I’ve never really cared about perfectionism – what does that even look like? When I was ten and playing hockey, perfect wasn’t an option. I couldn’t just jump into being in the NHL at that age, so perfection wasn’t a real thing to me. I was always more afraid of failure and not being good enough –not good enough to win; not good enough to get a girlfriend, not good enough to get a great job; not good enough for people to like me. How do you define not being good enough? Being a loser – it’s pretty clear. Perfection? That’s impossible to define. As a psychotherapist, I find women are generally more worried about being perfect and doing what’s right the right way (I’m not saying women like to make things difficult, but…) while men tend to have a fear of failure, which includes feeling weak or stupid. Why don’t a lot of guys like sharing their hearts and being vulnerable? It can be considered failure or somehow making you not good enough.
My guess is a fear of failure is connected to a man’s competitiveness, which means women can also have this fear if they’re competitive, but women tend to be less “I win you lose,” and more “let’s get along and play patty cake or skip rope,” (popular recess activities for the girls when I was a kid while the boys played sports). You can be perfect at patty cake and skipping rope. They’re social activities where there are no losers (aka lame). Perfectionism isn’t about other people per-say. It’s about being perfect and there’s room (and sometimes expectations) for others to be perfect and potential judgment if they’re not. In some ways, perfectionism can be very divisive as you might not want to associate with those who aren’t as perfect as you or you’ll avoid those who make you feel glaringly imperfect. Guys, on the other hand, we don’t have to be perfect; we just have to be better than everyone else around us. We don’t have to be the perfect hockey player, and we certainly don’t expect (or want) anyone else to be perfect. We just need to win like Canada against Russia in 1972 when the Russians were considered much more skilled and fluid skaters while Canada was gritty. A fear of failure can be isolating if our competitiveness pushes us too far, but overall, people with a fear of failure can get along if the losers can give respect to the winners and winners aren’t turds about winning. Perfectionism leads to Martha Stuart snobbery whereas fear of failure is more about WWE smack talk and getting temporarily angry at losing the simplest game.
A good comparison to the two worlds of perfectionism and fear of failure is becoming lawyers versus accountants. To become a lawyer, candidates have to pass the Bar Exam. It’s a pass-or-fail exam, and in Canada, 90% pass. This is like perfectionism because there’s no competition; it’s personal. Meanwhile, when my brother wrote his CA accounting exam a million years ago (he’s pretty old), there was a series of three exams over a year. For the first exam, the lowest 20% failed, and had to try again the next year. Failing wasn’t grade based; it was on how well you did compared to the competition. The same happened for the second and third exams; the bottom 20% failed and had to redo the tests the next year. What was crazy was if you were the bottom 20% of the third exam, you still had to redo all three exams the next year, which meant if the competition got tougher or the repeat student got cocky since they passed the first exam the previous year and didn’t study as hard, this person could fail the first exam – it was nuts. You had to be the top 80% of the top 80% of the top 80%, which is like… some weird math number (there’s a reason I’m a psychotherapist and my brother is the accountant.) To become a CA accountant, they earn the big paychecks later. Lawyers? Ehn, it’s hard to say unless you count the cost of selling your soul.
Perfectionism is strange because it can be connected to wanting to impress others, but it’s really more about the individual feeling like they can accept themselves. They need to be good enough for themselves. They can be the best in the room and destroy the competition, but that doesn’t matter because they need to attain their own standards. It can be connected to mothers having impossible expectations like when I first got married the way I cleaned was never good enough for my wife who had a ridiculous standard (i.e. if she didn’t do it, it wasn’t good enough). Why? Because her mom was never happy with my wife’s cleaning growing up and her mom would redo what my wife did like my wife would redo my work. And why did her mom have an impossible standard? Because her mom had an impossible standard for her. And why did my wife’s grandma have an impossible standard? Because, when she was in grade seven, her mom passed away and she left school to raise her younger siblings. Without a role model, the grandma created a mythical standard, which was based on the best things she saw from everyone around her. That’s another reason for perfectionism – having an impossible standard for yourself because your parents never set the standards for you, and you had to make them yourself. Perfectionism is fun… in the self torment kind of way. What’s crazy is if a perfectionist somehow achieved their perfect standards, they’d suddenly raise them because if they can be achieved, there must have been a flaw in what was originally expected. Perfection can never truly be attained, which means you can never rest. I’m glad I’m not a perfectionist; that sounds exhausting.
A fear of failure, on the other hand, is very dependent on those around us. In later elementary and high school, I had a best friend who competed with me for the highest marks (we were the coolest kids in the class… if you ignored everyone else). He eventually destroyed me, but that friendly competition really helped me push myself. I also had a bunch of other friends (I wasn’t a total dork) who were great at sports and that helped me compete at a higher level athletically. On one hand, the fear of failure helped me strive for much higher results, and I’m really grateful for it. At the same time, there were moments it was crippling as I never fully accepted that I was good enough to be liked by my friends or even accepted that my parents could actually be proud of me. I fortunately worked through that (by my 30s – I’m a slow learner), but from my experience, it was easier than trying to break perfectionism.
