Perfect! Or not.

Cat at pianoMy older son complained about it when his last piano teacher used the word. “Perfect!” she’d exclaim. No, never in reference to an entire piece or even a page, but it was the standard by which she measured his accomplishments. Success was gauged with the elusive “perfect” pegged as 100%. Thus a stopping point might be 80% or 90% or, for some, just 60%. Perhaps a phrase would be perfect, or even a few lines, but a whole piece would never be perfect, and he knew it. It might be played a dozen different ways, all delightful to the ear, but perfect? Nope. Never.

Nothing is perfect except Earth’s spot in the solar system, declares my younger son, reading over my shoulder.  The word ‘perfect’ simply isn’t in our home lexicon. Aside from using it to describe a dessert or a day with nothing scheduled, we avoid it. We’re in agreement: no one is perfect.

Except we all long to some sort of perfection. Not the fuzzy sort, being the perfect me and all that. Thinking of ourselves as perfect us’s might be desirable on some level, but it’s just not in our temperaments. We are three perfectionists, all manifesting that trait in different ways, and the last word any of us want to hear is “perfect.”  I’m a continuous-improvement kinda gal, logical, practical, and highly internally critical. Okay, I can be fairly critical to others as well, but I like to think I’m learning to do it in a supportive, constructive way.  I encourage my kids to look deeply at their work and efforts, honestly assessing what’s working and what’s not. Let’s not ask how that’s working for us.

So we each long for perfection in some domain or another, knowing it’s not at word that applies to human efforts and products. It’s a perfectionism common to gifted folks, paired with the same painful realization that we fail, continually, painfully short of our expectations.  Ouch.

Perfectionism doesn’t always look like perfectionism. It’s easy to recognized in the young child who starts a drawing or essay, ripping it up over and over, simply because it fails to match his or her impossibly high expectations.  But reaches beyond the child who doesn’t know how to stop working on a project, tweaking it repeatedly, trashing parts and starting again, all in pursuit of something better. Those are the obvious manifestations of the unhealthy end perfectionism, but not the only ones.

Perfectionism is also behind the child (or adult) who won’t start a project because of uncertainty that its realization will meet his or her expectations. In a child, this can look like work avoidance — the essay never begun, the empty paper abandoned at the table, the page of math problems anxiously avoided, or the new piano piece left unattempted, because of course it won’t sound like it should today, tomorrow, or maybe never. I’ve watched all these manifestations of perfectionism gone awry in my boys.

In an adult, unproductive perfectionism looks similar. I’ve sat before many an empty page, trying to write but sure whatever I say won’t be said the right way. I’ve avoided larger projects (read: writing an actual book) for the same reason — what I say just won’t be good enough, not for me, not for others. Heck, it’s hard to even make lesson plans for my kids or my students at points, certain that there is a better way to say what needs to be said. It’s paralyzing.

To the outside observer, say a teacher, boss, or parent, perfectionism can look like lazy avoidance.  It’s not. It’s filled with anxiety, self-doubt, and sky-high expectations, colored with a desire to produce the best possible product in the best possible way. And while I know the perfectionist anthems by heart, I can fail to appreciate how much perfectionism plays a roll in my children’s work. It’s easy to see the hole in production and forget its cause. I guess I’m not perfect.

My parenting skills is the arena my self-criticism screams the loudest. Avoidance doesn’t really work when parenting, kids being rather visible and hard to turn one’s back upon. But this arena is where my perfectionism kicks in strongly. No, I’m not out to raise perfect kids. What I want for my children is simple: I’d like them to be productive members of society, giving more than they take. I want them to be reasonably happy and for people to at least tolerate their presence. (Read What I Want for My Children for more on those expectations.)

These arguably minimal desires can bring me to tears as I wonder how to help them find their way to those goals. I worry academically, as I want them to have choices in their higher education. Not choices so they can attend some prestigious university (unless they want to) and then win the next Nobel Prize in whatever.  Choices so the they can attend a school with academic peers and be challenged by other curious minds. Choices so they can find a course of study that will lead them to job choices that make them happy and feel full of purpose. I worry socially, wondering how the world will see them and accept them, my brutally honest younger and my sensitive older. I’d not change them a bit, but I worry still. On more practical ends, I worry about creating the just-right transcript and about missing a crucial educational element. After all, the perfectionist in me wants them to have the perfect education.

Yes, I know that’s not possible, just as much as they know that playing the perfect piano piece or writing the perfect novel are not possible goals. Playing the piece excellently and writing a fine book are possibilities  however.  There is nothing wrong with a drive to do well paired with the effort required to make great things happen. But sometimes, we need to settle with working hard and knowing when to stop and call it good, or maybe even great, but being wise enough to know that sometimes just good enough is all that is necessary or possible. We can only continually look at our efforts at our living and loving and honestly assess how we are doing, not to continually feel we fall short but rather to realize that we’ve done generally quite well but can always still learn more and grow.

Perfectionism doesn’t have to be the bane of the gifted child or adult. It can be the drive to work harder and learn more. It can be what keeps the scientist at her task, looking for what eludes her. It can be what brings the lawyer back to the library, searching for the case that adds to his quest for justice. It can be what keeps the parent looking for ever more creative ways to approach her child with love, compassion, and dignity. Perfectionism channelled properly fuels amazing product, and approaching one’s life and work with the drive behind perfectionism can be deeply satisfying. Healthy perfectionism, in academic, creative, leadership, and social domains, drives the changes we need in the world. It’s not to be squelched but rather directed. Reach far, work hard, and dream big, perfectionists. And be gentle with yourself and those around you. After all, nobody’s perfect.

Further reading on perfectionism in gifted individuals:

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3 thoughts on “Perfect! Or not.

    • I’m a perfectionist who is driven toward continual improvement. It’s not a choice, this being a perfectionist or not. It’s wiring. How it expresses itself is somewhat a matter of temperament, upbringing, and, eventually, awareness of self. The perfectionist, in my experience and study, can’t turn off a drive for things to be better. And that’s not bad. It’s all in the expression of it, I think.

  1. Perfectionism is so tricky, really. I’ve experienced it in my life as a very damaging force, pushing me toward anorexia and bulimia, and even then I berated myself for “failing” to have enough discipline to truly starve for that perfect ideal … but yes, it does have a plus side as well when it pushes you to excel, to work for something you want …

    A few years back I read “Freeing Our Families from Perfectionism” and it has been a very helpful look at this subject.

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