Part 3 – What’s Perfect About Perfectionism

Part 3 – What’s Perfect About Perfectionism

Where does imperfectionism come from? The short answer is "you."

In Part I, I said that perfectionism should actually be called imperfectionism because it's all about finding imperfections in order to make things perfect.

Then in Part 2, I gave you tools for becoming a true perfectionist — someone who finds the perfection that is already there.

Now in Part 3, you can use those tools to help you figure out why you became a mistake-spotter in the first place.

  • What works about it?
  • What's right about it?
  • What's perfect about it?

Imperfectionism is a strategy, something you do that works for a goal...or that worked at least once. That "once" was when you decided to become a mistake-spotter in the first place. You didn't know you decided, but you did, and you can be sure that you had a really good reason to take on a high-pressure lifestyle like that.

So the question is when was your "once"?

If a strategy doesn't seem to work for you now, but you can't stop using it, that "once" was probably in your childhood and accompanied by a pretty strong fear, or you could simply reason yourself out of it.

Generalizing "once" into "always" is how children decide who they are, what is real and what they need to do to adapt. Deciding that something is "always" true creates an adaptive belief that runs the show despite reasons or even actual proof to the contrary that may come up later.

As an imperfectionist, that belief applies to everything, including you. Everything has to be perfect, or it's the end of the world. Despite your adult reasons and proof that tell you perfection matters very little in most things (if it can be achieved at all), the belief runs the show. For example, my mother strove to keep her house perfectly neat and clean to make it inviting, and my best friend's mother didn't. Can you guess which house was actually more inviting? Did that proof change my mother's belief or mine years later when I did the same thing? No.

Finding your "once," the one time in your childhood that your strategy of imperfectionism worked, will help you see how adopting imperfectionism as a strategy was the right and perfect thing for your child-self to do. Your new awareness will help you release the stress of imperfectionism and enjoy it's gifts instead.

For example, I answered a question for one imperfectionist parent who was struggling because she thought she shouldn't get upset over little things. It turns out she was raised in a physically and emotionally abusive home. She got great relief when I pointed out that in that kind of environment nothing in her life was ever little. Even tiny mistakes had big, devastating consequences for her.

By realizing that she was right once, she could use SAY WHAT YOU SEE to validate her childhood experience of little things actually being big, separate the past from the present, and move on:

"Of course you would have a big reaction to little things since they really were big once! You were right. And this situation is not the same..." 

This goes back to the first premise of Language of Listening (see footer) which applies to your subconscious conversations as well as your conscious ones: Everything children do and say is a communication; and they must continue to communicate until they are heard.

Knowing you were right "once" gets your child-self heard and allows you to move on.

Of course, your "once" does not have to be as scary as that parent's to have become an "always." My own personal example is quite tame by comparison, but just as impactful. (I've inserted the tools of true perfectionism below so you can see how they apply.)

What works about it?

The "once" when imperfectionism worked for me was when I was a child trying to gain my father's approval. Even though it was not physically life threatening, losing my father's approval felt like it to me because I had associated it with love. For a child, loss of parental love feels life threatening. The feeling of fear, whether it is fact-based or not, is all it takes for a child to create a strategy for survival.

Couple that with the feeling of being an "invisible" middle child (big sister, little brother, and baby sister) and living under the threat of spankings (proof of lost approval which was way more devastating than the sting of the paddle), imperfectionism was a brilliant strategy. If you did everything right and better than anybody else, you would not only avoid spankings but get recognition, admiration and approval, too. So it actually worked!

What's right about it?

I was right that I could lose my father's approval, but only on a superficial level. I realized that when as an adult I heard my father give my sister some parenting advice, "If you want kids to behave, tell them you are disappointed. It works like magic!" So in a literal way (which is the basis of kid logic and many false beliefs), I actually was right — messing up would lose his spoken approval, but not the deeper level of love that I feared! 

Now before you judge my father, stop and apply the tools of true perfectionism to him as well. Despite its cost to our relationship, his approval approach worked for the goal he had in mind — good behavior. And when you look for how it was right, you will see that his 1950's approach was actually a big leap forward and kind compared to his parents' 1930's depression era approach, which relied primarily on physical punishment, threats and derisive comments to "keep kids in line." And in a back-handed way it was the perfect approach to launch me to the next level — designing a simple reward-free, punishment-free parenting approach — Language of Listening.

What's perfect about it?

in addition to that, what's perfect about it became clear when I applied the breakthrough work I was doing at the time to the fear-based belief I had created when my father expressed his disappointment in me.

My belief statement was: "You don't disappoint your father!" It went into my head as a "you don't dare" kind of commandment where it stayed hidden but highly active for 32 years. I always loved and admired my father, but could not relax and just be myself around him and never knew why. Phone calls home consisted primarily of, "Hi Dad! Is Mom there?" which seemed perfectly normal to me at the time. Girls are just naturally closer to their mothers, right? Turns out, the answer is no.

After hearing his parenting advice to my sister, that belief came to light, and I was able to validate it enough so that the same words suddenly flipped and became a statement of the truth: "You don't disappoint your father," as in, "You can't, because it's not possible to disappoint him in the way that you thought!"

That perfect truth hit like a bolt of lightning! Years of stress and pressure fell off of my shoulders and for the first time I could be myself around him without fear of losing his love.

By that time, my parents had moved to the same part of Texas where I lived, so I made a point to take my daughters and visit whenever I could. I am so grateful for the three years I got to spend hanging out with my dad and really getting to know him before he died. Without that breakthrough I would have missed my chance.

In addition to giving me back my father, that breakthrough helped me embrace the gifts of imperfectionism, ease the stress, and begin my journey into true perfectionism. The breakthrough tools I have developed since, have been making the journey easier for others.

What was your "once?" Finding your "once" and how your imperfectionism worked, was right and perfect, can help you on your journey into true perfectionism. If you'd like a personal guide, or would like to learn how to help others that you love, you can contact me for private coaching. True perfectionism is my specialty!

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