The Perils of Perfectionism

Alison Green is a lifelong UU and has been a member of First Unitarian for about five years. She loves making things with string, singing and playing music, and hanging out with her delightful partner.

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Good morning! Thank you all so much for being here in church when you could be outside! Thanks also to Neil Bartholemew for inviting me to do this service, to our worship associate Annie Bissett and hymn accompanist Lynda Gulley. I also want to thank my partner John Bent who will be playing with me on the postlude, as well as Caroline Mailloux, who helped me sort through some of my many thoughts about this topic.

Perfectionism is something I’ve thought about and struggled with throughout most of my life. A classic older sibling, growing up I was constantly trying my best to be “good” – or at least appear that way to the adults around me. 

But one way in which I did not please my parents is that I was—and still am to a large extent—an inveterate procrastinator. It was only as an adult that I began to understand how this was tied to perfectionism. In many cases, the pressure I put on myself to do everything perfectly would make me dread even beginning a project, since there is no way anyone can meet the impossible standard of perfection. At its heart, perfectionism is not so much about desiring success, but rather about avoiding failure. And if you don’t try, you can’t fail.

Ironically, writing this talk brought out ALL of my perfectionistic and procrastinating tendencies. All of the self-doubt and self-criticism. Patterns of behavior that I remember so well from my college days – the last time I was regularly working on any writing projects – resurfaced with a vengeance. And even worse, since I knew that this talk would be evaluated not just by a single professor, but by the whole congregation of you who showed up to church today, my fears were perhaps even worse than normal. At least the stakes are in some ways lower, since none of you will be handing in a letter grade on my performance, and the worst that could happen is that I won’t be invited to do this again. And really, I thought as I tried to write this, would that be such a terrible thing?

One of the behaviors that I engaged in was that I started off optimistically. I gathered together many pieces of writing relating to perfectionism. I chatted with friends about it. I made a lot of notes. 

A week or two ago, I started writing a rough draft, long-hand, which is a technique that always helped with my paper writing in college. And then it was the last week before I was to give this talk, and days kept passing by, and I kept not finishing it. Because, to actually commit to what I was going to say – with all its imperfection – well that was when I really started feeling blocked. Paralyzed. I started thinking, maybe this whole topic is just not even very interesting to people! I talked it over with my partner, who tried to assuage my fears.

But he doesn’t seem to suffer from perfectionism in the same way that I do. And there are some indications that women and girls have this tendency more than men. One of the articles I had gathered during my research, by Lisa Damour writing for the New York Times, is entitled, “Why Girls Beat Boys at School and Lose to Them at the Office.” Here is an excerpt:

When investigating what deters professional advancement for women, the journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman found that a shortage of competence is less likely to be an obstacle than a shortage of confidence. When it comes to work-related confidence, they found men are far ahead. “Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in,” they wrote. “Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect.”

Damour goes on:

As a psychologist who works with teenagers, I hear this concern often from the parents of many of my patients. They routinely remark that their sons do just enough to keep the adults off their backs, while their daughters relentlessly grind, determined to leave no room for error. The girls don’t stop until they’ve polished each assignment to a high shine and rewritten their notes with color-coded precision.

We need to ask: What if school is a confidence factory for our sons, but only a competence factory for our daughters?

In my own youth, my perfectionism came out in different ways. I think I was probably more like the boys that Damour describes, doing just enough to keep the teachers and my parents off my back. But, I absolutely hated doing things that I wasn’t good at. Even things that were just for fun—for example, I refused to go bowling.

And of course if you don’t practice a skill, you’ll never get any better. So not doing anything you’re not already good at makes it pretty difficult to actually learn anything new. I know I’m not alone in this because I have seen it when I’ve taught knitting classes. Teaching adults to knit is so much harder than teaching children. Children are used to learning new hand skills. Adults generally are not. I’ve watched so many women quickly become intensely frustrated trying over and over again to make stitches correctly and consistently. “I thought this was supposed to be relaxing?!” is a common refrain. When I lived in New York City, I sometimes taught private knitting lessons in people’s homes. I’ll never forget one woman who lived in an extremely fancy apartment on Park Avenue, who seemed to honestly believe that I would show her how to knit, and she would instantly know how to knit. There was no room in her world for sitting there, struggling, making lots of mistakes, and slowly making progress toward learning this new skill. She never called me back for a second lesson.

