The Tyranny of Perfectionism — Friday Self Esteem

This is the post I was going to make on Friday, but was put off due to a migraine.  Thank you all for your patience with me.

On Wednesday, I had a delightful time making cookies with a very good freind of mine.   I was teaching her how to bake cookies.  Actually, as she’s a woman with children grown and left home, what I was really doing was giving her permission to not be perfect. 

We started off the day with her telling me that her fear of not being perfect usually paralyzes her in learning new things (like making cookies).  So, most of the day was spent with me giving her permission to not be perfect.  It’s baking, not nuclear science, if the sugar isn’t exactly one cup, it’s not really going to make a difference.  Yes, you want to be accurate in your measuring, but a tablespoon extra flour when the recipe calls for two and a quarter cups isn’t going to hurt.  Nor will an extra teaspoon of milk.

It’s taken me a long time to get over being a perfectionist.  At some point, I realized that the ideal of perfection had actually become the tyranny of perfection, and it was doing more to hinder me than to help me.

Like my friend, I used to be afraid to try anything new.  Learning a new art or craft was fraught with anxiety for me, because I knew I wouldn’t be “good enough”.  I expected perfection, the first time, every time.  When I didn’t get perfection the first time, it would only prove my belief that I was a failure.  Because, obviously, I couldn’t do this thing perfectly, so I was a failure.

I know that parents think they are helping their children to strive better when they say things like, “It’s only worth doing if it’s worth doing right!” or “Do it right the first time, then you don’t have to redo it.”  But something they don’t take into consideration is that there is a time when people are learning things where their best efforts are going to be mediocre.  Or even bad.  

To say the above can cause a person (child or adult) to internalize the mistakes as them being a mistake.  If you hear over and over that what you do isn’t good enough (especially for a child), you start to internalize the message.  It’s no longer that thing you made is a failure, but you are a failure for not making that thing perfect. 

It took me a long time to realize my perfectionism had crippled me.  I’d take up a new craft, and when I didn’t get it right the first time, I’d get frustrated, with myself, with the craft.  I’d beat myself up, telling myself I obviously wasn’t creative, wasn’t an artist, wasn’t good enough because I couldn’t do anything right.  Never mind that I’m accomplished at so many things (things I had to learn to do that included mistakes when I was learning). 

This is the really sad thing about the tyranny of perfectionism.  Because you aren’t perfect the first time in whatever, you use it to beat yourself up, to confirm to yourself what you knew (sometimes always knew) about what a failure you are.  But the fact is, even if you fail at this thing, you succeed in many other areas.  Do you have a job?  The fact that you obtained the job is a success (yes, even if the job is “just” retail or “just” fast food or “just” whatever).  Most likely, you were not the only one interviewed for the position, and they chose you.  Do you know how to cook?  The fact that you can do so is a success (even if it’s “only” home cooking and not gourmet or “only” four things or “only” whatever). 

My friend is an accomplished seamstress.  She can make clothes with no patterns.  She can make full Elizebethan costumes with no patterns (that includes the corset, the two under skirts, the over skirt, the partlet — a kind of old fashioned dicky — and the bodice/coat on top of it all).  And yet, she feels like a failure because she can’t roll a dough ball perfectly round.  It boggles the mind, although I’ve done it too.  I am very good at cooking (I’ve even had professional chefs eat my food, which is a high compliment), and yet, because I have poor sewing skills, I’ve called myself a failure.

When I was in my twenties, I heard something that has had a profound affect on me regarding perfection.  It was regarding baseball players averages.  They have their averages in hits looking like .346.  That means that they hit the ball 346 time out of 1000.  That’s not perfect.  That’s not even average (if you look at average as being halfway), yet the guys who hit in the .300’s+ are the ones that make the big baseball salaries.  They are the ones that are considered a major success.  They are the ones who are bid on hot and heavy when it comes time to bid on players at the beginning of the season.

Yet they fail 600+ times out of 1000 attempts to hit the ball.  Think about that for a while.

Failure isn’t necessarily bad.  Perfection isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be.

