…But like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you will reach your destiny.” Carl Schurz
Perfectionism. To write about this perfectly ;) I could be here for days, so I will attempt to do it imperfectly, and as concisely as possible. Defined by Wikipedia it is a “disposition characterized by an individual striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.” In its maladaptive form it “drives individuals to attempt to achieve an unobtainable ideal, and their failure to meet their expectations causes psychological distress“.
For me, these expectations extend to other people and I have always demanded perfection from not only myself but those around me. Setting impossible standards for myself and others has inevitably led to a lot of failure, discontent and pain. My first step 4 illuminated this in excruciating fluorescent white light.
Today I live in a very different place, wrapped up in the Serenity Prayer* like a blanket. It’s a very old blanket though, moth eaten and threadbare, holes threaten to destroy it. It is imperfect. (The Serenity Prayer is not imperfect, it is my thinking that pokes the holes. ) This prayer, and the integration of it into my being, is my protection from my own thinking, from my expectations of how the world should be. When I (attempt to) stop imposing my beliefs/ views/ expectations of perfection onto others and myself I am much happier. It really is that simple. Unfortunately, it is not always so simple to put into practise. Ultimately I believe perfectionism is (perhaps unconsciously) a resistance to reality, a refusal to accept very normal and very real flaws and limitations of the self and others.
Perfectionism is also an attempt at an antidote to poor self-esteem, yet paradoxically can exacerbate feelings of low self-worth. I was always filled with feelings of inadequacy, believing I was stupid, ugly, worthless etc and by striving to achieve perfection I believed I could eradicate these feelings. I was wrong. What actually resulted was a persistent, aching reminder of my shortcomings, as I was never able to attain my impossible goal of perfection. This failure to achieve led me to paralysis and the bottle.
Today I truly believe that as a result of being sober, as a result of working the steps, my increased self-esteem has contributed to a decline in my perfectionism. I am comfortable in my own skin in a way I never was before and consequently don’t feel the need to overcompensate with the perfect grades, the perfect job, the perfect relationship, perfect hair/ face etc.
Lastly, a massive issue of contention for me was how do I reconcile embracing my flaws/ defects with striving for perfection, as it is suggested in step 6? How do I pray for the removal of my perfectionism whilst striving to be perfect?! This really bent my head for a long time, still does if I’m honest. But an old sponsor of mine explained it to me beautifully, much in the same way that Carl Shurz did. Look at perfection simply as if it were a star – use it for guidance but know that it is unattainable. Is perfection therefore the absence of perfectionism? I think it must be.
*God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.