I don’t think I was a perfectionist at kindergarten, but certainly by my first year or two of primary school I had begun the fear-based behaviours associated with the word.
I was afraid of trying new things in case I couldn’t do them. I never learnt to play elastics or skipping or handstands at lunchtime, something every girl and lots of the boys did, for weeks on end.
I can tell you the one word, hydraulic, that I got wrong on the major annual spelling test in Standard Four. I can tell you that I spelt it hydrolic (possibly a mistake dependent on a New Zild accent).
Associating failure or mistakes with fear and shame persisted to adulthood and made my first few years of university particularly difficult. It turns out an A+ at law school is a jolly difficult thing to get your mitts on.
So when I first saw this video a couple of years ago, you might be able to guess which card flashed for me:
Everyone who commented on this a few weeks ago was struck by something different (and several added their own wise words).
For me it was ‘imperfect is the new perfect.’ Wouldn’t it be great to feel that?
I became conscious of the hold perfectionism had on me at a Carey Baptist College youth work block course, with the wonderful Murray Brown and Merrilyn Withers. Since then I’ve made all sorts of progress in managing it, but there’s still a long way to go.
One of the best things for me was being forced, as a full-time pastor, to prioritise something other than perfectionism. When you are writing a sermon most weeks, you have three choices:
a) write pretty good sermons and also do the rest of your job (spending time with people, organising events and systems, praying, leading the organisation, doing other reading and writing, keeping up with paperwork, etc);
b) write amazing sermons every week and also do the rest of your job, but never sleep; or
c) write amazing sermons every week and sleep, but don’t do the rest of your job.
Luckily my perfectionism is tempered by laziness, so that helped me choose against b) and what wisdom I possess helped me avoid c). But both b) and c) were still pretty tempting, especially as preaching is of course the most public part of the role.
Some recent twin studies apparently show that the biggest influences on developing it are genetics and interactions outside the home. That resonates with me. I have wonderful parents who never gave me the message that their love or approval depended on meeting standards of excellence. School was a far bigger factor, I reckon.
I think a lot about how to speak and behave with SBJ in ways that will help him be unafraid of experimenting, failing, trying, learning. I’d like your thoughts on that another time. Today let’s start with us.
So if you identify with any of this, I’d love you to tell us:
- what your experience of perfectionism has been (just if you want to)
- what has been helpful in growing out of it or learning to live with it
- what impact being a parent has had on your perfectionism (if applicable and if any)
- anything else, of course!
This is the first in a series on perfectionism. See the series list here for the full list, and the next two here:
Imperfect is the New Perfect #2: Born Perfect, on how perfectionism shows up in our parenting
Imperfect is the New Perfect #3: Vulnerability, Shame and Courage, featuring the work of Brené Brown
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