Perfectionism based on illusion, excellence on reality

Q: My mother was a perfectionist, my grandmother was a perfectionist and I am a perfectionist. We seem to have some kind of genetic code running through our family. Are we and our offspring stuck here or can we do something about it to change the cycle powering its way through our entire family?

A: Perfectionism is not generally recognized as an inherited trait. It is a learned phenomenon. If it runs in the women in the family, it means they are terrific teachers. Unfortunately, they are teaching the wrong things.

What could be inherited is a propensity toward anxiety. All of us have our moments of anxiety, but some people seem to live in anxiety. They are so worried about what might happen in the future they are unable to appreciate whatever is going on in the present.

Some people choose to resolve anxiety by trying to make the world perfect, removing any chance for surprises or the unexpected. That is impossible. We survive by struggling through catastrophes, not by eliminating them.

If members of your family are driven toward perfectionism because of anxiety, it should be tackled head on.

Talk to your physician about appropriate medication and referrals to a mental health counsellor. That may help resolve the cycle in which your family appears to be caught.

Before you get too concerned, be sure that it is perfectionism you are dealing with. Some people strive for excellence. Others struggle for perfectionism. They are not the same.

People who are reaching for excellence have clear goals. Their goals might be high but they are at least concrete.

People in search of perfectionism do not have the same clarity guiding them. Perfection is an illusion. We are imperfect beings living in an imperfect world.

To suggest that you are struggling to build a perfect world is to suggest that you do not have realistic or reasonable goals. If indeed you are a perfectionist, one suggestion is to write out some realistic, clearly defined goals for yourself.

You might want to include your mom and grandmother in this exercise and to make some real steps forward in removing perfectionism from your family.

About the author


Stories from our other publications