Perils of Perfectionism

I’ve always classified myself as a perfectionist, Type-A, detailed oriented, just a tad overly anal, if you will. In recent years, I’ve noticed myself loosening some of these tendencies – perhaps out of pure necessity from having kids and being surrounded by chaos. No matter how hard I try to keep the corners clean from crumbs, school clothes prepped for the next day and permission slips signed and returned on time, these details can easily slip away.

Of course there are certain non-negotiables when it comes to my being a perfectionist.

These include:

  • The bed must be made (even if it means making it right before I am going to lie down and go to sleep in it)
  • The bathroom mirror needs to be free from smears (I’m not sure what the kids are doing besides actually flicking their brushes towards the mirror on purpose)
  • The kitchen table has to be clear from crap (except for my “pretty” Real Simple magazine awaiting my next moment for a quick glimpse)

When it comes to things like work I still lean toward wanting things to flow effortlessly, look good, come across professionally, be of value for our students. This often means taking the time to craft that “perfect” email or being a bit down on myself if a scholar workshop doesn’t go exactly as planned. I am getting better at being gentler with myself, and letting go of things that I can’t control – like the occasional typo, a planned event that yields less of turnout of folks than we had hoped for, etc.

Just the other day I came across a description of perfectionism that stopped me in my tracks. In her book on “time investment strategies,” Elizabeth Saunders talks about two types of perfectionists. Upon reading it the first time, I thought, oh, I’m definitely the “frustrated perfectionist” to which she is referring. However, upon a closer look, I realize that I am BOTH TYPES! Yikers.

Elizabeth writes,

The first type of perfectionism “leads to some sort of pandemonium where you attempt to do everything all at once not only for yourself but for those around you. You live in a constant state of attention, scrutinizing yourself and others for any sign of a crack in the façade. Every time you spot one, you scurry to quickly cover up the evidence that you can’t truly meet your impossible standards.”

“The second form leads to PARALYSIS. Frustrated perfectionists may seem lazy on the surface, but their minds work on overdrive. They imagine and reimagine and rethink and recontemplate how they might do something in the most ideal fashion and achieve the most superior result. Given the grandiosity of their vision, though, they feel like they’re doomed to fail prior to beginning. Such people usually do not start anything at all or wait until the last minute. This delays them from having to face up to the raw truth that they can’t meet their own unrealistic ideals and allows them to blame their lack of time for lack of results.”


This insightful description put a whole new spin on this dilemma of being a perfectionist. Now I’m all for not beating myself up for certain innate qualities such as “being a detailed oriented person.” However, I want to live my life NOT in a constant state of trying to control my environment and those around me, nor do I wish to keep myself “stuck in my own head” and unable to move forward with my desire to be a writer and create stuff of value. I’ve simply been stuck for too long of a period of time.

Since often the mere point of recognizing the problem or issue for what it is can lead to a shift in the situation, I’m noting this as a major victory for me. In yoga, we work on dissolving samskaras (innate behaviors, thoughts patterns or tendencies) that are no longer serving us through our physical practice, our breath work and focus. We replace them with new ways of being that propel our growth and arrival at the truest form of our selves.

So I’m noticing my perfectionist tendencies more – when I’m being overly controlling with the kids, when I’m killing myself to get though every item on my to do list and when I’m stopping myself from simply letting my thoughts, feelings and beliefs flow onto the page. I’m guessing that if I loosen my grip on life, life might just surprise me with a whole new understanding of just what’s possible.

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