Confessions of a Closet Perfectionist


Dove campaignI’m sitting at my desk deep in thought about a post I’m writing on perfectionism. In walks my multi-talented, 20-something IT person. The image of springtime, she’s wearing a flowered dress that’s fitted at the waist and shows off a small bump in the belly region.

Smart enough to know never to ask a woman if she’s pregnant, I greet her warmly. But before my frontal lobe kicks in to exercise any impulse control, I blurt out, “You’re not pregnant, are you?”

I’m sure I was more surprised by the question than she was. But IT person (who will remain nameless) was in total command and calmly answered: “No, Ruth, I’m not pregnant, and I’m very happy with my body just the way it is.”

I apologized and plunged back to work. Younger and wiser, she had her head on straight. I didn’t.

I never thought of myself as a perfectionist. But here I was focusing on my assistant’s belly bump that didn’t meet my ideal of flat abs.  I guess our fashion magazines don’t do enough silly stereotyping; I needed to jump on the bandwagon too.

Here’s the truth: I always felt sorry for women who strive to be perfect and expect the same from others. They’re on a lifelong diet. They fret about worry lines. They worry about sagging eyelids and puffy under-eyes. They want toned muscles, taut skin, and tight bellies. And that’s only in the physical arena. Many are on the fast track in their professions while striving to be better wives and mothers. Could I be one of them?

Yup…sometimes I am.  But the real question is why do we demand so much of ourselves? Why are women our own worst critics? Most men don’t care about being perfect. Does our DNA constantly prompt us to lean in…on so many levels?

After doing a bit of research, here’s what I discovered several psychologists and recovering perfectionists had to say:

In many cultures, including our own, women have been brought up to believe that being beautiful (and talented) will help us land the best guy, get the better job, enjoy a more fulfilled life.  From overzealous mothers to fashion magazines featuring unrealistic images of women, we seem to have bought into the myth that it’s natural for us to seek perfection.

The most recent Dove Beauty sketch-artist campaign which has been getting so much traction provides graphic confirmation of our attitudes about ourselves.

A 2012 Wall Street Journal article showed recent studies suggested nature, rather than nurture, plays the bigger role in creating perfectionists. And with both forces working together, women face a double whammy that’s not easily overcome.

Several years ago, the BBC news reported that women are more likely than men to suffer from feelings of inadequacy because of our double shift at home and at work. With growing responsibilities in the workplace, we want to prove ourselves every bit at capable as men (which we are), and will do everything in our power not to screw up. So we’re maxed out in both spheres…and take it personally if we don’t succeed.

Is perfectionism a terminal condition? Absolutely not, according to Renee Weisman. author of Winning in a Man’s World.  She offers these tips for overcoming perfectionism…

■ Recognize when good enough is actually good enough. This is true on the job and at home. Successful perfectionists are successful in spite of being the way they are, not because of it.

■ Let go by delegating effectively. Give another person (nanny, co-worker, husband, partner) the tools to do the job so you can take care of what needs to be done now.

■ Give yourself credit for what you do and take pride in the results. When you get a compliment, say thank you instead of “Thanks, but I really wish I had also done…”

■ Share your aspirations. Instead of doing everything yourself, make others part of your team. Grease the skids by making your goal a shared one in which others are invested.

■ Prioritize. When you try to improve everything in your life all at the same time, you only set yourself up for failure. Focus on your biggest priority. Do what you can. Then give it a rest.

The pros agree that perfectionism becomes toxic when we set impossibly high standards for ourselves and for others. The lesson I learned is to be aware of what we say and what we do – which is often easier said than done. It can be a real eye opener.

How do you keep perfectionism from interfering in your life?

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