I have known for a good portion of my adult life that I have a slight tendency toward perfectionism (OK...so maybe it's a ridiculously heightened inclination.) I have also known for years that this tendency can cause problems for not only me but everyone around me. However, I have held on fiercely, afraid that letting go meant settling for mediocrity and abandoning the pursuit of excellence...a sacrifice I haven't been willing to make.
The common circumstances of life (marriage and motherhood) have forced me to lighten up considerably. I look back on some of the ways I used to function in life and wonder at my lunacy. Why in the world did I think every drawer and closet and curtain rod and window sill and cabinet and tub had to be spotless and organized before I could have people over for dinner? Seriously. I didn't even recognize this as odd...I even thought it was NORMAL. That's astonishing to me now.
What is the motivation behind this kind of perfectionistic mentality? Well...it's complicated. For me, and I suspect for many others, multiple factors are involved: innate personality, family of origin tendencies, theological committments, etc. Insecurity, pride, a need to feel in control, the love of beauty and order, a sense of duty, the desire to serve others well...both positive and negative factors can propel us toward perfectionism. It's helpful to identify the matters of our own heart in this regard.
It has also helped me to recognize that moving away from perfectionism does NOT require that I abandon the pursuit of excellence. In his book, Perfecting Ourselves to Death, Dr. Richard Winter clarified for me that the primary delineating factor between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism: how do I respond when I or others fail to meet my standard of excellence? If my response is characterized by negative emotions - irritability, frustration, disdain, arrogance, defeatism, etc. - toward myself or others, then my pursuit has become unhealthy. If I can pursue that same standard of excellence, knowing that neither I nor others will always meet up and I can extend grace, understanding, acceptance and love anyway...then my pursuit of excellence is a good thing and will likely increase my productivity and quality of life.
True to my nature, as I read the book, I found myself wanting to perfectly overcome my perfectionism! To find that magical key that would change me forever into a non-perfectionist pursuer of all things excellent...and, of course, would create a reputation for me as a conquerer of this evil! So OBVIOUSLY...I have not yet achieved perfection in my pursuit to abandon perfectionism.
As I set out to adjust my expectations, my mindset, my responses, my motivations, my heart committments, etc., I've sometimes let the pendulum swing toward the other extreme (b/c we perfectionists are all-or-nothing sort of folks), but that overcorrection is sometimes a necessary part of learning to let go. Don't be afraid of it. I'm slowly finding my way back toward the middle...and even toward excellence. I believe I will arrive there as a much more pleasant and tolerable human being who finds a great deal more joy in life than I did before.
The good thing is, I know I'm not the only one riding this train! Hop on and let's enjoy the ride together.
NOTE: as an exercise in non-perfectionist self-discipline, I will not allow myself to edit this post more than once! Any shortcomings in thought, wording, grammar, or spelling, shall remain forever immortalized in all their inglorious imperfection. (Excuse me while I pause a moment for some deep-breathing exercises. There. That's better. No one said this was gonna be easy...did they?!?)