Listen around for a day or so, and you're likely to hear someone laugh that he or she is a perfectionist. People throw this word around a lot, and half the time it's with a hint of pride, connoting a person who works too hard and regularly exceeds expectations. Perfectionists get their identity from pushing too hard and being everything to everyone. And they are often incredibly anxious and "perfectly miserable."
Many perfectionist clients report being fastidious children: straight-A students, athletic superstars, or the popular kid who was secretly devastated if anyone didn't like them. And as a society we support that kind of perfectionism in kids, but when kids don't outgrow the psychological pattern of perfection, it can manifest into full-blown anxiety as teens and adults.
Perfectionism and anxiety go hand in hand: a health set back turns into health anxiety, a hiccup during a presentation at work turns into performance anxiety, a normal disagreement with our mate turns into relationship anxiety (or as one very smart client called it "relationship perfectionism"). Because we are exposed as being imperfect, we brace against the imperfection and refuse to fail again, which then fuels more and more anxiety.
The solution is simple but not easy: be imperfect. Do something purposefully imperfect. Break the cycle, and watch how your world does NOT fall apart. Do those words make your stomach clench? If you're a perfectionist, they probably do! What does this exercise look like in real life? One client who prides herself on being everyone's best friend and an impeccable hostess to boot was given the homework of inviting her friends over to—GASP!—an imperfect house. She started very small. She left a glass out on the counter. She left a dish in the sink. "It was so hard," she said. "But I still had a fun time. And the next time they came over, I felt way more relaxed beforehand because all of the tasks I laid out for myself weren't mandatory anymore." It seems silly but little changes like the ones my client made create a ripple effect throughout our lives. By challenging our perfection and therefore our eventual mistakes, we loosen the reigns on life and allow space for joy and spontaneity again.
If we don’t learn that mistakes and setbacks are a normal part of life, then we spend our lives fearing them. And, ironically, wasting a life on perfectionism is the biggest mistake of all.