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The birth of a perfectionist

By Shelah Miner

gradeWe noticed while reading essays for this year’s Heather Campbell personal essay contest that many of the entries focused on the writers’ perfectionist tendencies. We also agree that perfectionism is something that many of us on the staff struggle with. So we decided to devote some time on the blog to discussing it. Over the next few weeks, we’ll have a series of posts dedicated to feeling the pressure to be not just good, or the best we can be, but perfect.

Growing up,  I never saw myself as much of a perfectionist. I was a swimmer, but far from the best on the team. I was a dancer, but never a soloist. I was an actress, but played Patty Simcox instead of Sandy in Grease. I was the assistant editor of the school newspaper, not the editor-in-chief. And I wasn’t a straight-A student. I didn’t even aspire to being a straight-A student.

My first semester of college, I submitted to the torture that was Bio 100. The first test, with pages and pages of A-J multiple choice questions, left me feeling rattled, and I walked home from the BYU testing center feeling pretty bummed out about my grade, but also confident that I could rally my efforts and get a B in the class. A B, after all, was still a good grade, right?

My boyfriend at the time didn’t think so. When I told him about the test, and the D I’d gotten on it, any my plan to step it up and get a B, the look on his face told me what he never would have verbalized– that a B just wasn’t good enough. He’d never gotten anything other than an A in his whole academic career. I felt like the bar was raised for me too.

I hit the books hard, went to the TA sessions, and ended up a B+ in the class. It was better than I thought I could do at the beginning of the semester, but instead of feeling happy about finishing the semester strong, I was upset that I didn’t meet my boyfriend’s unspoken expectations.

I never got a B (or a B+) again. A perfectionist was born.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten a lot more perfectionistic as I’ve gotten older. I want my house cleaned a certain way, laundry folded a certain way, the throw pillows on the couch plumped and arranged just so.  Misspelled words and unruly kids cause me intense embarrassment. I’m not perfect. I’ll never be perfect. There’s only one person who was ever perfect. I know all that, but it doesn’t keep me from trying.

I doubt I’m the only one out there who feels this way. If you’re a perfectionist, spill it. Were you born that way, or did you grow into it? In what parts of your life is it most evident? What do you do to control it?

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About Shelah Miner

(Co-Editor-in-Chief) teaches English at BYU and French at a Salt Lake City middle school. She has an addiction to her Audible account, hates making dinner, and embraces the chaos of life with a husband, six kids, a dog, a lizard and four rabbits.

27 thoughts on “The birth of a perfectionist”

  1. Oh wow.
    I'm such a frustrated perfectionist, I'm too afraid to really write anything here– because it will fail to perfectly describe all my thoughts, feelings and emotions on this subject!

    I am going to love reading all the other comments. Maybe I can gain a healthier attitude and perspective on my own issues! 🙂

    I will comment on just one thing though. "Misspelled words and unruly kids cause me intense embarrassment."
    Me too!
    Why is that?
    Especially with the kids. I see them as an extension of myself, like an extra arm or leg! Which they clearly are not. They have choice and agency. I feel like I am being judged good mommy or bad mommmy by the way they behave. I used to be much more conscientious of this, but I have slowly been able to let go a little because of examples set by a couple of great friends.
    I was raised by parents who were mortified by our unruliness, and now I've done that somewhat to my own kids; it is a heavy load for a child to bear. I still make mistakes everyday, but I'm trying hard not to make my kids pay for my "perfectionist" disease! 🙂

    (Oh my gosh, if there are any typos in here,
    please ignore! -she said with a sheepish grin)

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  2. First – how in the world did you get the presidential scholarship without a perfectionist drive in high school?

    I'm not a perfectionist anymore so I'm not sure I am qualified to answer this. The funny thing is I used to be one. After a very tragic seventh grade year, I started getting good grades. My freshman year of high school I had all A's and it wasn't that hard – after that it became more of a goal and I graduated high school top of my class with all A's. Even in college I think I had a couple of B + (including aerobics because my sit and reach score was unacceptable – who knew my poor flexibility would bring down my GPA) but worked hard enough to stay at the top. When I worked, I always wanted to do my best, get the best ratings, get promoted ahead of schedule, etc.

    Now, the perfectionism seems to be gone. I can't decide if it's because I'm primarily motivated by outside sources (e.g. good grades, bonuses, awards) and we all know there isn't much of that in being a SAHM or that my five children came so quickly that I had to learn to let go and enjoy or I'd be a stressed out crazy woman. Whatever the reason, I'm not much of a perfectionist anymore and I don't feel much guilt about things either. I sometimes think I could use a little more self-motivation but I don't miss the guilt that comes from never measuring up.

