Three Types of Perfectionism (and which will kill you)

I suspect this article on perfectionism will be useful to bring with you into this holiday season. It comes with a little challenge, too, so I hope you’ll stay with me all the way to the end.

Too often, to be a woman alive today means to be obsessed with being “perfect.”

Perfect hair, perfect nails, perfect posture, perfect weight, perfect grades, perfect kids, perfect partner, perfect manners, perfect shoes.

The promise is that once we reach “perfect” we’ll finally be okay. Accepted. Loved. Enough. Worthy. Safe.

Now, have you ever reached “perfect?” Me neither.

And yet, perfectionism remains a popular and crowded industry.

I think there are actually three kinds of perfectionism. One kind is deadly. Two kinds, however, hold clues to really learning to like ourselves. As we are, now.

Perfectionism Type I: Cover Up Your Flaws

I was a professional modern dancer in my first career. When I started training in earnest at 13 years old, 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, and pleasing. Be perfect.

This is an impossibly tall order for 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 kills.

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

Perfectionism Type II: Pursuing Excellence

My friend Susan is a talented, detailed, and virtuosic graphic designer. (Hi, Su!) Susan told me a while back 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, feeling proud of herself, feeling glad for her gift.

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

Because she included enjoyment, fulfillment, and self-pride as she described her perfectionism, I would diagnose Susan as having Perfectionism Type II – which isn’t actually about “perfect,” but about excellence.

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

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

Perfect, as aspired to in Perfectionism Type I, is a mirage. By design, it is unreachable except through imagination and airbrushing. Perfect is a spectre. It narrates our lives with unrelenting inner criticism.

Excellence, however, is about being a little better today than yesterday. Being proud of ourselves and glad for our gifts. Seeing how fast we can run, like the racehorses we are. Fine-tuning, aligning, and refining as a spiritual experience. Virtuosity as a sacred high.

Perfectionism Type III: You Are Made for This

In looking up perfectionism in the dictionary, I found this allegory, which I think is spot on: A cracked vase is not so great anymore for holding flowers, but it is PERFECT for watering the garden.

Perfectionism Type I tells us to cover up our cracks. But that flower vase – and Perfectionism Type II – reminds us that what are flaws in one situation are gifts in another.

As songwriter Leonard Cohen puts it, our cracks are where the light gets in. And how our gifts get out. Trying to cover them up is the only real flaw.

The truth is, you are perfectly made for what you are perfectly made for.

A recommendation for recovering perfectionists:

Here’s the challenge I mentioned at the top of this article. Every day, for the next ten days, find ten ways you can be proud of yourself. Feed yourself ten self-pride morsels a day.

What you did well. What you loved, when you felt a spike of joy, when you gave your gift, when you had your heart in it. Small, large, and medium moments of pride – 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 we throw ourselves one meager “I guess I did okay” bone, but usually not even that.

I know it might be hard. Self-pride – truly, self-love – is like muscle-toning at the gym or gaining flexibility in dance class. Keep doing it and you’ll get strong and svelte.

This is how “I’m all wrong” transforms into “I’m just right.” This is how our flaws turn out to be gifts.

This is how our cracks help us find out all the ways we are perfectly made.

So now it’s your turn:

Come on over to the discussion and let us know something you are proud of yourself for or a gift of yours you are glad for, even in the face of whatever type of perfectionism you may be dealing with. And hey, it counts for one of your ten, so you’ll get a jump on your challenge! (See how I appealed to the racehorse in you?)

I look forward to seeing you there,

PS: Photo by Zainab Mlongo from Unsplash