The Cost of Perfection
When life gives a perfectionist lemons, they make lemonade alright. In fact, they make lemonade muddled with mint, mixed with pure can sugar, stirred but not shaken, served over seven ice cubes, and garnished with a lemon twist and one lemon wedge on the edge of the glass. The good news is that it will probably be a great glass of lemonade. The bad news is that if someone points out that they missed a step or added too much sugar, it could lead to intense stress and maybe even thoughts of “I’m not good enough” or “Everyone thinks I’m a failure”.
Making the best glass of lemonade probably is not the largest concern for most of us. It is more likely that we are worried about being the best employee, student, spouse, or parent. For the perfectionist, it can be all of these. Wanting to be a great employee, student, spouse, or parent is a wonderful thing. The problem comes whenever the perfectionist makes a mistake, such as making a B on a paper, forgetting to grab an item at the grocery store, missing an error on a report at work, or forgetting that your kid was supposed to be at basketball practice yesterday, which can be enough to cause significant stress, fear of failure, or anxiety for the perfectionist. The anxiety can spiral into thoughts like “I’m such a failure”, “I’m useless,” or “I can’t do anything right.” Sometimes these thoughts do not go away and stick around for a while. When they do, it is not surprising to see more anxiety or depression begin to surface.
The cost of being perfect is not limited to the perfectionist. Not only is perfectionism responsible for suffering in their life, but others, such as their spouse, friends, family, co-workers, or subordinates can experience similar struggles. Since a perfectionist is very critical of their own performance, they can be equally critical of others. Therefore, they expect perfection not only from themselves but from most people around them. If they have to put so much work into everything that they do, why should anyone else be off the hook? Unfortunately, holding others to this impossible level of performance can lead to the same intense stress that the perfectionist deals with on a daily basis. This stress can create wedges in their relationships, which can either drain the other person or push them away. This is unfortunate because a huge factor in relieving the perfectionist’s stress is positive and supporting relationships. When the very support they need is taken away, they are left to deal with their feelings of anxiety or depression all on their own.
The cost of being perfect adds up, and the bill only gets more costly with time. If you have suffered from the perils that come with having to be perfect, my hope is that you find healing. The good news is that there are ways to deal with these impossible expectations and the feelings that come along with them. An important one is to extend grace to yourself and accept yourself for who you are, mistakes and all. The road to self-acceptance can be a long and windy one, but the reward is well worth the travel.