Most people speak negatively about perfectionists. They often wrongly lump the tendency toward perfectionism in with obsessive-compulsive disorder or narcissism. And they have some major misconceptions, such as:
- All perfectionists are neurotic control freaks who can’t work with others.
- Perfectionism is applauded only when great accomplishments result.
- Only perfectionism can achieve excellence; the rest of us have to stumble along.
How did perfectionists get such a bad rap? I think it’s due to perfectionists having two sides: the need to control and the need for excellence. Each side results from entirely different circumstances.
My mother tended to be a perfectionist. After losing her mother at age 6, she experienced emotional abuse at the hands of adoptive parents. I believe her anxiety and fear led her to focus on controlling her own destiny.
The downside of her perfectionistic control was her terrible temper and overly high expectations. I was supposed to be the “good boy” and so my personal life was always under scrutiny. Even though she mellowed considerably in time, in some ways it was too late for me. I never could speak about most of my problems with her or my father without feeling a sense of terrible shame. Their anxieties became mine and they died never really knowing about huge areas of my life.
Yet the flip side of my mother’s perfectionism was excellence. She taught us every kind of chore necessary to care of ourselves and to organize clean a home. We kids used to call her “La Neata” due to her diligence. She was also a great cook, an expert seamstress, and seemed actually to enjoy washing, hanging out the clothes, and ironing. I always had a folded and ironed handkerchief for my pocket!
Best of all, my mother’s perfectionism led her to reach out to those in need. She would regularly visit a local nursing home. She listened to others’ problems with empathy and compassion. When she was slowly dying with lymphoma through ages 76-78, I could see in her eyes the excellence of a profound faith and acceptance.
So before you judge perfectionists, realize that the control side is often based in childhood trauma. Instead seek out the excellence that results from wanting to do the right thing in the right way. We perfectionists may be difficult to live and work with at times, but beneath the surface you’ll discover a golden nugget of excellence waiting to be mined.
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