An hour before our family was coming for Thanksgiving dinner my husband, the perfectionist, disappeared. He ran to the store to buy matching folding chairs. At that time we were living in a house that had a huge kitchen but no dining room, hence no dining room set that included matching table and chairs.
I was fuming because I needed his help with other preparations. His need for things to look perfect was bugging me, the former perfectionist. I went into the guest bathroom to admire the new wallpaper we had put up and make sure the guest soap and towels were in place.
Then I glanced down at the floor in horror. He had not replaced the molding along the bottom of the walls after hanging the wallpaper. There was only a gaping empty area. I was confused. How could such a world class perfectionist spend a couple of hours on a national holiday trying to find an open store that sold chairs but not care that the bathroom was incomplete and far from perfect? My formerly perfectionistic self would have mandated that both areas be faultless.
That is the puzzle about perfectionism. Each obsessive purist has his or her own rules about what must be without reproach. Apparently my husband’s did not include an unfinished bathroom. Maybe it’s because he is both a perfectionist and a procrastinator who often doesn’t finish projects. Not all procrastinators are perfectionists, but most perfectionists are procrastinators.
Since I was no longer a perfectionist, yes you can recover from it, I just shrugged and got on with my preparations. I consoled myself by remembering a client who had come to my home office and was impressed after using that bathroom because it was imperfect, and it didn’t seem to bother me. She turned me into her role model for moving past perfectionism.
Perfectionists are driven by the nebulous fear, “I must be perfect or else …” They act as if they will be guillotined or drawn and quartered if they are not perfect. It was obvious to me that my husband’s behavior was motivated by the fear of what people will think, but which people?
At the end of the day, after everyone had gone, I cornered my husband and explained that I was puzzled by his behavior. “I can’t understand why you had to leave just before our guests arrived and drove around like a madman trying to buy matching chairs, yet you weren’t embarrassed by all the people who went to the unfinished bathroom today.”
I asked my husband what he was afraid would happen if the chairs didn’t match. Who would care? And what would happen if one of our guests cared? He explained that his mother used to try to put on airs to impress people since she didn’t think she was good enough. Therefore, things had to look right.
asked what his “or else…” was and he couldn’t come up with an answer except that it would displease his mother. “But she’s dead!” I screamed in frustration. “Was she perfect? When are you going to stop acting like a child and make your own decisions about what is right and wrong?” I demanded.
When I was growing up we lived in an apartment. I recall many happy holiday meals there. We would open a table in the living room and pull up any available chairs, even the piano bench. Nobody minded. They remembered the happy times and my mother’s wonderful cooking. My husband was influenced by his mother’s disapproval. I was influenced by my mother’s lack of worry about what people might think.
Who are the people who will think you deserve to be drummed out of the human race if you aren’t good enough? Are they perfect? Did God appoint certain people to be His representatives on earth to point and jeer or punish? What are the qualifications that make those people worthy of judging you?
Perfectionistic thinking is irrational. Break the chains of “or else…” thinking by asking yourself what you are afraid will happen if you aren’t perfect. Whose voice do you hear? Do you need permission to disagree? I guarantee you won’t be struck by lightning.