The price of perfectionism

Adroit blogfriend Frugal Scholar recently raised the issue (or rock) of perfectionism in her post "Thrift Stores and the Lure of Perfectionism", in which she considers perfectionism and shopping.

I commented that
"... perfectionism, whether in shopping, work or choosing a mate, is a mug's game. One will never achieve it, nor feel content for long."

I began to t
hink about the perfectionists I've worked for. "Every one has been a woman", I thought, "and why is that?"

Underneath, these women were terrified; their o
bsessiveness was based on fear, fear of being discovered as an imposter, fear of being judged less than the ultimate, fear of losing what they'd gained. (If you've never worked for one, watch "The September Issue", the doc about Anna Wintour.)

One person's "just being thorough" is another's "perfectionism", but you know it when you see it. One of my friends jokes that for her husband, the words good and enough will never be spoken together.

A pinch of perfectionism can be terrific: the colleague who proofreads one more time (and catches your error), the friend who searches for the right shade of scarf for your new coat on her trip to Italy, the painter who fusses with your nicked walls till they look new.

This is what psychologists term
normal perfectionism. They care intensely, and we are the better for it.

Maladaptive perfectionism is the type that drives employees nuts: the nit-picky nervebag who drives her team to unachievable goals and rips them apart when they don't "meet expectations"– and they never can. Turned inward, perfectionists' damaging behaviour may include anorexia, compulsive spending, overexercising, endless cosmetic surgeries.

Rather than a perfectionism/indifference dichotomy, most of us live on a shifting
continuum of rigour, from "What the hey" at the low end of the scale through "just fine" in the middle to utter perfection at the high (and usually illusory) end.
I depend on colleagues or Le Duc to warn me when I veer toward the high end, where life feels fraught and people around me walk on eggshells.

But is perfection even possible, save for an initial moment of giddy endorsement? Dresses that I thought were perfect at first sight have, a short time later, looked only okay. Not to mention men.

Maladaptive perfectionists, like snobs, may
think they're doing the world a favour by raising standards for the general population. The two are cousins, because both have a deep desire to be or have the best, thus differentiating themselves. The locked-down perfectionist, like the snob, ends up isolated when others decamp, feeling that they can't measure up, or are set up to fail.

This post was distressingly easy to write: all I had to do was think of my mother, who was never satisfied, even as she climbed toward a great age. Her perfectionism diminished love, both received and given.

Sometimes I look at a meal I've cooked, a shirt I've ironed or a piece of writing and feel absolutely transgressive that I've decided
it's all right as it is, and I'm letting it go at that.

It is a necessary, liberating rebellion.


Nancy K said…
How very true. Great post
Susan B said…
Great post, Duchesse. I heard once in a seminar that "perfectionism leads to procrastination and ultimately to paralysis."

"Good enough" are good words to live by, at least most of the time.
Toby Wollin said…
One of the great liberating moments of my life was during one of my trips to take my dad to his dialysis a couple of weeks before he died. As per usual, he started in on what I could have done with my life, should have done with my life, how much weight I needed to lose, and what my kids should be doing. I'd been 'mmhmmm'-ing him for almost 50 years at that point, and the lightbulb went on for me that here I was, caring for him. If I'd done what he and my mom had wanted me to do with my life, I would not have been there for them. And instead of feeling annoyed and upset as I usually did in one of these conversations, I just told him that I was happy with my life and that I was sorry he and my mom were NOT, but that I certainly was not going to change a thing or regret anything. I haven't worried about any of that stuff since.
Anonymous said…
Amen! I like to remind myself that 90% is still an A.
Mardel said…
Great post Duchesse and as usual, right on point.

Deja Pseu's quote about perfectionism ultimately leading to paralysis almost sums up much of my dad's life. Sadly he passed away shortly after he finally began to break free but before he could achieve that goal.

There is a tremendous difference between caring about the details and obsessing about getting something "right". One is creative, the other oppressive.

