Perfectionists Miss a 
Lot of Fun

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Hundreds of people had gathered on this several thousand feet high mountain to watch the sunset. The sky was overcast. Dark clouds were stubbornly hovering around refusing to make way for the sun. Then, all of a sudden, in the midst of cheers and claps from the crowd, the sun, like a huge red-hot ball of iron tore through the clouds. There it was, a great harmony between the varying dark shades of clouds and the red of the sun, all interwoven in the tapestry done by that Master Craftsman. 

Down below, a long winding trail leading to the valley filled with an orangish glow. I mumbled to myself, "Perfect!" 

After all the suspense and doubt when it seemed we wouldn't see a sunset after all, we were getting to witness a breathtaking show without an entry fee. I expressed my sentiment to my perfectionist friend standing next to me, "It's a gorgeous sunset, isn't it?"

My friend maintaining his intent gaze into the horizon, said, "Oh yes, but see on your left, I wish there was a little more red on this side. Clouds are too dark there." He had found one unsatisfactory spot out of the whole sky, and focused on it right away. I wanted to scream, "We are not in a museum and this is not a painting. It's a sunset. Enjoy it."

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, a physician, trained at Cornell Medical College and Stanford University calls herself a "recovering perfectionist." She says that perfectionism is an addiction just as alcoholism is. She had a perfectionist father. She had to have perfect grades in school. The daughter of a perfectionist had no choice but to be perfect. If she got 98 out of 100 on a test, her father would say, "What happened to the other two. " She says she spent a lot of anxious moments in her childhood chasing those two points. On the other hand, if she got 100 out of 100 on a test, her father would simply say, "That was expected. " 

Remen recounts her experience of taking a test in order to get a Californian driving license. For three days she read and researched long hours to learn everything she possibly could on the rules of driving in California. As "expected," she scored a hundred percent. She being ecstatic, rushed to see her boyfriend and announced, "I got hundred percent score in the driving test." Her boyfriend lifted his head from the poetry book and said to her, "My love! Why would you want to do that. " 

She says that's when it hit her that all that was required of her in order to get a driving license was to pass the test. It was not necessary to get a perfect score. Seeking a perfect score was part of her addictive behavior. She realized that she had lost three valuable days of her life in which she could have had more fun, be with the people she loved, and do things that really mattered. She could have also used the time to just sit, relax and smell the roses.

Remen was an adult at that point. Her father was not standing over her head and demanding a perfect score. She realized, however that she was not a free human being. She was a slave of her perfectionism. She was still afraid of losing those two points out of a hundred. Perfectionists work out of fear, rather than for a natural love of the object of their pursuit.

How to control our perfectionism: Strive to be yourself as opposed to striving to be perfect. When you are being yourself, you are unique. Nobody else is like you, in terms of your thoughts, skills, and experiences. If you act yourself, you will stand apart from others. On the other hand all perfectionists, when acting as perfectionists, look alike. Human beings are meant to be unique and not perfect. Make a point to tolerate imperfection in yourself and others. Be kind and do not judge yourself or others too harshly. 

"Sharma recipe" for cure of perfectionism is as follows: Identify one, or at the most, two areas that are most important to you, for example your work and sports. Identify the "standards of excellence" for those areas and then work towards attaining excellence rather than perfection. In all other areas, try to be "good-enough" rather than perfect. Striving to be good-enough works better than striving to be perfect. 

For example, many parents become very anxious trying to be perfect parents. As a result, they get more confused and make more mistakes in child rearing. D.W. Winnicott, one of the greatest child therapists, would tell parents, "You don't have to be perfect parents, just be "good-enough" parents . This coming down from the authority of Winnicott would relax parents. As parents relax, children relax. What this example tells us is that when children and parents relax and enjoy one another, parents spontaneously and intuitively do the right things. 


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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 



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