’Tis not the season, but let’s talk gingerbread houses. My younger sister and I were watching one of those competition shows on Food Network a few years ago, and the challenge was gingerbread houses. We were rooting for one competitor in particular–she had a gorgeous, artistic design that included handcrafted candy. “Bravo,” my sister and I said. All that care, that attention to detail: good stuff.
Gingerbread Downton Abbey: Any store-bought candy on there? And does it matter?
The other guy (or girl; it’s been a long time)–well, his first item of business was unwrapping a bunch of store-bought candy.
“Boo,” my sister and I said. Store-bought candy was inferior. It was a cheat, if not by the actual rules then in spirit.
And we proceeded to watch our girl lose. I don’t remember exactly what happened with her, whether she dropped a tray or forgot some ingredients or simply worked slowly, but as she toiled on the decorative details, she fell further and further behind on the actual house.
My sister wailed, “This is my life! This is my life!”
And because we are the sort of sisters who can win Pictionary with two-stroke sketches, I wailed back, “I know! I know!”
What were we seeing? I don’t recall that we used the word “perfectionism,” but the cost of it was playing out in sugar and sweat and heartbreak right before our eyes.
A few weeks later, I texted her with something I’d seen on-line:
It was supposed to be encouraging. However, part of me questioned, “But is it? Is ‘done’ really, truly better?”
From the first time I saw Martha Stewart, I knew she used the word “perfect” far too often, yet without that drive, how far would she have gotten? We’ve all seen or paid for so-so work where “done” seemed to be the primary goal, and even if a refund is possible, we can’t get our time back, no matter how much we may wish to. I suspected plenty of the work I’ve loved and/or admired was produced by perfectionists.
But there’s an (admittedly slim) chance Martha Stewart isn’t a perfectionist after all. Because as it turns out, perfectionism does not equal striving for excellence.
As the Scarecrow said when Glinda revealed the very shoes Dorothy wore could take her home, “That’s so easy! I should have thought of it for you!” Yeah, I don’t know why I’d never really made the distinction before reading The Gifts of Imperfection. I can’t say I thought of perfection as an attainable goal, but pursuing an ideal nevertheless seemed noble to me. I’d even heard highly accomplished people claim they weren’t perfectionists and wondered, how can that be?
Brené Brown compares perfectionism to a shield. A twenty-ton shield we use to try to deflect “the pain of blame, judgment, and shame.” “Healthy striving” is self-focused, asking how can I improve? Perfectionism is “other-focused–what will they think?” It’s “trying to earn approval and acceptance” and a “debilitating belief system: I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect.”
About the time I’d started Brené’s class, a friend had recommended a book on writer’s block to me, 7 Secrets of the Prolific, by Hillary Rettig. After months of struggle and a pressure-filled writers conference where it seemed the only thing people had to say was “you won’t have any kind of career unless you’re producing at least two (or three or seven) books a year,” I was told my friend, “Prolific! I just want to be able to open my work-in-progress without hating myself!”
I was desperate enough to order it, though. And isn’t it a blessing how, when you’re ready to learn something, it keeps turning up in your life? Before Rettig got to any strategies, secrets, or cures, she took plenty of time to explain perfectionism, and much of it surprised me. For example, her claim that “perfectionists are grandiose.” I never identified with the phrase “delusions of grandeur,” but Rettig’s connections between grandiosity and unreasonable goals hit home.
Then there’s grandiosity’s complement: undervaluing the “ordinary processes of creativity and career-building.” Rettig stated, “Perfectionists are all about the easy win,” and I protested, “Am not!” But then I remembered my shock and awe when I discovered George Orwell’s drafts for the first page of 1984 in the back of my Norton’s anthology. Orwell had to work that hard?
Whether Orwell was a perfectionist or not, I can’t say. I don’t know about the baker on Food Network, either. Or even Martha Stewart. Brené believes perfectionism exists along a continuum, something we all experience to some degree sometimes. Whether it’s situational or chronic, she calls the consequences of perfectionism life paralysis. I loved Barbara’s swimming post this week, how she let herself be vulnerable as she learned how to swim. If she’d tried to shield herself with perfectionism, she would have missed out on the “delirious pleasure of a new skill.”
“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism,” Brené writes, “is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life.” How do you put down that shield? Since I’ve gone on so long already (and haven’t even gotten to the art journal assignment yet), I’ll pause here and come back with Brené’s practices next week.
Thank you, ReFab, for so much for the thoughtful conversation last week. Feel free to comment on anything, but I’d love to know: How do you tell the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism?