“I’m a perfectionist.”

By Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.


Have you ever said that?

I was one of those “perfectionists” a long time ago.  Then, I began to realize what I was actually saying – and doing.

First, I finally became aware that using a standard of “perfectionism” – an unattainable goal – gave me an excuse either to not attempt something or not complete it.  “It” could never be perfect, so what was the point in trying?  I felt that I was avoiding putting myself in an inevitably failing position – and that was a good thing (or, so I thought).  This mindset created an obstacle for returning to school.  Because I did poorly in math in high school, I would, of course, do poorly in college.  Why would I set myself up for failure?  Consequently, for 5 years I put off attending Schenectady County Community College, even though I really wanted to try.

Second, if I did attempt the “whatever,” I left no “wiggle room” and, therefore, no latitude for changes and adjustments.  This mindset produces unnecessary stress on an individual.  I recall the first math class I took upon my enrollment in Schenectady County Community College, and the first exam.  I earned a 98%.  Believe it or not, I was furious!  I argued with the instructor for quite some time after class.  To me, not having a 100% was the same as failing.  Rather than rejoicing in earning an A+ on the first exam, I left shaken and disappointed with myself.

What happened with these two scenarios is that I undermined any chance at success.  By dong so, I reinforced an already-low self-esteem.  “Perfectionism” was a trap that kept me from moving forward.  I remember when I earned my first “B” at the Community College (Psychology II, I think), a family member expressed great relief.  Apparently, I had been pushing so hard for the academic “Holy Grail” of GPAs – the 4.0 – that my family was beginning to notice the stress taking its toll on me.  By earning a “B,” I had to simply resolve to do my best for the remainder of my courses.  I ended up with a 3.86 GPA upon graduation with my Associate’s.

By the time I graduated, I had learned to let go of “perfectionism” and replace it with goal-setting.  As I crossed off all the goals I had attained – each course, each semester, and finally, graduation – my self-esteem began to become more positive.  The unattainable “perfectionism” had been eclipsed by attainable goals.  This set up an empowering pattern of achievement that would sustain me for the rest of my academic career.

So, the next time you say to yourself “I’m a perfectionist,” ask yourself “Why?”  Is it helping you create a better future or is it, in reality, what is holding you back?



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