The Exhausted Perfectionist

Remember when you were in school and you got a 90 percent on a test? What did your parents ask when you got home? If you were lucky, they said, “You got a 90? Great!” If you weren’t so lucky, the common question was, “You got a 90? What did you get wrong? Who got a better grade in your class?”

If your sense of self-worth is based on how well you did on tests, or at a game, or now, at work, you may be in full-fledged perfectionism. If imperfection has no value to you, it makes you feel bad and you despise it.

Trouble is, it is the shape of the world we live in. It’s flawed, damaged, filled with people who fall short. Everyone is flawed. Yet they keep trying. The best work hard at being excellent. Excellent is very different from perfection.

Never Good Enough‘Perfect’ becomes ‘right’, and doing thing perfectly means finding the right way. Most perfectionists “know” the right way. It becomes rough when the “right” way isn’t the same way as the boss’s or spouse’s way. Even worse is if the boss or spouse is the perfectionist, and her/his way is the only right way.

What generally happens is that the right way is not seen as the preferred way or one way, but the only way. Because then everything that isn’t done the right way is not done that way intentionally. It becomes a battle of wills. It becomes a matter of right and wrong. And that’s the way the world looks for a perfectionist.

Oddly enough, perfection leaves no room for excellence. It isn’t perfect. Excellence won’t do. If you are a perfectionist, you have a hard road ahead of you. If you are a re recovering perfectionist, I’ve discovered a book you may enjoy:  “Never Good Enough,” by Monica Ramirez Basco, Ph.D. It’s one of the books I read as research for my “Journaling for Perfectionists” class. It’s both for perfectionists and those living with them.

There are chapters on “Challenging Your Beliefs,” “Automatic Thoughts and Thinking Errors,” “Adjusting your Expectations,” and “Making Changes that Last.” As with all books, it works only as well as you let it. Change isn’t easy, but as a recovering perfectionist, I know that any step you take that works is one that is helpful.

The book is available at The class (which is a journal-writing class combined with creativity coaching, not therapy, as I’m not a therapist) runs on July 8, 2007 in person and online later in July.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer and certified creativity coach. See her work at (c) 2007.  All rights reserved. This post, like the whole site, is under copyright. See the tab at the top of the page for reprint information.

5 thoughts on “The Exhausted Perfectionist

  1. You hit a nerve with this one, Quinn. I flashbacked to a day when I was in high school and I brought home a report card with 5 A’s and a C in Math. The comment I received at home was “How come you got a C in Math?” Yup, I have perfectionist tendencies……

  2. Jan–Perfectionism is a bad state to be in. I was there and it takes a lot of fighting to get out. Unfortunately, it didn’t make me slim, too! But you are right, clutter is often a way to hide and wait out perfectionism.

  3. Interestingly, a tv program I watched the other week about people who hoard things to the point of health-department warnings mentioned perfectionism as one of the side-attributes of this problem. Also that obsessive-compulsive disorder can be behind both! It’s something I have noted on a organizing list I belong to: a person plagued with clutter wishes to become less plagued with clutter but is so burdened with perfectionism that she cannot begin to toss, sort, or rearrange anything because she doesn’t yet have the perfect plan for what she wants it to look like. It looks like dithering, but it a fear of being wrong.
    I’ve had three different craft/studio rooms in the twelve years I have been doing art. Twice my rooms have appeared in magazines showing how I have them arranged and organized. At no time have I been satisfied with the arrangement, but it has been acceptable ‘for now.’ But the point is, that I risked choosing the wrong arrangements, the not-quite-right storage. I think I’ve probably spent more than I should have, but I am now quite content with my studio (until the next time I choose to rearrange it!).
    Fear of being wrong is difficult to overcome and my hat comes off to anyone who makes it!

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