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Quelling the Enemy of the Good: Reflections from a Recovering Perfectionist

April 29, 2011 by Joseph DiCenso

I identify myself as (among other things) a recovering perfectionist.  After many years of not recognizing the downside of perfectionism, I have come to see it as a life-threatening disease: perfectionism has kept me from living my life fully and robustly. 

Waking to the Pain

In my mid-20s I remember saying to my father that I felt as if my life had yet to begin.  I didn't realize it at the time, but I was afraid to start.  Afraid of the mistakes I would make.  Afraid that any decision I 

made would be the "wrong" one.  Afraid I wasn't "living up to my potential," but that if I struck out in the wrong direction I might miss my meeting with destiny–like the story of a donkey who starves to death trying to decide which of two bales of hay to eat.

I can look back on many chances not taken moments not lived, the many days lost to waiting for the right conditions, frozen by the fear of failure.

Recovery

I also see perfectionism as a profound lack of trust–in my own goodness, my resiliency, my belonging to the human race, in the universe, in life itself.  Perfectionism is hedging one's bets with life, playing it safe.  Leaving no dirty socks on the floor, no chinks in the armor.  Striving to maintain a 4.0 life point average.  It takes a lot of energy that would be better spent living a good enough life.

Even as I write this piece, I'm well aware of the swift hawk of my perfectionism—the critic voice that tells me: "This is crap; nobody's gonna wanna read this."  But as I have come home to myself over the years, I have come to trust that I at least belong with me, that I can be good company for myself.  This has fostered in me more trust in the world, in life, in humanity—or at least a sense that whatever life dishes up, I am resilient, resourceful.  And this allows me to move through the world with my heart wider open.  I still have much to learn, but I've come a long way!

Perfect or Impeccable?

It has been a life-long work of mine to distinguish perfectionism from a healthy, enlivening call to excellence.  I believe that there is room in a well-adjusted person for a keening toward greatness (being one's best) that I call impeccability.  I am referring to a concept of living life to its fullest and striving to be our best, based on an understanding that we are mortal and that life is finite.  By this definition, impeccability is quite the opposite of perfectionism.  If impeccability is living "as if your hair were on fire," perfectionism is waiting for the perfect hair day before leaving the house.

Here are the distinctions as I see them:

Perfectionism is...

Impeccability is...

  • Anxiety: the dread of not getting it right
  • Awakening: the desire to live fully alive and on purpose
  • A harsh and persistent inner critic
  • A strong, demanding and supportive inner coach
  • Chasing an elusive, delusional future state
  • Being fully present to, and focused on, the task at hand
  • Hating mistakes
  • Loving beauty (quality, mastery)
  • Compensating for an imagined lack in me
  • Making the best use of what's in me (seeking to be "used up")
  • Isolating: always "one up" or "one down;" never "one of"
  • Conspiring with others to be our best
  • Petty, majoring in the minors, getting caught up in the details
  • Reaching for greatness (fully awake, living on the edge, serving the greater good)
  • Dying each day: refusing to live for fear of failing
  • Embracing death: living fully, knowing death can come in any moment

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Deepening Ease

As I get older I'm getting better at spotting my perfectionism and choosing alternative paths.  This is bringing more freedom and ease, more aliveness and flow. 

Last summerI nearly canceled a solo trip to the Cape because I was feeling weakness and fatigue at the tail end of some bug I'd caught at a conference.  I noticed an element of perfectionism in my thinking.  On the surface, I was concerned I might not feel strong enough to kayak with a friend I'd made plans with.  But beneath that there was revulsion to the idea of not being strong and able--even impressive.  I nudged myself to go, packed somewhat sloppily (to my standards) and incompletely (forgot a few things, even though I was using a list) and had a fantastic time—resting, reading on the beach and, when I felt stronger, kayaking with my friend and on my own.

I also had the opportunity to teach knot-tying last summer and found myself freely admitting that the particular way I finished my taut line hitch was more about aesthetics than function or strength.  It was a moment of lightness and sudden freedom from my perfectionism (teaching my way as the only or the best way).  At the same time I honored my impeccability: my love of beauty and enjoyment of making things that not only serve their function well, but speak of the presence, intention and aesthetic sensibility of the maker.

Let it Rip!

I believe the world—our co-workers, friends, family and lovers—needs from us something perfectionism cannot deliver: warmth, realness and simply showing up.  I say enough "playing it cool by making the world a little colder."  Enough holding our breath, muting our voices, tightening our sphincters, delaying our lives until we can get it "just right."  A very dear person years ago made a small plaque for me with three words: "Let It Rip!"  I can now see how “perfect” a mantra it is for me.  I'm still working on living it and I welcome your company.