My friend went home with some awesome cookies that she helped make, and hopefully, permission to not have to make the dough balls perfectly round every time she makes this specific type of cookie.   And by giving her permission to not be perfect, I also reminded myself that I don’t have to be perfect. 

It really is okay to not be perfect, to not do it right the first time, every time.   The cookies come out tasting great even if they are a little lopsided.   And, as another saying goes, the proof of the pudding (or cookie) is in the eating.

Color outside the lines.  Make lopsided cookie balls.  Learn to love the process of learning.  Give yourself permission to screw up once in a while.  And most importantly, remember that just because you make mistakes doing something (whether it’s something new or something old to you), that does not mean you are a failure.

5 Responses

  1. I used to hear my mother telling me all the time “if you aren’t going to do it right, don’t bother” then she’d get mad because I didn’t bother (especially because nothing I ever did was good enough for her, and I always had to redo everything, couldn’t win for losing with her). After I got out on my own, I learned that making mistakes is the only way to really learn how to do something (because when you make a mistake, you remember it and don’t want to repeat the experience). So I quit worrying about perfection, and started just doing the best I could do while I was learning how to do things better and better. Perfection is not something I strive for anymore, it’s too stressful trying for something I’m not going to reach anyway.

  2. The idea that one should just “be” an artist makes me a little perturbed, since I spent such a lot of money, time and effort on developing myself as an artist and worked hard every time I’ve taken on a new medium. No one expects people to just be a mechanic the first time they lift a hood!
    Also, I utterly hate the idea of perfection, because so very very much of life is subjective…your perfect lasagna is way too saucy for my taste, my perfect cookies are way too sweet for your taste.

  3. Sorry to rain on your parade here, but I feel like perfectionism, or at least my brand of it, is being unfairly portrayed.

    I’m a perfectionist too, and what I’m facing isn’t doing a mediocre or lousy job a few times while “learning.” You never stop learning. I’m facing doing things in a pathetically mediocre, crappy way over and over and over and over and over for potentially the rest of my life in the hope that someday I might do it well enough to not be embarrassed by it (not perfection, just a level of not-sucking that makes it actually worth doing at all), which is not at all guaranteed. Improvement is mind-numbingly slow if it happens at all, and a lot of activities require constant practice just to maintain your current level. How is that worth it? (And no, I don’t have a job [student] and I cannot cook, so I guess I just don’t deserve self-esteem anyway.) This is not comparable to cookies that are lopsided but delicious. More like cookies that immediately collapse into crumbly fragments and also taste awful.

  4. meerkat: “(And no, I don’t have a job [student] and I cannot cook, so I guess I just don’t deserve self-esteem anyway.) ”

    As a student you are succeeding every day. Unless you are failing all your classes (and even that is not necessarily an indicator of lace of success), then you are succeeding. Do you get up every day (or most days) and go to class? Congratulations, you are a success. And more of a success then I was when I went to college (I never attended classes, did all my assignments and went to all my tests — and did well on them all — but after the first month, never went to my classes).

    Not knowing what it is you are doing, nor the challenges you might have to deal with, I would wonder if whatever it is you are doing that you feel that way about (doing things in a “pathetically mediocre, crappy way over and over for the rest of [your] life in the hope that someday [you] might do it well enough to not be embaressed by it”) is maybe something you don’t have the ability to do. No, I’m not putting you down. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. My strengths happen to be writing, jewelry making and design, cooking and baking. My weakness happens to be sewing, and most things mechanical. Anything at all related to sewing. I’ve been sewing for over ten years and the things I’m producing now are finally to a level that I don’t feel completely embarressed wearing them.

    So, is it possible that you are an octagonal peg trying to fit into a round hole, and that may be the reason your skills don’t develop the way you want them to? Again, this is just a question, as I don’t know anything about your situation other than what you’ve said here, and in a recent Friday Series post I made.

  5. I hear ya, I am a perfectionist though sometimes you can’t tell lol, I have such high standards and expectations for myself that when I can’t do something to the standard I have I just give up and don’t do it. Something I am working on.

    I think we are often alot harder on ourselves then we are on anyone else.

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