Hi, I’m Kass, and I’m a Recovering Perfectionist

by Kassandra Lamb

Perfect is the enemy of good – Voltaire

In a recent guest post over at Pirkko Rytkonen’s blog, I was talking about why it is hard to change our beliefs about ourselves, i.e., our self-esteem. I brought up the issue of perfectionism there, and promised to write more about it soon. Soon has arrived.

This is a big topic so I’m going to break it into two posts, one this week (how perfectionism comes to be) and one next week (what to do about it).

I plugged “perfection” into the search engine over at Wikimedia Commons. I got 1,453 results. Ninety percent of them were pictures of Mother Nature strutting her stuff. Here’s one of the ten percent. Perfectionism is not a new thing. Here’s how you can have the perfect waistline, ladies.

old ad for a corset

Nope! Not willing to wear this! (U.S. public domain; copyright expired)

So how do we become perfectionists?

Perfectionists are made, not born. There are three ways we can be shaped in that direction (Note–these are not mutually exclusive; they often go hand-in-hand):

1) We had perfectionistic parents whom we modeled.
My heartfelt apologies to my son. I will never forget the day that he was helping us get our house ready for sale so we could downsize in retirement. He was twenty-two.

He and I were painting window frames on the back of the house when he paused and laughed. “Ma, I love working along side you because you’re the only person I know who’s more obsessed with perfection than I am.” I faked a laugh back but his well-meaning comment stabbed my heart. Even though he wasn’t quite as obsessive, I had passed along my too-high standards to him.

The next time I got a little paint on the cement around the window, I made myself leave it there.

2) We have poor self-worth.
We did not feel unconditionally loved as a worthwhile human being growing up, or were perhaps actively put down as worthless by someone we cared about, who’s opinion therefore helped shape our views of ourselves.

So we end up feeling like we can never be good enough. Now some kids give up at this point and become “underachievers” (I’ve received a request to discuss underachieving as well; yet another post to come.)

Others try to prove their worth by being perfect. They become little “human doings” as the psychologist, John Bradshaw, dubbed this phenomenon. Believing that if they can just do things absolutely right they will then be accepted as an okay person, they strive for perfection in every area of their lives.

3) We have poor self-confidence.
This sounds like the same thing as above, but it is subtly different. Many people may have both poor self-worth and poor self-confidence. But some folks may feel loved by their parents and other people in their lives–so their basic self-worth is good–but they were held to too critical a standard for their achievements, leaving them with poor self-confidence.

As a teenager, my self-worth wasn’t all that bad. I sensed that my mother loved me, and I knew my brother and grandmother did. Sadly, it didn’t even cross my mind to consider if my father loved me–he was that emotionally distant from us kids. He almost never played with us or helped us with a project. Which turned out to be a good thing, because the man was 100% incapable of saying “Good job.” (BTW, he came by all this honestly from his own childhood.)

I was always an A student–that was where my perfectionism was most fully displayed–but the best I could usually muster in Physical Education was a C. Every report card, my mother praised me for my good grades. And my father said, “You need to bring that C up.”

image of JFK's report card -- average C+

JFK’s 1930 report card — NARA (via Wikimedia–public domain)



Wish I’d known then that the President of the United States was just a C+ student! (Yes, I am that old; JFK was President when I was a kid!)





So what can we do about being too perfectionistic? This is a tough task, but if you stick with it and work very hard, you can achieve it.

~ ~ And if there is one thing perfectionists are good at, it’s working hard! ~ ~

Stay tuned! Next week, the seven steps to overcoming perfectionism, perfectly! 😉

Note: One area where I let my inner perfectionist have a bit more free rein is in my writing. Thus it takes me awhile to get a new release out. So in the meantime, here’s a new novella in the Kate on Vacation series — to tide folks over until the next full-length novel is ready.

Check it out below. Then talk to me in the comments. Are you a recovering perfectionist like me, or did you manage to dodge the perfectionism bullet?

Cruel Capers on the Caribbean cover

Trouble seems to find Kate Huntington, even on a Caribbean cruise. She and her friend, Liz, befriend socialite Cora Beall, who is having relationship problems. When Cora is found dead, her cabin locked from the inside, the ship’s captain assumes it’s a suicide.

Kate is skeptical. Her private detective husband begs her to let it go, but the evidence points more and more toward murder. And she can’t stop thinking about Cora’s teenage daughter who is back in the States with her stepfather. Which is worse, thinking your mother committed suicide or being raised by her killer? Or is Cora’s seemingly-innocent, screenwriter boyfriend the real murderer?

