The desire to excel is a beneficial quality in human beings, helping to drive society forward. It’s a common trait for a person in any profession—a politician, athlete, teacher, student, artist, chef, and businessman—to possess this inner drive. After all, who doesn’t want to be the best at what they do?
However, there is a point where a seemingly positive and ambitious drive becomes a threat to both the individual and their future. This, folks, is the plight of perfectionism.
Psychology Today cleverly portrays life as a report card and perfectionism as the evaluator. Perfectionists seek nothing less than an A+. “The need for perfection is usually transmitted in small ways from parents to children, some as silent as a raised eyebrow over a B rather than an A.” I’ve seen this behavior firsthand, graduating from a highly competitive college preparatory school and then moving on to a small, very academic liberal arts university. Especially in high school, to be anything less than a perfectionist is almost not an option—everything was turned into a competition. Classrooms were the breeding grounds for creating the perfect mess, otherwise known as a perfectionist.
Obviously, the end game of success is a motivating factor for almost anyone, but for a perfectionist, the overall goal is to avoid failure. This is why perfectionism is so debilitating for women, who are already held to such high standards, especially in beauty. Eating disorders and perfectionism walk hand in hand. Societal pressures brew a perfectionist nature in women from a young age.
Growing up in the South, I was groomed, like the majority of southern folk, to be mannerly and to always “act like a lady.” Etiquette classes in elementary school taught young southern belles everything from being a hospitable host to properly eating soup. I’m not saying that we are all perfectionists, but in the South, a women’s position in society was clearly marked and carried a set of rules that should be upheld at all times. It was a woman’s job to adhere to the guidelines and excel in all she did.
A fascinating side note about females and the desire to please: women get into the habit of over-apologizing, a mannerism which Dr. Harriet Lerner describes as “a reflection of low self-esteem, a diminished sense of entitlement, an unconscious wish to avoid any possibility of criticism or disapproval before it even occurs…” I often find myself saying, “I’m sorry” to the tiniest things that I shouldn’t even be apologizing for. It’s nervous habit but we don’t see men suffering with it. Women have had to defend themselves in society for years now, moving forward by leaps and bounds recently, but this whole ordeal with constant apologies really takes us a million steps back. (watch this video to see the hilarious Amy Schumer sum it up).
However, out of all the information I’ve come across while researching perfectionism, the most profound exists in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic. The book itself is a guide to creative living that includes anecdotes from Gilbert’s life and career. It encourages us as readers to embrace creativity and thwart the insecurities that crowd our beautiful minds. In Part IV, she brings up an excellent point about perfectionism, stating the obvious fact that perfectionists often struggle with completing a task because they are never satisfied with their work, thus preventing them from accomplishing anything at all. Then, she continues to add, “The most evil trick about perfectionism, though, is that it disguises itself as a virtue…people will sometimes advertise their perfectionism as if it’s their greatest selling point” (167). Even I’ve thought that perfectionist tendencies were a bonus because if you want your work to be flawless, then how is that a bad thing? Gilbert points out to us that perfectionism remains a huge personal flaw, though it’s dressed up to look like an asset.
“I think perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, ‘I’m not good enough and I will never be good enough’” (167).
So, please keep that quotation in mind. Gilbert knows what she’s talking about. It’s time to take the leap: publish that novel, apply for that job, or go out for that team. It would be a tragedy just to settle. After all, we have one life to live and we want to make the most of it. And most importantly, ladies, stop saying sorry.
Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.