Inside the Mind of a Perfectionist

As a child, I admired my mother greatly, and accepted that everything she did was the best. She was the best cook, seamstress, home entertainer, flower arranger, decorator, and house cleaner. She told me so.

She proudly proclaimed that things may be messy at times, but her house was clean. We had a housekeeper five days a week and eight hours a day. Sheets went out to the laundry every week by pick up and delivery. It should have been clean.

I was about ten when I first noticed a chink in the armor. We were between housekeepers, and things were going downhill fast. Mama decided to remedy the situation. Amidst the dirty dishes, piles of newspapers and general disarray, she began to empty a cabinet where she kept miscellaneous stuff - like a giant junk drawer. In the middle of chaos, she felt the place to start was to begin cleaning out cabinets!

I was struck by the lack of logic in this move. What is wrong with this picture? If the place is a mess, should one act to make it messier? I had discovered her fatal flaw. She was a perfectionist.

I would be years into adulthood before I put this all together and understood how her mind worked. To her, there was no value in tidying the surface if it was based on a lie - if the order did not extend to the hidden areas. To get it right, it had to be PERFECT.

To be called a perfectionist is not a compliment, although I recognize that people mean it to be one. Perfectionism is a crippling disorder that results in procrastination, feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and exhaustion. Perfection is simply unattainable.

How much better to be happy with a good job, a great job, and finish on time? Procrastination is a stumbling block common to perfectionists. In fear of doing a less-than-perfect job - they put it off until under the gun.

When I was in my early teens, my mother undertook the task of making a bridesmaid's dress for my older sister. She let it go until the last minute. It was a beautiful silk taffeta with an overlay of organza in a pretty moss green, and it was a lot of work. Mama had the skill to make the dress, but she was tired, and pushed for time. With the dress inside out on the ironing board, she trimmed a seam on the inside with pinking shears. She cut too far, and the scissors went through, nicking a spot on the front of the skirt. Mama became hysterical. My poor sister caught the brunt of the wrath (it was her dress, after all) but we all paid. Mama threw the dress down, crying uncontrollably. She threw a full blown tantrum. If my mother could have chosen one of my most vivid childhood memories, I don't think she would have picked that scene, but it is indelibly there.

My mother wanted Christmas to be perfect. She worked herself into a frenzy as it approached, having put off preparations to the last minute. She would be up until three or four in the morning on Christmas day, wrapping beautiful and elaborate packages, then prepare the perfect breakfast to be eaten at a beautifully set table. She usually had a crying spell on Christmas day - directed at my poor father who had failed to come up with the perfect gift. She was an excellent cook and dinner would be delicious, but the emotional toll was great on everyone. She spent about three days in bed after every Christmas, depressed and exhausted. She had failed to create the perfect Christmas, and never understood that perfection is unattainable.

I have been accused of being a perfectionist, but I proudly declare that I am not. I like to do a nice job. I feel guilt over my failures and inadequacies, but I am able to let things go, to accept time limitations, and move on. I have also been given the left handed compliment of not being a perfectionist. "I admire how easily you do things. I could never entertain like this. For me, everything must be perfect." I fight the tendency toward perfectionism because I know - perfection is unattainable.

Housecleaning is a task with little tangible reward. Unless you're doing it for someone else, there is no paycheck, no pat on the back, and no finish line. The dishes are never completely done. There are clothes in the dryer to fold and put away. Even when the surface looks fine, you know that refrigerator could use a good cleaning.

Set the standards that are meaningful to you. Address the problems with the greatest rewards first - the dishes, the laundry, trash removal. Clean the dirtiest rooms and public areas. Attend to things that bother you. Feel pleased with a job well done and move on to more important matters. In housekeeping, perhaps more than anywhere else, perfection is unattainable.

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Tangets 7 years ago

For years I've dealt with horrid procrastination, often to the point of bothersome depression. I know very well that I'm also a horrible perfectionist at heart, but I've never connected my issues with my own character until reading your literature. Who'd ever thought perfection could be so crippling? I'm really glad I came across this. It really sheds a lot of light on why I've so much difficulty progressing at what I enjoy.

glenna profile image

glenna 7 years ago from Burlingame, CA Author

Thanks for your comment! It's gratifying to know that I have been helpful to you. You are certainly in good company.

Natalie 6 years ago

Thank you so much for your words. I've been trying to deal with my own perfectionism. It is, as you said, crippling to live with. Reading about your mother was too close to home for me. It helped me see myself more clearly so far than anything else has. I don't want to keep putting my own husband and children (or myself) through this.

slumberer 5 years ago

I knew that i have the same problem.

What's the point of doing something less than what it should be.

Still have the affliction though. It just seems weird that someone who can't do a damn thing be called perfectionist. You can try to perfect something only if you do the act. The word is simply inappropriate.

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Treasuresofheaven 5 years ago from Michigan

I believe I know a perfectionist. This is interesting. I will read a little more on this. Perfectionist don't seem like balanced individual - they are extreme.

Thanks for sharing a personal story.

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mulberry1 5 years ago

I don't know if it's perfectionism or not, but in our house growing up, my mom believed there was a right and wrong way for EVERYTHING. The house was cleaned top to bottom every week. Towels had to be folded a particular way, even my dad's underwear was ironed. She's able to say now that she knows things would be better if she had spent less time tending to details like cleaning the house and more time playing with her kids but I'm not convinced her strict adherence to all kinds of meaningless rules is really any different. Again, I don't know if it was perfectionism or just rigidity, obsessive compulsive disorder, or what...but I would think perfectionists might suffer from the same problem...failing to enjoy the things that are important.

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QudsiaP1 5 years ago

Wow, this was an excellent read, I am so glad you blended in your childhood memories but never once forgetting to point out what your mother felt.

It is true that perfection can not be attained but I guess every one tries, at least to some level.

Thank you for the read.

Giselle Maine 5 years ago

Superb topic! I am not a perfectionist and am quite happy this way. Sometimes I really do find it hard if I'm around perfectionists though. I've had stuff said to me like "oh, I like those cupcakes you made, now if you'd added lemon peel they would have been perfect" (! - here was I just shooting for 'edible' and quite happy with the result, thank you very much!). I don't think perfectionists realize how demoralizing and actually insulting that kind of comment can be (although I know they're just trying to be helpful).

I would really love to see a hub someday on how non-perfectionists can deal with perfectionists!

Thank you again for this very enlightening hub - it was helpful and I liked getting to see something on this topic.

Zach 5 years ago

I always say I am not perfect but if I give everything I do 100% effort and energy that will be perfect enough for me. Great post.

mksudl 5 years ago

Fortunately, I am not this kind of person, but I know someone who is. Her every day is like a nightmare as she realizes her weakness in this area. After whole day of putting efforts to be a perfectionist at work, home, she cries and then calls me. Sometimes I think she is just unhappy with that, but cannot change her personality.

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Sun-Girl 5 years ago from Nigeria

Interesting and very well articulated personal story you actually shared in here and i believe i have seen a perfectionist too. I was so pleased and filled with smiles when i read the first line of your article because i almost shared the same view with you about seeing my mum as the best in doing all things in this whole wide world.

As a child, I admired my mother greatly, and accepted that everything she did was the best, use to belief that all she does is the best and nobody can do it better than her.

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