Wednesday, January 25, 2012


In a conversation with my mom earlier a couple months ago, I mentioned that I was learning that I was a perfectionist.  She laughed at me.  That's right.  My mom laughed at me.

At first, I was a little taken aback.  My mom has never been the type of person to laugh at me when I'm struggling or being honest, so what was her deal?  What had I said that was so funny?  Before I had much time to think about it, she continued, asking why it had taken me so long to finally admit what she has been telling me for years.  Apparently, she has been telling me in various ways, for a significant period of time, that I am a perfectionist and, for some reason, I just haven't been able to accept it as truth.

I have spent months thinking about this one brief conversation and I think I've finally reached some conclusions.  First, I am a perfectionist.  Second, my particular need for perfection is directed inward and doesn't always manifest itself outwardly.

Why did it take me so long to figure out that I am, in fact, a perfectionist?  To answer that question, I think I need to define the caricature of perfectionism that has been developing in my brain since childhood.

A perfectionist is precisely groomed and dressed at all times.  She would never be caught wearing sweats or stained clothing.  Wrinkles are out of the question.  Her hair is never haphazardly done or thrown in a ponytail.  If it looks haphazard, it has been purposefully made to look that way after considerable effort.  The perfectionist coordinates clothes with shoes, jewelry, and other accessories so that she looks put-together.  Makeup is tastefully done to look like it isn't being worn at all and can be adjusted easily to accommodate any situation.

Let's face it, I definitely do not fit with this image of perfectionism.

Everything around a perfectionist is also neat, clean, and orderly, whether it is her desk, her home, or her car.  Papers are neatly filed.  Pens and pencils are placed in a holder at the corner of the desk, always easily found.  When entering the home of a perfectionist, the non-perfectionist cringes, worried about touching anything for fear of somehow messing up the cleanliness and organization of the space.  One spill or misplaced item would certainly be noticed immediately.  And don't even get me started on the perfectionist's closets.

If you have ever been to my house, my workplace, or seen my car,  it would be pretty obvious that this description is nowhere close to a description of me.

Finally, a perfectionist is supremely organized.  Appointments are scheduled in advance, written neatly in a proper planner, and never missed.  A perfectionist never forgets to do anything on her to-do list.   She never has a moment of panic when she realizes she has forgotten something incredibly, or not so incredibly, important.  Grocery lists are carefully planned and on grocery day nothing is forgotten.

Again, not me.

I'm sure anyone reading this can identify with at least part of my description.  My image of perfectionism has been growing and evolving for years, but it wasn't until very recently that I realized that I have somehow made a very important error.

Somehow, I have confused perfectionism with perfection.

A perfectionist, by definition, must be a person.  Based on the root word "perfect," one can surmise that a perfectionist is a person who is driven by being perfect.  Perfection, on the other hand, isn't a person at all, but an idea.  I am now very confident that while I am not even approaching perfection, I am, perhaps unfortunately, driven by perfection.

I plan to delve more deeply into the applications of this realization in a later post, but basically it means I hold myself to an impossible standard - all the time.  And because I can never live up to this self-imposed standard, I spend a good deal of time experiencing guilt and feelings of inadequacy.

For example, sometimes I feel an incredible urge to write, but I put it off because I don't have the time at that moment for perfection or, even worse, my husband is nearby and I don't want to take the chance that he might read something over my shoulder that is imperfectly composed.  It sounds crazy.  It is crazy.  But it's the reason I haven't blogged in months.  What if someone noticed that my writing was lacking in content or in editing?  What if it wasn't as good as I wanted it to be?  So, I fight back the urge to write and move on.

Before you go thinking that I was that kid with those parents, the ones who imposed such strict standards that the child is terrified of failure, let me just say that nothing could be farther from the truth.  I've done a lot of thinking about why I'm like this and I can't quite pinpoint a set of reasons.  As my four-year-old daughter says often, "It's just the way God made me."

I have so much more to say about this topic, but I feel like I've already gone on too long.  I do, however, feel like I need to mention one last thing.  This self-imposed standard of perfection is just that: self-imposed.  No one else is holding me to this standard.  God, in his infinite grace, isn't even holding me to this standard.  Every minute I spend feeling guilt over not being perfect enough is a wasted minute, a minute in which I am purposefully turning my back on God's gift of grace.