I’m not a perfectionist, but I have high standards.

I’m not a perfectionist, but I have high standards.

Perfectionism. What is it?

In my view, perfectionism is all about a person trying to control the world around them. And I don’t mean that in the way of wanting power. I mean it in the way that when everything feels out of control for a person, then perfectionism is a way to bring order to their world. It’s a way for them to incorporate rules or structure, put things in their place, have things done “right” so they can feel less anxious, and more assured.

There was a time when I considered myself a perfectionist. My tendencies to have things done “right” started as a child. Was my world out of control? It’s hard to say. My parents drank and fought, but I had food and shelter. I wasn’t abused, but I was often lonely. Regardless, I was sensitive, and those sensitivities played a part in shaping who I became.

Nearing thirty years old, I saw a psychologist who was doing a study on perfectionism. Some of my own research at the time turned up an idea that children who are called “good” or “bad” for their behaviour may contribute to their perfectionist tendencies. I had definitely been called both a good girl for doing a good job of something and a bad girl for what was considered wrongful behaviour. As a parent, I aimed to break that pattern and chose different words to talk to my children about behaviour. Some of which I’m proud of and some which I could’ve chosen better. Parenting is hard, and I’m not perfect.

I’m also no longer a perfectionist, although the trait has served me well in my work as a freelance editor, particularly in the finer practices of copyediting and proofreading. “Eagle eye” was my nickname at a recent contract position. Sometimes my suggestions seem pedantic, but I know that paying attention to all those fine details leads to a more professional product.

I think that most people who identify with perfectionism strive for it in some areas while falling behind or failing in others. To strive for perfection at everything would take massive amounts of effort that would certainly inhibit success in some way. I suspect that people with perfectionist traits pick the spots that matter most to them and concentrate there. E.g., I may be able to spot a spelling error, but my house hasn’t been dusted in months (and I used to also consider myself a clean freak).

My perfectionism has waned over time. Partly due to the work with the psychologist. Partly due to a shift in focus about what’s important. One of my great life lessons came twenty-plus years ago from a friend who was studying English at the time. “Oh, don’t you just hate it when people can’t spell?” I said to him in an effort to connect. 

“Not really,” he said. “In fact, I think it’s more important that a person can convey their message. I look for the meaning in what they’re writing rather than whether they can spell a word correctly or put a comma in the right place.”

“Oh,” I said. What else could I say? His message definitely got through to me. And I’ve looked differently at writing ever since. I’ve known (and know) some very intelligent people who don’t spell well. That limitation doesn’t define them any more than my ability to spell (or inability to dust!) defines me.

My age and stage also seem to be playing a part in letting go of things that once seemed necessary. Heck, my eyes don’t even see as well as they did ten or twenty years ago—making it much harder to catch all those typos. But mostly, I feel more acceptance for myself and others. For our imperfections. Our limitations. Our humanness.

I’ve learned to let a lot of things slide. I’ve learned that we don’t always know what people are dealing with. That people have boundaries. That their self-care is important. That all work and no play makes Jack a dull person.

But, wait! Letting go of perfection is one thing. Dropping my standards is quite another. I still want people to try. I still want people to strive to do their very best. I still want people to be accountable, to do what they say they will do, to take responsibility for their actions, to put their best effort into their product or service. Having high standards is an aim—rather than an expectation—for excellence. We may not meet the intended target but trying hard will get us closer.

I’ve put a lot of effort into creating the Shine Like A Supernova workshop. It starts in one week on Friday, January 21. I’m sure it will be far from perfect, and I certainly won’t be looking for perfection from participants. Come as you are. Bring your fully human self. And let’s shine.

Speaking of shine, I’ve got some surfaces that haven’t seen the light in a long while. I could raise the bar on my effort. Aim for a new standard. Or maybe the dusting can wait until it matters more. Like when I can invite people over again. Yeah, that will do.

4 comments

  1. Yes, we’re all works in progress. If that’s the goal of your workshop, Sheila, I’m sure you’ll insipire your participants. You never try to hide that about yourself, it’s one of your most attractive features. Warm regards and godspeed with the workshop.

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