Three kinds of perfectionism (and which will kill you)

As I see it, there are actually three kinds of perfectionism.

Perfectionism Type I: Cover Up Your Flaws

My first career was as a professional modern dancer.  When I started training in earnest when I was 13, I quickly learned the rules for “making it,” which turn out to be the same for a dancer as for a woman:

Be ON all the time, thin, pretty, pleasing, and tough.

This is an impossibly tall order for most of us, and in trying to “make it” we stuff down, deny, and hide certain parts of ourselves, absolutely certain we are flawed and insufficient as we are.

When this cover-up job really gets rolling, it becomes a full-blown war with ourselves and it gets a fancy title: Perfectionism.

We believe that we are not okay as we are, BUT if we cover up our flaws on the way to completely changing ourselves into a good and acceptable woman, then all will be well.

I call this kind of perfectionism the cancer of the soul.

Of the three kinds of perfectionism, Type I is the one that will kill you.

Because you can never really be someone other than who you really are, the only reward that Perfectionism Type I offers is perpetual dissatisfaction.  With a side of anxiety.  And overwhelm.  And depression.

Somehow, however, I did not die a slow, tortured death by perfectionism.

Keep reading, because at the end of this article, I’ll share the practice that put my Perfectionism Type I into remission and eventually allowed me to enjoy my Perfectionism Types II and III.

Perfectionism Type II: Pursuing Excellence

My friend Susan is a talented, detailed, and virtuosic graphic designer (hi, Susan!).

Susan told me one day that she loved her perfectionism.

She geeks out on getting her designs JUST SO.  She salivates over the right shade of color, the swoop of line, the elegant font.  When she nails it, she smiles, maybe fist pumps the air, feeling proud of herself.

She notices the tiny incremental changes she can make from one design to the next, that will improve it and make it shine.  And the extra time and focus that all requires of Susan is quite fulfilling for her.

Because she included enjoyment, satisfaction, and real self-pride as she described her perfectionism, I told her she had Perfectionism Type II, which is really all about excellence.

Perfectionism Type II is self-affirming rather than self-negating.

It’s about creating something rather than covering something up.

“Perfection” as aspired to in Perfectionism Type I is a mythic, made-up, mirage.  In this mirage, we believe that once we reach perfection, it will inoculate us forevermore against suffering.

But we all know, you can never really reach a mirage.  That’s how mirages work.  Always moving just beyond your parched, desperate reach.

Real life is a dynamic journey, and so is excellence.

Excellence is about being a little better today than yesterday.  Seeing how fast you can run, you racehorse you.  Refining, aligning, and designing like a Japanese flower arranger.

Fine-tuning as a spiritual experience.

Virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake.

Perfectionism Type III: You Are Made for This.

One time I looked up perfectionism in the dictionary to learn more about this wily beast, and I found this allegory (which I’m gussying up a bit):

A cracked vase is no longer great for holding flowers, but it is PERFECT for watering the garden.

If you have doubts about your cracks and flaws and are in the grips of Perfectionism Type I, it’s good to take your cues from that flower vase and remember that what are problems in one situation are gifts in another.

Or take your cues from songwriter Leonard Cohen, who reminds us all that our cracks are where the light gets in.

And how your gifts get out.

You can’t be perfectly ON all the time, thin, pretty, pleasing, and tough, but you are perfectly made for what you are perfectly made for.

My recommendation for recovering perfectionists:

Here is that practice I promised you to help put your Perfectionism Type I into remission.

Every day, for the next ten days, give yourself TEN appreciations.

Appreciations are whatever you are proud of in yourself.  What you did well.  What you loved, when you felt a spike of joy, when you had your heart in it.  Small, large, and medium appreciations: all will do.

But be rigorous about giving yourself TEN.

And when you’ve done TEN, you can have ONE “what could have gone better,” or “what didn’t work.”

Most of us have it the other way around – a barrage of “top ten ways I bombed,” “totally ruined it,” and “I should be ashamed and never allowed back on the playing field.”

And in that barrage, maybe you throw yourself one meager “I guess I did okay” bone, but usually not even that.

Appreciating yourself is like muscle-toning at the gym or gaining flexibility in yoga class.  Keep doing it, and you’ll get svelte.

This is how you turn your focus from “I’m wrong and I suck” to “I’m just right.”

This is how flaws get loved up and turn out to be gifts.

This is how cracks find out all the ways they are perfectly made.

However you do it, as you transition from Perfectionism Type I to Types II and III, what will fall away are your own doubts about yourself.

Your sense of unworthiness.  Your feeling like a fraud.  Your people-pleasing.  Your chronic exhaustion.  Your fear of making even a tiny mistake.  Your feeling that you don’t really know who you are.

What blooms in place is a true and dear seeing of yourself.

Self-love.  Self-awareness.  Self-trust.  Wholeness.  Wisdom.  Courage and confidence.  Zest for life.  Excellence.  The ability to take a stand for every pockmark, scar, oddity, and wart as a precious keyhole through which you touch the Sacred.  The courage to be messy.  Strength in vulnerability.  Ease and flow.  Knowing that life is lucky to have you in it.

And the ability to finally tell the truth about how perfectly lovely and talented you truly are.

To you,

Photos by Wendy K. Yalom Photography