee in the morning for the smoker or that unintended stroll past a favorite watering hole for the overserved and recovering soul, a change in living space offers innumerable ways for the perfectionist to torture herself.  

I made it through the moving process, giving myself several weeks to pack. I beat a respectable path towards purging things we didn't need, then labeling all of the boxes for each room and patting myself on the back when we were unpacked, all but for two boxes, after three days.  I hung pictures and cleaned, quite a bit I thought, and everyone who stopped by said we looked almost moved in after such a short time.  We even had a little party.  We invited a couple of houseguests, and they seemed pretty comfortable, and I was feeling proud and really happy. 

Then my parents came to visit.  I looked at the world through their immaculately organized eyes.  The two boxes remained unpacked, and the microwave that won't fit under the 1949 cabinets is still sitting on the floor beside the refrigerator.  The enormous deck--the place I envisioned being The Happy Place--needs a sanding and a coat of sealer or paint.  And, I am told, my hardwood floors have "a few specks of white paint" on them.  Perfectionism is a tough nut to crack, especially since many consider it a virtue. 

We perfectionists learn our habit--no, it's not a personality trait, as Ms. Martin points out in her guest post on Write to Done, a great blog on writing--from the cradle.  We understand quickly the unspoken assumption that if it's not perfect, it's bad, and spend more hours than necessary thinking about our closets, desk drawers, windows, or car interiors.  Or the briefs we've submitted to partners for critical consideration. (Other perfectionists take great pleasure in torturing those coming up. My best horror story from the law world is from a partner who wrote to a first-year associate: "Please re-write this brief as though English is your first language."  Mean and politically incorrect! Quite an accomplishment.)  

There are two big problems for perfectionists who don't find a way through their habit.  The first and most important is that the fear of making a mistake often leads to paralysis.  If you can't make a decision, you can't get anything done.  I push through this pretty easily at work, because demands from others mean dithering is worse than deciding.  At home I work ruthlessly to prioritize and do, but I have to continually remind myself to focus on what can get done today.  I push back the panic when I have to stop. After many years of practice, once I do I can relax and do something fun.

Secondly, perfectionism inevitably leads to self-criticism.  We beat ourselves up in ways our friends wouldn't dream of doing to us, because what we are concerned about has no bearing on their love for us. Since my habit primarily manifests through my home, I try to get away for a weekend every so often.  When I leave I am usually fretting about whether I've dusted or swept out the garage.  Then I come home.  I open the door, and after two or three days away the place looks pretty good.  It's home, and it's mine, welcoming me like a good friend, telling me I'm fine exactly as I am. 

Check out: 5 Battle Strategies for Winning the War on Perfectionism.  Great post on how to go from impossibly perfect to execution.

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