Perfectionism, The Movie

By Stephanie Miller

If the stories inside my brain were screenplays I’d be known for making one kind of movie: The movie where I’m supposed to be perfect and I fail, again and again. It’s not the adorable failure like Sandra Bullock or Kristen Wiig. It’s the kind of failure that would make you look away from the screen and be amazed at how I never seem to learn, kind of like the snotty-nosed, mascara stained face of Laura Dern in her short-lived series Enlightened.

I only started looking at my perfectionism as a result of working on my eating disorders. When I realized that my relationship with food wasn’t healthy I started searching for the cause. One of the main catalysts was this endless movie in my head, the one that always ended with me as a bag lady sleeping under a bridge, hungry, helpless and lonely.  This storyline drove me to want to eat (or alternately starve) away my discomfort with all the ways I felt like a failure.

One of the first things I learned about perfectionism that I found helpful is that it a function of a natural, healthy part of my make-up. The will to do well is natural. Assessing my own performance against an objective standard or a goal is also natural. There’s nothing wrong with these healthy instincts. In fact, as creatures who depend on society for our survival this habit was essential. (If I was a cavewoman my life would have depended on being able to sleep in the cave with everyone else or be eaten by lions on my own.) BUT, with perfectionism I’ve carried these natural instincts too far. So, the first thing I learned was to be realistic. One of the best ways to do this is check with a friend or peer who has experience and see what they do or what they think is a realistic standard. I also learned how important it is not to base my expectations on my fears.

Another way to shift my thinking about perfectionism is to adopt ‘beginner’s mind.’ The popular Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi’s book title is a lesson in itself; Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.  He advocated the openness, inquisitiveness and freshness of Don’t Know Mind. This can be very helpful in combating that voice in my head that says “You SHOULD know this.” This is especially difficult living in a culture that values mastery and expertise and doesn’t leave much room, for learning. I’ve learned to try to appreciate the rare and relatively short time when I don’t know what I’m doing. I try to stay out of mastery (and therefore perfectionism) as long as I can. I found this really great article in Inc. Magazine that summarizes this concept really well. I’ve actually found that I enjoy activities so much more when I’m trying to be a beginner. And when I feel perfectionism creeping in I look at it as an opportunity to learn something new, instead of beating myself up.

I’m not sure if I have a future as a screenwriter, but I know one thing, nobody is going to want to buy Perfectionism Part 1,798,457. People, including me, are really tired of sequels.