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  3. Uh, what if we're totally not a perfectionist? I got a .35 my second semester at BYU (yes, as in D- average. I liked to hang with friends, NOT do homework.) I couldn't have cared less what anybody thought about my grades. Maybe that's the key to not being a perfectionist: not investing your worth in other people's opinions. I am caring about people's opinions of me less and less as I get older. It also seems that I am less particular when I am happier. The only time I really like to organize things is when I'm sad or upset. So if my house is messy, you know I'm in a good mood!

    I used to want my towels folded just so. My pantry laid out just so. Organized my closets just so (OK, I still have my closet organized very specifically.) Now I just really don't care. All that work and what is the payoff? There isn't one. Except a whole lot of extra work for me. I guess it all just eventually was too much. Too much trouble, too much pressure. And I also realized that nobody cares about my pantry. There are no awards for keeping my shoes arranged according to color and style. It makes no difference.

    I've just learned that I have a very finite amount of energy and I'd rather spend it on things that are enjoyable and have some sort of positive benefit.

    I'd rather teach my kids to be hard workers and have to live with sloppily folded towels, than to do it all myself and end up with a bunch of lazy teenagers who don't know how to clean or do laundry because their mom insisted on doing it the "right way" herself.

    That being said, I am sort of perfectionistic about my baking and cooking. Although I'm starting to realize that even when I make a cake that turns out crappy, My crappy is most people's awesome. It's still just fine.

    I also think that apologizing for something that is pretty good but not perfect is obnoxious.

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  4. I wish I had been a perfectionist in college…I wouldn't have had to retake Econ 110 THREE times. Ouch. Now I'm a perfectionist in some respects; yes, I like the living room just so and if anyone is coming over I want the house perfect. But that's just a cover-up for what slobs we really are. It's pathetic! 🙂

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  5. I'm a type A perfectionist, and I was absolutely born that way. I recall elementary school scenarios where I was committed to the facade of my perfection, and it made for a hard and trying childhood.

    I still deal with it, but I've forced myself to let go of some things. It's still very difficult for me, though, to admit that my life isn't in perfect order. I've given up on the illusion that I am perfect, but now tend to focus my energy on the illusion that I don't have any trials. I think it has something to do with my need to feel in control of what's going on around me.

    That probably doesn't make any sense, I'm sorry.

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  6. I am for sure not a perfectionist. And I am happy. Although I do feel guilty on occasion when I am around perfectionists.
    But what I really wanted to say was I hope you didn't end up marrying the boyfriend. Yikes… I would hate to see what would happen if you got sick and your house was a mess and he came home from work to that!
    I have strengths, and I have weaknesses, and I try to improve my weaknesses… but I am totally grateful to the scripture in Doctrine and Covenants that talks about how some people have some spiritual gifts, and some people have other spiritual gifts, and if we strive to get gifts, and pray for blessings, the Lord will give us the gifts we need. I think non-spiritual talents (if there are such things) work the same way… and I am happy to be continually working towards getting better.
    Only Jesus was perfect!

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  7. Jenny– Just think of it as therapy and let it all out! I think you'll find a sympathetic ear here.

    Courtney– I agree that as a SAHM, there are fewer appropriate places for us to channel our perfectionist tendencies. I think it's a good thing that you're now a "recovering perfectionist." 🙂

    As for the presidential scholarship thing, no one was more surprised than me when I got it. I'm still not sure how that happened. Maybe it was because I was a jack of all trades, master of none. Eddie says I was the token convert in the bunch. And I'm being a little bit disingenuous about my grades in high school– I did get Bs. Lots of them. But in my school no one got straight As. I was the class salutatorian with a 3.8 GPA (another shocking moment for me). So I didn't really think straight As were a realistic goal for college (wouldn't it be harder to get good grades in college?).

    Jennie- I think you make an excellent point about not letting our desire for order and perfection get in the way of teaching our kids and making them responsible. When I was a kid, I always felt like I wasn't doing a good enough job at my chores around the house, even though I (usually) put in my best effort. When my 7yo wants to fold laundry, I cringe, but I restrain my impulses to refold everything because I want her to feel proud of her work. When my 4yo cleans the toilet, however, I wait until he leaves the room and then I do it again. 😛

    Brenda– I think you make a good point about how we often want things to look good to cover up our insecurities.

