Pursuing perfection is to pursue an impossible dream

Q:My husband thinks that I have an obsessive-compulsive disorder. I think that I am a perfectionist. My teenage kids call me a nag.

No matter how you spell it, it adds up to a lot of unnecessary tension in our household, and I seem to be the focal point through which that tension is being generated.

I do not seem to be able to help myself. Whenever I do something, be it cleaning the house or preparing the music I plan to play at church, it has to be perfect.

The bad news is that at times I try to slide those same expectations onto others, including my husband and both of the kids. Of course, that just kills my relationships.

I need to change all of this, but I am not sure where to start. What do you think?

A: Let’s start our discussion by talking about the label you have given to yourself.

You called yourself a perfectionist. Perfectionism is defined as the need to be or appear to be perfect, or even to believe that it’s possible to achieve perfection.

It is often seen to be a good thing, especially by those who see themselves as perfectionistic. But it is not a good thing, and often the struggle for perfection leads its victims down the path to an uncertain future.

Philosophically, perfection does not exist. I recall my Grade 9 teacher asking us to take out rulers and pencils to draw a perfect line. My line was nowhere near perfect. That was to be expected.

The other lines by the other students were seemingly elegant and more to the point of perfect, but only until they were scrutinized with the help of a semi-powered magnifying glass. Then all of their gaps and blotches and off-the-mark indentations were exposed. None of their lines were perfect, either.

The point is that perfection cannot exist and to pursue perfection, the pursuit of the impossible, is to chase after which cannot be. It is as devastating and nerve rattling as is the chase for his tail that you might watch in your pet dog. You don’t need that tension. It is not good for you.

I am sure that if you talk to your family doctor or to one of your mental health therapists they will have a number of suggestions to help you relinquish the drive to perfection.

Let’s not kid ourselves. This is not easy.

I too have some suggestions for you that I hope you will at least consider. The first is to let go of the need to be perfect and simply try to be better each time you do something.

You will likely never play Brahms’ piano concerto exactly how Brahms composed it, but every time you sit down at the piano, it could be just a little bit better.

That is what life is all about, isn’t it, getting a little bit better most of the time? The more that you do it, the more exciting it gets.

My second suggestion for you is to start to appreciate that which you do. Don’t rush out of the bedroom after the bed is made. Take a second to appreciate how much more inviting the bed is compared to when you kicked off the sheets earlier that morning. It might even feel good.

If you do the same with your husband and your children, if you expect them to be just a bit better as they mature through life’s challenges, and if you praise and reward them for their daily achievements, your relationships are bound to get better. Good luck.

Jacklin Andrews is a family counsellor from Saskatchewan. Contact: jandrews@producer.com.

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