And I get it! But my thing now in middle age is to lean into that discomfort and delve into new things every year. Last year I took up playing the ukulele, having never before played a string instrument. And let me tell you, learning an instrument at the age of 42 is extremely humbling! And to be honest, though I don’t mind all my mistakes when I’m practicing at home, I cringe in my weekly lessons when I mess up (which happens pretty much constantly). I keep feeling like I should be able to play better by now, but my teacher kindly reminds me that I’m not getting any worse. 

Music has been an area where I’ve had to overcome my perfectionism over and over. Perhaps this has something to do with the performative aspect of playing and singing in front of an audience—or even with other musicians. I missed out on so many experiences and opportunities to learn as a young person because I just didn’t think I was good enough as a singer or musician to participate in various groups at my school. I heard and internalized some messages about my singing voice at the formative ages of about 12 to 14 that stuck with me, and by the time I started thinking maybe I had a decent voice, it was already established who the real singers in my school were, and I was not one of them. 

What finally helped me feel comfortable singing in front of an audience was going to Star Island in my twenties. Many of you are familiar with Star Island, a UU and UCC retreat and conference center off the coast of New Hampshire. I always say it’s like summer camp for all ages. Music infuses most of the weeklong programs on Star, and the week that I go I think that’s especially the case. In addition to a talent show and musicale, we also have a coffeehouse-style open mic every night called the Starlight Cafe. This was the environment I needed to finally feel comfortable and get practice singing in front of a room full of people. It’s such a low-key, supportive space, within a close-knit and caring community, and you can tell that everyone there is ready to enjoy whatever it is you are offering.

Risking failure is the only way we can learn and grow. It’s so important to find or create environments where failure is totally acceptable, and that is what I love so much about the Starlight Cafe. 

The other area where I’m trying something new and risking failure these days is CrossFit. I’ve never been a natural athlete, and as a young person I avoided athletics like the plague. But as an adult I’ve always tried various ways of staying fit, with varying degrees of success. It had been difficult since I moved to Rhode Island five years ago to find a fitness routine that I could stick with, and so I decided I needed to try something drastic. If you’re not familiar, the idea with CrossFit is that you have a big open space for the gym, and all the workouts are in the form of a class led by a coach. The workouts typically consist of a warm-up, a strength or skill portion, often involving Olympic-style weight lifting with barbells, followed by a high-intensity workout which is fairly short but very intense, wrapping up with some stretching for mobility. Many of the people who do CrossFit are extremely fit athletes, but after hearing about it for at least a year from my friend Amy, I decided to give it a shot. 

Predictably, I am usually one of slowest people in the class, and I’m usually lifting much lighter weight than everyone else. It’s become almost like a spiritual practice for me to keep on doing this activity, week in and week out, that I do not have a natural aptitude for, and progress is very slow. In some ways, I’m failing all the time in the gym, but to be honest, most of the time I feel like kind of a bad-ass just for showing up. I can’t really help comparing myself to others sometimes, but I just let it go. While the person next to me might be lifting a lot more weight than I am, I have no choice but to stay with what I can do, pushing myself just hard enough to keep improving, but not so hard that I risk injury. Again, this is humbling work.

I need to wrap up this talk but I have so much more to say on this topic. I could probably have made this talk about an hour long, but instead I’ll let you go outside into this beautiful summer day. I will leave you with this, from writer and sexuality educator Emily Nagoski:

[W]hen women start to think concretely about it, they begin to discover a sense that they need their self-criticism in order to stay motivated. We believe it does us good to torture ourselves, at least a little bit. As in: “If I stop beating myself up for the ways I’m not perfect, that’s like admitting to the world–and to myself–that I’ll never be perfect, that I’m permanently inadequate! I need my self-criticism in order to maintain hope and to motivate myself to get better.”

That’s absolutely what our culture has taught us, so it makes sense that many of us believe it. It’s so entrenched in our culture that it sounds… sane. Rational, even.

But it’s not.

Think about it: What would really happen if you stopped running from yourself or beating yourself up? What would happen if you put down the whip you’ve been flogging yourself with for decades?

When you stop beating yourself up–when you stop reinjuring yourself–what happens is…you start to heal