At various times in my life I have been a full-blown perfectionist. In hindsight, I can see how unhappy I was when I was held hostage by perfectionistic tendencies. In spite of near-constant efforts to measure up, I could never quite achieve some metric that (as it turns out) I had made up for myself. And, of course, with not measuring up comes an unhealthy dose of shame (remember Brené Brown’s helpful definitions here: shame = I am incompetent, guilt = I did something poorly and could have done better; these set out VERY different frameworks for interacting with the world). At least for me, when I head into that place of shame and not measuring up I have learned that it’s too easy for me to become unkind and start looking for all of the ways in which everyone around me isn’t measuring up either. I move from assuming positive intent and believing that people really are doing the best that they can…well, to being a mean girl who is totally fed up with everyone, myself included, because we just are incapable of doing anything right. At times this has been transient episodic behavior; some of those episodes were more prolonged (second year of surgery residency, I’m looking at you). I am certain I still have some apologies to spread around, but more importantly I’ll say that I’ve learned from those times not just how rotten I can make people around me feel, but how rotten it makes me feel too. It’s not a good place, and having been there helps me have empathy for how people end up in spirals of addiction and depression when they are living shame and are obsessed with perfection.
Another lesson: When I’m “in” perfectionism, I also can act as if success and achievement as a precious and limited commodity…not something of which there is plenty to go around. If someone else gets ahead, I can’t possibly get ahead, right? (Wrong!) “What did HE do to deserve THAT?” “I can’t believe she got that award. I was so much more deserving.” (((insert your own scarcity response to someone else’s achievement here))) Y’all have heard my sermons before on success not being like pie, that there’s plenty to go around, so I won’t reiterate them in detail today. I’m merely using it to highlight the relationship- at least for me- between perfectionism and scarcity.
Perfectionism in the workplace is known to have mixed effects. Certainly perfectionism helps things get done well- when they get done, that is, because sometimes they get stalled while we’re putting on finishing flourishes that never end. Perfectionism also contributes to burnout, addictive behaviors, depression and anxiety unless it’s harnessed.
I’ll never write a treatise as thoughtful and comprehensive on the topic of perfectionism as The Gifts of Imperfection (which I recently included as one of my favorite books on Twitter). The entire book is a reminder of the unhealthy ways in which perfectionism can permeate our being…and provides antidotes to the voices of those gremlins who tell us we’re not enough, not doing enough, can’t be enough. The book was a game-changer for me; it articulated some things that I knew in my bones but couldn’t describe very effectively, and (perhaps more importantly) the research methodology started me down my sometimes crazy-feeling path of qualitative methods based research. I feel compelled to state that one cannot effectively do scholarly work using grounded theory AND be a perfectionist; these are mutually exclusive categories.
I’m not perfect. Not even close. You’re probably not either because we’re all human and we’re all walking this journey together as best we are each able. If I know one thing for sure, it’s that the more okay I am with my own fallibilities, the more joy-filled and satisfying my life is. I hope in the new year we can find ways to be our imperfect best selves in community.