Stephanie Dowrick reflects on perfectionism

In our breathtakingly competitive society, children as young as 6 or 7 are increasingly refusing to learn something that could be rewarding or even tremendous fun because they can’t do it instantly or be the immediate “best”. And some adults – who should know better – behave similarly. Perfectionism has its compelling side, of course, pushing us from within to make more efforts than we believed possible. But when so many of us take our measure of “self” from outside ourselves, the shadow side of perfectionism often outweighs any benefits. This might include fears of seeming stupid or inadequate. And it always includes highly disruptive fears of failure. Yet, in almost every instance, the only “failure” is to opt out too early! Or never to begin…

Whenever we are prepared to engage with something worth doing, we learn more than the activity itself. We also grow in patience, resilience and resourcefulness. Absorbed in what we are doing or learning, we can forget those feared judgements that other people may – or may never – make. We can do or learn something worthwhile for its own sake; for our own sake.

It’s not just a fear of failure that drives perfectionism; it’s a fear of being seen as less than adequate.  Yet no resourceful or even mildly adventurous person succeeds first time, every time. To do so would mean staying within an ever-shrinking comfort zone. And what a small world that would be. “Mistakes” can be highly instructive, even liberating. Losing our fear of mistakes (and how we believe they make us look in other people’s eyes), we are freed to live in a world of far greater opportunity, discovery and interest.

We can live more responsively and creatively. We can claim whatever inner strengths we need, even without a saintly disposition – or without “deserving” them!  On a daily basis, we can try out new ideas, strategies, languages, responses, ways of relating. We can discover in the laboratory of our own lives what works best.  And then discover all over again what’s needed as life changes.

Looking around, we discover that can we learn a great deal from ALL of our experiences. And that sometimes it is in sharing moments of frustration, or in asking for help, or in recovering from a setback, that we also discover our closest connections with other people. In fact, the irony is that “perfectionism” is off-putting; it makes us difficult or prickly to be around. We are rarely admired for it!  Doing our best is terrific. Aiming high is wonderful! Helping and supporting others to do their best is also wonderful. But perfectionism (and the fears and competitiveness that drive it) does not serve us well, nor anyone around us. It’s a spoiler. Discovering that we can be absorbed in process, that we can appreciate our own efforts and do better when they – and not perfectionism – drive us, we will also discover new levels of creativity and aliveness in our own lives.

Experiencing that could feel quite perfect!