Friday, April 15, 2011

A Very Flawed Post On Being A Perfectionist

This is what my life feels like.

After more than ten years of relatively consistent professional psychotherapy, I have a pretty good idea of where most of my hang-ups come from.  I know, for example, that the reason that I worry about my husband cheating on me is because my father once cheated on my mother.  Perfectionism, on the other hand, is something of an enigma to me, at least in terms of where I picked up this terrible habit.  My parents never expected me to be perfect, and while they could be critical, I rarely got the feeling that I had completely let them down.  There were a few times in my teen years where I felt like I was an annoyance to them, but perfectionism had set in long before that.

I didn't realize it was a problem until college.  In fact, I thought everyone should be a perfectionist until I started paying attention to how crazy I was becoming.  I never understood how my classmates could go out and have fun when they had just as many difficult assignments to complete as I did.  Many of them even chose to turn in assignments late sometimes, but this was unimaginable to me.  Even if they got assignments done, many of them only put a certain level of effort into them, and were happy with whatever grade they got as long as it was fair.  I understand why that kind of behavior can be reasonable now, but I still could never engage in it.  I am the one who locked myself in my dorm room every night, plowing through assignments at a blitzkrieg pace, and then finding myself reduced to tears when confusion on a topic slowed me down.  There wasn't time for fun, and I resented my classmates for engaging in it.

Unfortunately this is one of those negative aspects of my life that I have put limits on, but can not seem to eliminate.  I suppose I take a little pride in it; after all, aren't I better than the person who expects little or nothing of himself?  I am certainly superior to the person whose philosophy in life is to have as much fun as possible, regardless of the consequences.  But of course this is flawed thinking.  In God's eyes I am not superior to anyone.

One of the worst aspects of being a perfectionist is that you are defeated without even trying.  If you recognize yourself as a perfectionist and know that it is a negative personality trait, you have already failed in that you are not perfect.  But where does this come from?  In the past I have blamed my parents, believing that the shame I felt when we argued was taught by them, and therefore it was their fault that I was doomed to strive for the impossible for the rest of my life.  Even after becoming a parent myself I truly believed that I would never ever teach my children that they had to be perfect.

Then came our move.  When my daughter IC was four years old we were getting ready to move into our first real new home, and it was very exciting.  IC is autistic, and was only minimally verbal at the time.  She couldn't have conversations or ask questions, so I really wasn't sure how much she understood about what was going on, or if she remembered the move we'd made the year before.  For a few days I watched her studying the growing stack of boxes in our upstairs hallway, most of which we had obtained from the produce department of the grocery store and filled with our stuff.  Then one day she got a hold of the black Sharpie I was using to label boxes.  When I saw her my first instinct was to rip the Sharpie out of her hand before she started scribbling on the walls, but then I saw what she was doing.  IC could not write yet, but was working on tracing letters at school.  IC had taken the Sharpie and was slowly and painstakingly tracing every letter on every produce box in the hallway.  If her hand slipped, or she somehow made a mistake, she would scream.  SCREAM. For the most part she was going so slowly that she was doing well with it, and rarely made mistakes, so we let her do this for several days.  It occupied her and we were busy packing.  But after a few days she began getting so upset with herself over a mistake that she would throw the Sharpie down, scream, and hit herself.

Oh, Lord, not her too.

To be an autistic perfectionist is not something I would wish on my worst enemy.  IC is doomed.  By the nature of her disorder she will never fit into the same mould as the rest of us, and she will have to spend her life trying to find alternative ways to learn things that the rest of us just learn naturally through experience.  I am very afraid for my little girl.

From Wikipedia: "Perfectionists are focused on personal integrity and can be wise, discerning and inspiring in their quest for truth.  They also tend to dissociate themselves from their flaws or what they believe are flaws (such as negative emotions) and can be hypocritical and hypercritical of others, seeking the illusion of virtue to hide their own vices.  The greatest fear of perfectionists is to be flawed and their ultimate goal is perfection." Ouch.  Self discovery sucks.

Unfortunately I don't think society has much to offer me to help this tendency in myself or my daughter.  School certainly isn't helping.  While I live in an area known to have some of the worst schools in the nation, it certainly isn't from lack of pushing their students.  IC and DJ are 7 and 6.  They start school instruction at 8:30 AM everyday, and finish at 3PM. During that time they have a break for lunch, during which only minimal conversation is allowed, and recess, which lasts 30 minutes at the most.  When they come home every night they are expected to complete an hour's worth of homework, sometimes two.  Often I'm forced to cut them off before they've completed their homework just so they can have enough time to eat dinner and get some rest before the next day.  In total, they spend 32.5 hours a week in school, and another 5-7 doing homework.  For first graders.  In fact, the schedule at their school is considered easy.  Many of the schools in this area utilize "extended school days", in which children are expected to continue school until 5PM or later, and some schools have half day school on Saturdays.  How can I expect children to work at this pace, and at the same time teach them that they don't have to be perfect? Our society teaches us that we must keep pushing ourselves harder and harder because the only way to be worthwhile and valuable is to be productive.  Yet that is the very definition of perfectionism.  Again, from Wikipedia, perfectionists are "people who strain compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals and who measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment."  How do you reconcile that with a nine hour school day for elementary school students?

As with my personal prejudice and perspective flaws (see my post titled "The Window"), I can say with confidence that I am making some progress.  There was a time when I was caught in an endless cycle of needing my house to be and remain perfectly clean.  Try that with three small children and a husband who doesn't value cleanliness and order.  But sometimes God puts us in those impossible situations because it forces us to grow.  I had no choice but to gradually and systematically relax my expectations in this area.  They remain way too high given the life I lead, but a few months ago I finally reached the point where I was able to surrender the heavy duty cleaning to a couple of hired maids who come every other week and accomplish in a couple hours what would take me a couple weeks at best.  Of course some might say that hiring someone else to make things perfect for me is not helping my compulsion, that I should really let myself suffer through the stress of leaving the cat hair on the floor so I can learn that in the end it doesn't matter.  But even accepting help in this matter is a step forward for me.

For IC, I still don't know what to do.  She has been known to rewrite entire assignments because she didn't approve of her own handwriting.  It will probably be a lifelong struggle, just as it has been for me. But at least we have each other.


  1. This was an interesting blog to read right after I was talking with Jimmy and then read a deep blog about homeschooling. I expect my oldest to get straight A's. Why? Well, because why not? She CAN do it, so she SHOULD do it. But what is it really all about? Our schools with their necessary grading systems sure do reward perfection and mark you down for not filling in the little circles like they want you to.

  2. Exactly. I think it all comes down to the philosophy that our value comes from our productivity, which I don't agree with on an intellectual level but I still tend to hold myself to it. Plus, it seems like the educational systems are working under the assumption that to make America more productive economically and otherwise, our people need to be more productive, and so our schools need to produce productive people. In the end it's all about money. But public school systems are very broken (though they have their positives too). We probably both handle our kids the same way, though it's probably looking different with a teenager. We DO push them on their homework, but we also cut them off when it goes longer than 45 minutes or so, and we give them a few hours of free time immediately after school, and occasionally we even let them skip school for some family time. Everything in balance you know? The skipping thing might not work with a teenager, so we'd have to rethink things at that point.