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The Plight of the Perfectionist

Two years ago, I helped launch an event called Meeting of the Sexes. Realizing that too many topics go undiscussed in dating, situationships, and relationships, we created a space to engage in these conversations. With our sixth Meeting of the Sexes this past Thursday, I had no idea that asking an introspective question, would give me and the audience unexpected therapy, but we were all for it.

Confession: I’m an extremist and so are my friends. We’ve lived for several decades thinking this was normal. However, if I took one nugget away from Meeting of the Sexes this week, it’s that your norm isn’t necessarily common for everyone else. (Shout out panelist Ryan McMillan for that gem).

This resonated with me so heavily because I’ve spent the last couple of years getting frustrated with people for not fitting into my norms of perfection, communication, or reciprocity. I projected my standards on to everyone around me and created (in some instances) unfair or unrealistic expectations. (Today, I’ll focus on perfection and address communication and reciprocity in future posts.)

The Perfectionist. Because I know I’m not alone, I’m going to offer some criteria for people who might share this label with me. According to a Forbes article written by Psychotherapist Amy Morin, a perfectionist is someone who:

  1. Expects perfection from everyone

  2. Views mistakes as proof of inadequacy

  3. Invests a lot of time in masking flaws and avoids doing things that may cause failure

  4. Intertwines self-worth with achievements

  5. Allows the quest for perfection to deteriorate mental health

In hindsight it seems so obvious, but I never viewed myself as a perfectionist. I assumed that everyone approached life the way I did. (Well, we all know what assuming does, right?) I didn’t take the time to understand that progress and goal setting look different for everyone. Take working out for example. One person may just want to get in 10 minutes of cardio, while another (like myself) may want to run a mile in 10 minutes. In the past, I’ve pushed people toward the mile, because that’s what cardio looked like for me. I assumed that was the norm.

There’s something to be said about wanting to control the other person’s outcomes by measuring it against your standards. Personally, I know I’ve experienced a level of anxiety around wanting people to do it my way because I thought that was best. I was well intentioned, but unempathetic and disapproving of variance. (As I’m typing, I realize I owe so many people apologies.) As perfectionists, we need to be mindful that our view of success is not the only gauge of achievement. This will help us manage our emotions and expectations when working with others.

When we fail to create empathetic views of success, we not only set ourselves up for frustration, but we might inadvertently generate feelings of inadequacy for another person. By establishing a goal that isn’t aligned with where someone is, you could cause them to feel overwhelmed or incompetent. As with everything, there is a balance between pushing people to surpass their goals and requiring them to meet yours.

In order to find balance, you have to admit and accept that you live in the extreme. Most perfectionists often have tons of professional success which makes it hard to identify their habits as problematic. If unchecked, these unrealistic standards can easily create issues in romantic relationships or with colleagues and friends.

Everyone may not get to Meeting of the Sexes, but we all need to evaluate how we interact with others. Think about the places in your life where you’ve been unfairly holding someone to your standard of success, and start the process of thinking differently.

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