    Justine– Both of my older kids came hard-wired for perfectionism (so did my DH, the evil boyfriend in the above scenario) and I've seen first-hand that it can make for a difficult childhood. I find myself saying, "you did your best, let it go" a lot of times around here. The "letting go" part is particularly hard for my kids. It makes standardized tests a beast and turns piano practice into knock-down, drag-out competitions. Ugh.

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  8. Justine– I wanted to add that I think what you say about wanting to appear that you don't have any trials is really interesting. When Isaac was sick people constantly asked me if they could help, and I never wanted to let them because I didn't want them to think I couldn't handle it myself.

    Ginger– I did marry him! LOL! And he doesn't care AT ALL about the house, and he really didn't care about my grades, he was just unconsciously reflecting his own perfectionism. But he grew up in a house where good grades (meaning As) were the norm. They were expected. Three of the four kids were valedictorians. And they were (and still are) competitive with each other about academics and stuff like that. I'll never forget going to a Thanksgiving dinner with his extended family where the college-age kids were playing boggle. His brother and I approached the table and they said, "You have to have an ACT score of at least 33 to play with us."

    I have to say that when he finally got a B+, in an anatomy class his senior year of college, I had so much fun at his expense.

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  9. I am not a perfectionist-and achiever but not a perfectionsit– as anyone who knows me can attest. I have problems with details and too much structure. My brian does follow linear trains fo thoughts well. Just as it's hard to see the perfectionist tendencies passed on to our kids, it's hard to see the opposite passed on also. I feel responsible for my son's manner of scattered horizontal rather than vertical thinking.

    I think it is interesting how we evolve and polarize and move in adulthood- our personalities often more malleable in adulthood than we think in our gorwing up years.

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  10. I am both perfectionistic and casual, depending upon the matter at hand. I'm casual about the neatness of my closets and cupboards, perfectionistic about my writing, casual about my cooking, perfectionistic about my calling, casual about planning a vacation, perfectionistic about planning a program…and on and on.

    What it basically boils down to is that I'm a perfectionist about the things I care about and a casual person about the things I care less about. This is probably a survival mechanism because I care about a lot of things! And there's only so much perfectionism energy to go around…

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  11. I spent many years being a perfectionist, especially with academics. Part of it is that school stuff comes easy to me: I taught myself to read when I was 3 and I've always been very good at retaining information. I've mostly ever had straight As, even in grad school. But my only talents are pretty much academic, and I don't tend to be very perfectionistic about a lot of other things.

    I also think that for me it is less about perfection than control–and that has direct psychiatric roots in my crazy childhood. I couldn't control things that happened around me, but I could certainly control myself. I used to be very rigid in my routines, what I did, church stuff, etc. What actually started the change was my mission. I learned there that some stuff is just out of my control, and I'm still OK. I didn't follow the rules exactly and I only did the best I could, but God still loved me. And since having kids I've been able to let go a lot. Like others have said, I've realized that I have a finite amount of time and energy and I just don't want want to spend too much of it fretting about little things that aren't important. I've also learned that I can fail and I'm still a good person and that God still approves of me.

    Unfortunately I'm still trying to figure out how to apply all this to my kids, and my husband and I are both too overbearing and perfectionistic as parents.

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  12. Like Justine, I was born a perfectionist. My 4th grade teacher was afraid I'd get an ulcer because I fretted over every assignment– burst into tears at any mistakes.

    But the perfectionist in me died with the births of my 5th and 6th children– I simply couldn't keep up the house, the perfectly combed hair, the superstar children any longer.

    I still have some MAJOR hangups, but maybe those will die with time too.

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  13. This is an interesting post. It reminds me of Brooke's recent post regarding 100%. Last night I read through the Relief Society Broadcast for the October 2005 General Conference and each of the speakers emphasized that women are too hard on themselves. I think it is so true.

    I am definitely a perfectionist about my grades, which I think is due to the constant feedback I receive. At work I get paid whether or not my work is perfect, so I do not stress about it the same way I would if I got paid more for better work or less for mediocre work.

    After caring for a non-relative elderly couple for a few months where I was responsible for physical clearing out their apartment, selling their car, getting them approved my Medicaid to stay in their nursing home and so forth, I had issues with anxiety. I was always concerned if i was doing enough, if I was doing it right, if I should be doing more. When I returned to BYU after my internship, I met with a counselor who helped me understand the empowerment of choice in what I do. I can CHOOSE to do X,Y, Z tonight, the things I think I should be doing, or I can CHOOSE to spend an extra hour with my then-fiance(now husband)which may be more important that night. I can choose to stay up until 3 am stressing over an essay, or I can choose to work until midnight, get a reasonable amount of sleep, and hope that doing my best in the time I allow will be enough.