Your comment about so many perfectionists you knew being women really made me pause, and think about the perfectionists I know as well. It really bears thinking about and goes beyond how society looks at women and girls, but also to how it looks at men and boys.
Mardel said…
Anymous's comment reminded me of a saying my husband picked up from one of his mentors when he was a surgical resident. "Perfect is the enemy of good". It is worth remembering.
Kristine said…
Wonderful post, Duchesse, and very timely for me. I'm currently researching and writing about self-esteem and this is a wonderful complement to that subject matter.
LPC said…
Not to worry, I can find you many men who are perfectionists:). Perhaps they are all software engineers? :)
Anna Wintour does seem perfect on screen...but I know that perfection is a myth...
thank goodness for "good enough" or I too would be paralized.

Fabulous post Duchesse!
Duchesse said…
Nancy K.: Thanks, I could go on about the topic and might, eventually.

Pseu: Yes, and it sometimes also leads to furious activity as the perfectionist tries one thing after another to create perfection. (Wonder if the paralyzed perfectionist is more a female behaviour? I knew a woman who spent 4 days putting together a 10 minute presentation.)

Toby: Thank you for the story, I hope he was able to hear you.

Anonymous: Yes, and 89 is a B and much of the time, does it ultimately matter? Sometimes the difference b/t the A & B means doors open or not, but much of the yardstick has lost relevance to me.

Mardel: A dr. once said to me that surgeons are by nature perfectionists. "Two out of three ain't bad does not work", he said. Some occupations attract that type.
But my family dr. is not- and thank goodness.

Kristine: The concept of "self-esteem" unsettles and disturbs me, as so often it is a code word for self-judgment, often based on superficial "values" that are not core values, but social norms. I'm very interested in your work and request you let us know what you find. Somehow the word love, with love of self replacing "self-esteem" is more congruent for me.

LPC: Are those the same guys who send one another an e-mail even though they work in the same cube?

hostess: I was citing the film for how she drives Grace Coddington (among others) round the bend.
Anonymous said…
Super post! I can't explain how timely your post is.
Thank you and big hugs
dana said…
The Buddhist "loving-kindness" concept, even more than compassion, strikes the opposite note for me. It may be the radical acceptance idea as well, about working and living through that ideal, instead of through some chimera.

This is why I post and don't blog. I can't make a coherent essay out of my ramblings! Yours are so beautiful.
materfamilias said…
Hear, hear! Pater and I often laugh that we are both "big-picture" people, as our way of rationalizing that neither of us is a perfectionist, a fact that becomes pretty obvious if you look around our place. But we're able to enjoy doing many things quite well, not paralyzed by needing them to be perfect. At the same time, there are some standards we're both quite absolutist about and we'll work quite hard to make sure that our efforts are, indeed, "good enough." As you suggest, on the continuum, it's all about balance. . .
Frugal Scholar said…
I am honored to have been the, not inspiration, but provocation (?) for this post. Truly, you have outdone yourself here.

By the way, "The perfect is the enemy of the good" has been attributed to all sorts of people, including quite a few bloggers. It is from Voltaire:

The original quote in French is "Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien.", from Voltaire's Dictionnaire Philosophique (1764) Literally translated as "The best is the enemy of good.", but is more commonly cited as "The perfect is the enemy of the good."

Thanks for a very philosophical post.
I loved both this post and Frugal's - really I must figure out how to sign in to her blog. (She beat me to the Voltaire quote)... We have discussed certain perfectionist mums who never stopped picking at their daughters of our generation; think Duchesse wisely reminded us how important being a "perfect little woman" was for them with far fewer choices and how strange the dramatic shift in female roles and expectations in the late 1960s and through the 1970s must have been.

I do know some heterosexual men who are perfectionist like Toby's dad, indeed concentrated in certain professions, but they do seem rarer. Could this kind of perfectionism stem from a real or perceived lack of power and control over one's destiny?