The downside of this fear of failure is if your competition sucks: (murderer) “You murdered 3 people? Awesome. I only killed one person so I must still be a good person.” Why do so many guys grow up in the slums and stay in the slums? The competition is so weak. Why are so many guys useless slugs who play video games nowadays? They’re surrounded by useless slugs who play video games. As long as they’re better than (or good enough for) their immediate surroundings, it’s good enough. What helped Steve Jobs be so successful? Competition with Bill Gates. Why did technology grow so fast during World War 2? Competition. Why are some dads super involved like all my friends? Because everyone around them is. We are very influenced by the competition around us… unless we give up (guys can be complicated too).
Essentially, if you want a guy to do well in life, he needs some good competition. If you want a girl to do well, you need clear and appropriate expectations. She needs to know that she can be “perfect” without ridiculously high standards, but also making sure she has healthy standards (there are girls who are useless slugs as well).
This post was inspired by my sister’s blog from her website www.LoriRaeTomlinson.com. I’ve included it below because I think it will really connect well to some people and it shares some good lessons. You’ll notice how she’s more personal and vulnerable than I am in my sharing. We fit the female and male stereotypes.
As far as perfectionism and fear of failure go, I love the sign I have by my desk: “I’ve learned so much from my mistakes, I’m think of making a few more.” I also like to remember that if you’re perfect or the best, some people will love you for it, but a whole lot more will hate you. It could be envy or the fact that you seem arrogant or maybe you simply make others feel worse about themselves. Being perfect or the best isn’t the road to self acceptance or making friends. Self acceptance is embracing the fact that we have strengths and weaknesses and every strength has its weakness and every weakness has its strength. There is good in all things. We need the balance of accepting who we are and wanting to push ourselves to continue growing to be the better version of ourselves. And making friends is more about how we make people feel and less about how we look; care about others and good people will care about you.
This week may you consider how you can embrace both your strengths and weaknesses even if those weaknesses are perfectionism or a fear of not being good enough – there’s good even in these – and as we embrace them may consider how to grow.
Rev. Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, Learning to love dumb people (like me)
I have a secret.
Now don’t get too excited, it isn’t salacious, juicy or worthy of a trashy tabloid. It won’t solve the COVID crisis or win me a Nobel Prize, but the discovery instantly made me a better… me. Oddly enough, it’s a realization that when I mustered up the nerve to share it with a close friend, he stopped dead in his tracks, stared at me with an unflinching glare, and with words oozing with sarcasm said, “Yeah, no kidding.”
Wait, so maybe this isn’t a secret after all? Have I been working like a nut-bar to keep this hidden all my life when really the only person I’ve been bamboozling is myself?
I don’t even remember what I was doing when this deep dark secret decided to emerge from its Pandora’s Box looking for light; I just know that it hit me like a random anvil to the coyote’s head. What was this shock of all shocks?
I’m not a perfectionist… or at least, I’m not perfect.
How could this be? I love annoying little details; I have a classic type A personality, and well, isn’t that what I’m supposed to be? I mean come on; I’m a first-born female for Pete’s sake.
I stood there allowing myself to exhale for the first time in what felt like a very long time and observed the reality spread out in front of me; I am a great many things, but a perfectionist really isn’t one of them.
My entire life I’ve willingly carried the burden of perfectionism somehow thinking it was necessary in order to be taken seriously and earn my worthiness. The pressure caused me to unknowingly suffocate myself with self-judgement and to constantly buzz with the fear that at any moment I would be exposed as a fraud.
But at the time, I didn’t know any better. After all, society had gone out of its way to convince me that becoming Mary Poppins, the true embodiment of practically perfect in every way, would give me joy (with limitations), happiness (complete with fake smile), and to feel loved (with conditions).
I was forcing myself to follow rules that didn’t exist, using an invisible measuring stick to decide my value, all the while fighting against my natural nature that was screaming done is better than perfect. Now here I stood, baffled, with only one thing I knew for sure… I was exhausted.
- Exhausted from following rules that were self-imposed.
- Exhausted from saying “yes” because perfection told me it was the right thing to do when I desperately wanted to say “no.”
- Exhausted from beating myself up for missing the tiniest of details that didn’t matter and nobody else would see anyway.
- Exhausted from actively searching for my mistakes instead of appreciating my accomplishments.
- Exhausted from offering self-put downs when someone complimented me when all I ever need to do is say, “thank you.”
- Exhausted from betraying myself by believing that I’m not good enough, smart enough, and working overtime to make up for it.
- Exhausted, simply from forcing myself to be something I wasn’t.
In the end, what became glaringly obvious is that fact that perfect is wildly… boring.
My imperfections are what make me interesting and feed my quirky unpredictable personality. They give me the freedom to explore while defusing any personal judgement with laughter and give me permission to release the imaginary restrictions I’ve been clinging to as a false sense of security. And every once in a while, my imperfections have me throw caution to the wind, make a bunch of mistakes I get the benefit of learning from, and leave me at the end of the roller-coaster shouting, “Let’s do that again.”
Perfect doesn’t exist. And by voicing my great lack of it, I took away its power over me and accepted that the joy, happiness, and love perfectionism was bribing me with didn’t need to be earned, were mine all along.
I want to end each day feeling like in some way I’m a better person than when I started it. And the best way I know how to do that is to be kind to others, laugh as much as I can, and embrace the fact that I’m perfectly imperfect.
Lori Rae Tomlinson