    So although I do have some perfectionist tendencies, I think that making conscious choices over what is most important to me that day helps remove the anxiety over all the things I think I SHOULD be able to do. Prayer is also extremely helpful in calming my soul and helping me prioritize.

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  14. I was born that way, and have slowly loosened up over the years. My first grade teacher told my parents to make me practice making mistakes and then not let me fix them. Pure torture, I tell you.

    And now, as a mom with a disabled child I still have some of those perfectionist tendencies. Whenever he has a big surgery coming up, I arrange care for my other children with family members (not ward members), stock the freezer with premade meals, and tidy up before we do our time at the hospital.

    I think a characteristic of perfectionist types is independence. We can do it all, or at least like to think we can.

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  15. I think in some ways I am, but in other ways I'm not. I got straight A's in high school, but my room was a mess. I clean a lot! And toss or give away even more. Clutter drives me banana. I have 5 kids too and they make their own beds and do their own laundry. But I don't mind if they put there whites with their darks, I just care that they are learning to take care of themselves. In fact, my white socks are usually with my darks:) Which my husband politely puts up with, but doesn't like.

    But to me, the bottom line is this. If what I am doing is making me happy and feel peaceful, then I figure I'm on the right track. If what I am doing is making feel miserable, then maybe there's something wrong with my thinking. For me getting A's wasn't stressful…I enjoyed school and learning. And when I did get my first C in college, it didn't particularly bother me. Same goes for cleaning…to have a clean house makes me feel good. But I know there are times when I am thinking more about how others view me and that's when it gets stressful. I don't think it's about what we are doing, it's about why and what outcomes we are truely looking for.

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  16. What Mrs. Organic said about perfectionism relating to independance is good stuff. Which is probably why I've been faced with illness, I've had to depend on others (mostly DH) and it has taught me alot about independance/humility/the grace of service.

    My 14 year old daughter and I had a discussion about this on Saturday. The thing that causes me to return to perfectionist tendencies, that I am really happy I have abandoned, is regret. I just got a B on a research paper, and I so regret not editing just one more time. I got a B on a mid-term, just a little more studying and more careful attention to the questions could have resulted in an A. Regret I tell you, it's a killer.

    In the past I found my perfectionist streak was debilitating. I couldn't get anything done if I knew I couldn't do it perfectly!! Oh, if I don't have a gallon of floor cleaner and three hours to mop the entire first floor twice I'd better not even start. Need I mention that I didn't use a mop, I'd do it on my hands and knees with a sponge?! This is the definition of insanity. I am exaggerating, slightly, but you get my point.

    When you are truly a perfectionist everything in life becomes a mammoth undertaking and you are robbed of the joy, creativity and spontenaity that makes life enjoyable. And I am sure I spelled a word wrong somewhere in there!

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  17. I think that I would have been a perfectionist, but for a pivotal moment in a Child Psychology class my Sophomore year of college. I was describing to the class how my grandma was a complete perfectionist and my mother was the polar opposite of a perfectionist. An insightful professor asked me what I was going to be.

    I think I was heading more in the direction of my Grandma until he asked that question. I thought about his question for a minute and made a deliberate decision that I wanted to be somewhere in the middle of those two. I think I have found a balance most of the time, but if I steer to much in one direction or another I try to veer back to something more moderate.

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  18. Some of those things listed as perfectionist tendencies might actually be OCD tendencies, needing to have things done or placed in a specific way.

    I used to be a perfectionist, and I'd hold everyone around me to the same impossible standards and then make them miserable when they couldn't live up to them either. My mission president lovingly pointed out to me that doing that made me a very hard person to live with. I've been working on that real hard ever since. Of course I haven't lived with anyone in 7 years, so I don't know how I'm doing at it, but I think I'm doing much better.

    Now that I'm studying a lot of motivation theories for my Ph.D., my ideas and views on perfectionism have changed just a bit. It's an interesting concept.

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  19. Let's define perfectionism a bit. Does it mean "wants everything to be just so?" or does it mean "wants everything to be just so to the point that it paralyzes you from doing anything at all?"

    I get paralyzed by some things that I'm not very confident in, and I end up not trying at all. But others, that I'm pretty good at, I'm not scared to mess up in, because I have the confidence that I'll get it eventually. For me, perfectionism is most debilitating when it prevents me from even trying new things. And, when I put it like that, I guess I'm a huge perfectionist, because there are many things I don't even want to try because I know I am terrible at them, and I hate starting from scratch that way. I'm getting a little better as I get older–tae kwon do has been great for me that way–but it's still really hard to do things that I know I'm bad at on the first go. And things I don't even have a natural aptitude for.