I have a friend who is a surgeon, and obviously extremely attentive to small details, but his work as an emergency doctor in conflict zones (as in Doctors without borders and similar groups) means no time to dither.

"Self-esteem" is usually rendered as "amour-propre" in French.
Duchesse said…
Anonymous: Thanks, funny how things turn up when one needs them.

dana: Perfection is deeply connected to attachment.

ma: One of my friends always said, "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.

Frugal: I'm often stimulated to write after reading your posts. The meaning of the Voltaire text shifts if one translated "best" instead of "perfect".
Duchesse said…
lagatta: perfectionism as a form of insurance, if one is "perfect", one is safe, is an irrational but common belief. I was recently reading a NY Times piece by Douglas Coupland (more coming on that) and a commenter said he was 62, had made over $400M for his company and was now jobless. While skills and the right temperament help, nothing guarantees one will continue to be valued.
BBC news did a small series on the pensions crisis in different countries, and the story on the US touched upon the catastrophic situation of older workers who lose their jobs:

But indeed, that is a different topic.
Anonymous said…
I love your ideas. Thanks for the stimulation! I think that the parent who is seen as a perfectionist might be better classed as a narcissist. It might be true that most perfectionists don't have any regard for the people affected by their compulsion, but it is definitely true of narcissists. I'll have to think about this. I also have to think about the "perfectionism leads to procrastination" idea. I had always thought that procrastinators used worry about the imperfections in the finished product as an empty excuse, but had never looked at it the other way around.
Duchesse said…
Anonymous: Thank you! The link b/t narcissism and perfectionism, especially when the expectation of perfection is of others seems evident, now that you point it out. I've seen perfectionists dither, re-doing work endlessly. This is a bit different from procrastinating- they do the work but cannot 'sign off' on it.
Judy said…
I have found perfectionism for me has been a vying for some semblance of control, and borne of fear, at it's root. Something along the lines of "if I can keep everything just so, then nothing bad will happen". So attempts at perfection can be kind of a protection...except that of course, it isn't and doesn't work!

This was driven home five years ago when a tragic suicide in my family rendered me such a loss of my supposed "control", and revealed what had been an unconscious belief that all my best intentions to be good and keep things perfect would have somehow kept that from happening. It broke me of placing my faith in it, but the mind has it's habits still.

I have been lead to allow a shift of perception...from trying to make things perfect, to instead, being curious to see the perfection that might already be there, right in front of me. It can be a great relief.

I Hope this is clear, words are not so easy. I'll let it be "good enough" and not obsess...well, not too much :). Thanks for such a thoughtful post!
Unknown said…
I am the queen of "good enough" - not even sure if I mind if anyone else does.

Only live once, whatever...
Duchesse said…
judy: Such losses are hard to understand, let alone control. My sister killed herself; to this day I do not fully understand how she got to that point. I'm truly sorry.

Artful: Exemplars of 'good enough' are not all that easy to find in my driven city; happy to hear your ease with the characteristic.
rb said…
This is my favorite Anna Quindlen quote - I believe it was part of a commencement address, and she was aiming this toward the women:

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”
Great post. So true, I've had bosses like that, and it's all about their own desperate attempts to cover up their own 'fraud complex'.

Interesting in the September Issue how Anna Wintour talks about how she's not taken seriously by her family for what she does, because fashion is not 'serious' enough for their standards.
s. said…
Thank you for this. Another great post...
I don't have a problem with perfectionism, in fact I wish I encountered more of it, in my day, to day life.
I'm happy that my dentist is a perfectionist, and so is the surgeon who performed my facelift. They are both kind men, and their office staff adore them. They're not bullies, or hard to please control freaks. I don't always expect 'perfect'; but I do expect 'good'. The 'enough' is what needs clarification where I'm concerned.

Now if I could only find a perfectionist housekeeper! LOL.
Duchesse said…
dutchessofh: Sounds like you are appreciate normal perfectionism; it's the the maladaptive type that is characterized by "bullies or hard to please control freaks".

s.: Thank you!

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