A friend gave me a fridge magnet with the words, 'Dull Women have Immaculate Houses' a few years ago. I don't know whether she was suggesting that I was a 'dull woman' but whether she was or not, those five liberating words have encouraged and affirmed me so often that it has become the most precious of the assortment of magnets that adorns my fridge. It's a wonderfully effective antidote to the 'Cleanliness is next to Godliness' mantra that some of us may have imbibed at an early age!
If you are a person who is routinely beset by ideas and enthusiasms, as most creative people are, pursuing these ideas and following up the enthusiasms can be very time- and energy-consuming. And trying to fit in all the other aspects of our lives, the relationships, the chores and all the 'Necessary Evils' of life, such as paying bills on time, can easily lead to overload, manifested as anything from a vague feeling of never quite being on top of things, to outright collapse! This is when it's a good idea to take a step back to evaluate how we are spending our time and to 'stack our priorities'. This is not at all easy if we are perfectionists. It's hard to let go of the idea that we can do it all, that we are Superwomen or Supermen and that if we show ourselves to be anything less, for instance if we don't keep the cobwebs under control, and our laundry isn't whiter than white, someone, somewhere is going to disapprove of us. Of course that someone may well be our own selves.
I have heard perfectionism defended as, ' I have high standards' or 'if a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well,' and there are times when this is perfectly valid. I was glad that the man who fitted my kitchen was a perfectionist, even though he took forever to finish it, because the end result was so good. But there are many things in life that do not need to be done to a particularly high standard, where 'good enough' is 'perfectly' fine. Dr Donald Winnicott, paediatrician and psychoanalyst, championed the idea of the 'good enough' mother as far back as the 1960s, in his groundbreaking book, 'The Child, the Family and the Outside World'.And 'good enough' is often quite sufficient - unless you are a perfectionist!
So what's wrong with perfectionism?
Well, for a start it can be bad for your physical health. In the realm of mindbody medicine, it has been found that most of the people who suffer from what Dr John Sarno calls TMS are perfectionists.
And then it can often give rise to procrastination and even the paralysis that we call 'creative block'. I have taught a couple of perfectionist children not too long ago and it was acutely painful for me to witness. Both were bright, engaging children but they would refuse pointblank to do something if they did not feel confident that they could get it 100% correct. What a monumental barrier to learning! Quite by chance we found a way around it when one of them noticed and pointed out a typo in a little story I had written for my pupils' reading program. The 10 yr old was astonished when I failed to throw a wobbly because she had caught me out in an error but instead offered her a 'sticker' for every mistake she could find in the rest of the book. Gosh! Even a teacher can make a mistake - and it's OK!
Perfectionism can also lead to having unrealistically high expectations of others; children of perfectionist parents can have a very hard time!
It's important to distinguish between perfectionists and 'high achievers' though. High achievers can be mistaken for perfectionists because of their diligence, often seeming driven to work very long hours. But it's the motivation that is different. A high achiever is motivated by a strong, positive, wish to fulfil their potential wheras a perfectionist is driven by fear of not living up to some standard, of not being 'acceptable' unless they achieve perfection. Perhaps the weavers of Persian rugs and carpets were on to something, as they wove a deliberate mistake into their designs, because 'only Allah is perfect!'
As I was painting these designs for fridge magnets (and other things!) I was listening to BBC Radio 3. In between playing pieces of wonderful flute music, Jed Wentz, the flute-player, was chatting to the presenter. I was only half-listening but suddenly I heard him say, 'Perfection is fine but it's not sexy...' That's as much as I managed to jot down but later I found his website where you can read the whole of what he said in context, down towards the end of the page.
If there are any perfectionists getting depressed by reading this, I would suggest three ways to cope well with perfectionism:
- One is to prioritise, to decide what is really important, what it is that makes you want to get out of bed in the morning and make that your priority. Returning to the subject of 'immaculate houses', I love to see my brass door handles winking at me, to smell the beeswax on my old pine furniture and to be able to look out through my windows at the garden through sparkling glass panes, from a kitchen with a floor 'you could eat your dinner off'.. But I know that if I am to have time to paint, write, garden, go walking and chat with friends and family on a regular basis and keep up with the 'necessary evils' such as bill-paying, dental check-ups and car servicing, something has to give.So the house has to make do with a 'once-over' now and then - and the bonus is that it has become such a treat when all those extra, non-essential jobs are done, and the house is all bright and shining, for instance, in time for the family's arrival for Christmas!
- The second is to firmly and vigorously boot out any traces of that nagging inner critic's voice that chants, 'Be ye perfect' - it's a mistranslation in any case!
- The third, and perhaps the most important, is to maintain your sense of humour.
So saying, I'll now go off and vacuum the build-up of cobwebs out of my fridge...and ponder while I'm doing it, what the equivalent 'motto' would be for 'dull men'.
Also available as greeting cards and on ladies' T-shirts in my Zazzle store.