    Then there's another kind of perfectionism, the kind that just makes me feel guilty for all the stuff I don't do. My sins of omission heaped upon my head.

    Hmmm. Food for thought–thank you.

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  20. To me perfectionism is doing something to perfection, and not resting/stopping until it is.

    I am not a perfectionist. My Mum was a perfectionist with housecleaning when I was growing up, and it was stifling. Now I mop when the floor's sticky and it's bugging me enough to do something about it.

    However, when I do something, if I want to do it well, I will do it well. When I want to do it really well, I try and do it really well. If it just needs doing, I don't waste my time/energy/effort on overachieving, I just do what needs doing.

    From what I've seen perfectionism just sets you up to fail. I was considered to be a "perfect student" in high school, which was stifling as well. I would get in much more trouble for a very minor action than someone else doing something worse, because I was seen to be perfect by others.

    What happens when you WANT to do something perfectly (I'm not even going to consider doing EVERYTHING perfectly) and it just doesn't work out? How much more pressure have you just put yourself under?

    I try to live somewhere between President Hinckley's admonition to "just do the best you can. Whatever it is, just do your best" and Emily Watts' encouragement to learn "when to stop at the first mile [so you can] chose to go the second mile on those few occasions when it really does make a difference to do so." (from her "Being the Mom" book).

    I don't have time to do everything perfectly. Nor the inclination. I am the most precious resource I have, and that my boys have, and I'm not going to waste it!

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  21. I have some perfectionistic tendencies, but much much less than I used to. Life is so much easier letting go. But . . . I get mad at myself that there are some things I haven't been able to let go of yet . . . which I think is a form of perfectionism: frustration for not being perfectly content with imperfection.

    Ooh, and in spite of my own grammar inadequacies, I sure get picky about dh's occasional pronunciation and grammar flaws. My most current example is how we talk to our son. I want him to learn to speak well, and I am totally stuck on not using the word "huh." It's not, "You like that, huh?" It's, "You like that, don't you?" Oh how I make myself bite my tongue over that. So silly to care!

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  22. I admit it, I am a perfectionist who is trying hard not to be. I try to let things go like the house but really just cringe when things are not right.

    In education I was a straight A student. I went to Cambridge University because I felt it was the best in the world. I loved it there, but boy was it a shock that the world was full of other clever people too and I was not going to be top in everything.

    At church it annoys the life out of me that everyone turns up looking so perfect on Sunday and have well behaved families. This perfection thing kills off so many women. Funnily enough I can cope with other people having the perfect lifestyle, job, being clever, and having a tidy house. I just CANNOT cope with others having a perfect family while I see mine falling apart. Lets face it falling apart in public, at church, is not fun.

    I do feel I was born this way. I seem to always have been trying hard at everything. I am a self confessed control freak. I love to be in charge and do things my way. My husband says that if I did not have such high expectations for everything I would not be disappointed so often. It is our wedding anniversary this month, even that has to be perfect, wait for the tears when he forgets!!!

    I almost wasn't going to join in this discussion. I have always admitted to being a perfectionist, but never really liked that part of me too. Probably why the words calm and Kay don't go together in our house!

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  23. I have been the kind of perfectionist that won't start because it's not going to get done. Flylady.net's free emails and essays have really helped me not be overwhelmed. She is great at helping perfectionists recover. I am also the jack of all trades type, not expecting to be too good in any of them-and subsequently demeaning myself by not allowing myself to try hard enough in one area, so I am spared seeing my lack of success.
    Baby steps and making the choice to use my time the way I want has helped.

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  24. I call myself a recovering perfectionist. And it's a real struggle to overcome the desire to do things so right that I can 'prove' to myself that I'm 'good enough.'

    To me, that's what it's about…about being driven by external measures of success/completion/goodness/achievement, rather than having the kind of faith that leaves me with enough peace with my efforts and trust in God's grace to not worry so much about where and how I fall short.

    To me, this journey is also about really learning to understand when the Spirit is saying, "You can do (or maybe, better said, be) better, and here's how" vs. when my inner, critical, often-unrelenting voice is saying, "You *should* have done better."

    It's so easy to zoom in on specific ways in which I fall short, and not see myself as a whole person, on a journey that has a big picture that only God really knows about. It's as much a sin to unrighteously judge myself as it is to judge others, but I know I do it a lot because of how miserable I feel when I am hard on myself in unChristlike ways.

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