Perfectionism and Its Opposite: Compassion


I have never struggled with perfectionism. At least that’s what I always thought. I’m not the kind of person that needs every document to be perfect or to make straight As in class. My house is never spotless. Okay … well, it’s pretty clean if you come over with some notice. But, it will never be perfect. There will always be some cat hair on the bathroom floor, and the kitchen sink will have a few dirty dishes sitting in it. Of course, I just went back to take that sentence off because I was worried that you might think than when I say I have a few dirty dishes you would picture a mountain of dirty dishes and think I was a slob. Hmmmm … that was a little perfectionistic, wasn’t it? You see, I discovered along the way that perfectionism is not really about wanting to be perfect. It’s about wanting to control the image you have of me. It’s ultimately about being liked and accepted by you.

Brene Brown’s Take on Authenticity and Perfectionism

When I first moved down here, I stayed with an old friend who went ballistic because he found some fingerprints on his refrigerator door and some food crumbs on the kitchen counter. I spent a good amount of time cleaning before he got home to make sure that he would come home to a clean house, but I got a phone call telling me I was filthy, and he couldn’t believe I lived like that. I was mortified. I drove back to his kitchen and looked around and still couldn’t find anything out of line. When he told me about the fingerprints, I packed up my crap and left. I knew … with my brand of perfectionism …. that I could not spend another minute around somebody that held me to that standard. As I told him, there was nothing wrong with him, and there was nothing wrong with me. We just had different standards of clean, and we needed to leave it at that. My brand of perfectionism causes me to be in a great deal of pain and shame when I am called out like that. I want to be liked.

The problem with perfectionism – as Brene states in the video above – is perfectionism seeks to be seen in a certain way. We can’t control how people see us. Everyone has different standards and beliefs about how things ‘should’ be. Want to drive yourself crazy? Try to please multiple people at one time. I literally get crazy when I’m trying to meet multiple sets of expectations. My stomach gets in a knot. My stress level rises. My ability to think shuts down. I get in a mode of reacting instead of being. And… forget being creative … or nice … or grounded. I’m a mess. The only person I can really try to please is myself. If I’m lucky, I’ll find an employer, a group of friends and a community that accepts me as I am with my own set of peculiar behaviors and shortcomings. If I don’t find that, I’m going to be pretty miserable.

It’s easy for people to say that they don’t care what other people think. And, sometimes I feel that way, too. But, then I get criticized or rejected for having a bad day or messing something up or saying the wrong thing in the wrong tone of voice. I then realize how much I really do care what people think about me. The fact is I screw it up all the time. I get mad and say the wrong thing at least once a month. I make at least one mistake or find one thing wrong with me and the way I am every single day. Most days I find more than one thing. I get in my car and hate that it has dog hair all over it. I look in the mirror and think I dyed my hair too dark. I give my opinion at work and then I replay it 5000 times thinking I said it wrong, or I shouldn’t have said it at all, or I’m a total failure and should be fired. In fact sometimes I wonder how I even keep a job. None of it is reality. That’s my perfectionism talking, and it will paralyze me if I let it get out of control. Every person that rides in my car or deals with me at work or fixes their own hair screws it up, too. They may screw up different things, but they screw sh*t up everyday too.

I had very rigid thinking for many years about what was right and what was wrong and how people should be. When I did my 4th step in recovery, I realized that I screwed it up all the time, too. My sense of reality was shattered when I realized that even though I believed things should be a certain way, I didn’t always act that way, either. I couldn’t even hold to my own standards with any consistency. It was the day that compassion for others was born in me. Sure, I still get mad at people for treating me badly and call them incompetent when they can’t do something, but in my heart I know that they are just trying to do the best they can, too. After I give myself some time to process it, I understand that just because they screw up different things than I do, there is nothing wrong with them. And there is nothing wrong with me either.

I now try to practice compassion with myself and others. And I say try knowing I’m not perfect at that either. When I get bent out of shape or screw up an interaction, I make whatever amends I need to in time, but I also forgive myself for being a jerk when I was hurt. I will also forgive you in time, too. But, I need to get right with myself first. Once I do that, it’s much easier to see that you were just reacting too. I try not to be-rate myself anymore, and I try to support my friends in being compassionate with themselves when they are needy, belligerent or otherwise imperfect. Do we really expect people to not react to emotions? To not feel pain? To always be on par with a level emotional response? I don’t. If you do, you probably spend a lot of time alone or angry at people for not living up to your standards. I don’t want to live like that anymore. The truth is that hardly anybody lives up to my standards. I don’t even live up to my standards. Why would you? And, I probably don’t live up to yours. Get over it.

I spent some time talking with a musician one night, and I asked about mistakes he made when he was playing. He said that in any piece of music, there are always lots of mistakes. I was astounded. I thought they might make mistakes every now and then but not ALL the time. My mind went right to the feeling I would have if I was in front of an audience and making mistakes all of the time. Musicians must be a different sort of people after all of that practice letting go of being perfect. One of the main reasons I started blogging was because I knew I’d have to show up with all of my insecurities, faults, typos and grammar mistakes every day. I’m still mortified when I re-read a blog, and I realize I spelled something wrong or missed a typo. I think, “Why didn’t anybody tell me?” It makes me crazy. Then, I realize that it probably didn’t matter all that much to them. I have grammar police friends that probably raised an eyebrow or two, but they very compassionately don’t call me out.  Most of the time, I go in as quickly as possible and fix it before anyone sees it. But sometimes ….. sometimes …. I’m able to leave it in its beautiful imperfect perfection.


9 Comments on “Perfectionism and Its Opposite: Compassion

  1. A refreshing read with great timing for me! About to jump into weeks of presenting to large groups every day. As a perfectionist – it can be hard to just have fun when I’m up there and let mistakes go…but I have to. If I want to have any kind of fun, I have to. Thanks for the post!

    • Thank you for stopping by! When I train, I have to really work at letting it go. I hear some people talking and I wonder if they are making fun of me or if I’m so boring they’ve lost interest. And it never fails… I can have 49 ‘exceptional’ratings, but the one I focus on is the one who said it was a waste of time! Good luck this week!

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