And the toughest question of all… how did Cora’s killer get out of a locked room?

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Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week,  usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    June 17, 2014 at 1:01 pm

    Fab post, Kass! I had a perfectionist mother, and I know exactly why (her childhood was a nightmare). She has more awareness now, and can ease up on herself and others. Somewhat.

    My childhood was tough at times: a stain or rip in one’s clothing was the slippery slope to a poor character and miserable life. Same with grades, and a host of other things. It took a lot of therapy as an adult before I could shrug off that mindset and stop reflexively caring about that sort of thing. I look back and marvel at how easily as a kid I believed that life worked just the way she said it did. Finally by high school I started to catch on that plenty of other folks didn’t seem to have this yoke to carry, and yet nothing horrible happened to them!

    There’s a very great distinction between being a perfectionist and being detail-oriented/ conscientious about things that matter; sometimes I think folks confuse the two and don’t see being a perfectionist as all that bad. Trust me, people – it is. The stress and anxiety are huge, the stakes are high, and usually the issues being obsessed over are tiny in the grand scheme of things.

    My 2 cents! 😉

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      June 17, 2014 at 1:15 pm

      And a very valuable two cents it is!

      “I look back and marvel at how easily as a kid I believed that life worked just the way she said it did.” That is the crux of the problem; kids absorb their parents’ worldview unquestioningly.

      “The stress and anxiety are huge, the stakes are high, and usually the issues being obsessed over are tiny in the grand scheme of things.” Yup!!

      Thanks for sharing this, Kathy!

  • Reply
    Vinnie Hansen
    June 17, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    I look forward to reading your tips, Kass. I am definitely a recovering perfectionist. As one of ten children, perfectionism and overachievement were my ways to try to get attention–especially in a house full of boys! My straight A’s didn’t work with my parents. They were much more concerned with my brother’s D’s. However, my good grades reaped attention from classmates and teachers. I got to be Student of the Month and valedictorian. Plus, I liked school, anyway.

    By the way, I love the cover for Cruel Capers. It’s perfect.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      June 17, 2014 at 4:28 pm

      Oh, cool. So glad you like it, Vinnie!

      I know what you mean about getting attention from teachers, etc. That was definitely another motivator for me as well re: my grades.

  • Reply
    Marcy Kennedy
    June 18, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    I’m naturally a detail-oriented person and I believe in doing things right if you’re going to do them, but I’m also a perfectionist (and as Kathy pointed out, those are very different things).

    I have extremely loving and supportive parents, but my mom is a perfectionist (thanks to her harsh father), and I also grew up with an extended family who acted like I was an embarrassment to them. I would often hear second-hand the unkind things they were saying about me. I spent a lot of time growing up thinking, “If I can only succeed at this particular thing, then they’ll be proud of me.” As I matured, I realized that it didn’t matter what I did–I couldn’t make them like me or be proud of me. I would have had to change who I was as a person to do that, and I wasn’t willing to be someone I wasn’t just to please them.

    I can’t wait to read your tips for overcoming perfectionism 🙂

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      June 18, 2014 at 5:50 pm

      It’s both amazing and sad how inter-generational this stuff is, Marcy. I figure if the good Lord lets us have this planet for enough generations, we might eventually get it right.

      So glad you realized that pleasing others is NOT where it’s at!!

  • Reply
    Karen McFarland
    June 19, 2014 at 1:26 am

    Your post was perfect Kassandra! I was brought up by a perfectionist mother. It was certainly interesting, that’s for sure. And unfortunately, I also became a perfectionist mother. As you said, it’s taught by example. I had no idea I was passing it down. Now I make sure to show them unconditional love and hope that it counteracts the bad influence of my younger years. Good thing I have a wonderful relationship with them both and we can laugh about it together. Can’t wait for your second installment. Great information! Thanks!:)

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      June 19, 2014 at 10:45 pm

      That’s great that you can laugh about it with your kids, Karen. I think it helps tremendously when we can fess up to our grown children the areas where we know we were less than stellar as parents. It helps them put things in perspective, and helps them realize they aren’t going to be perfect parents either. ‘Cause that’s one job nobody’s been able to do perfectly yet!

  • Reply
    Dianne F
    June 23, 2014 at 7:01 am

    Very interesting post, Kassandra. I’m not sure if I’m a perfectionist, but maybe I am b/c I am a driven person who secretly feels that if I don’t push myself, I will be a total sloth. The confidence piece is interesting; I’ve always been confident, but have seen time and again, how quickly kids lose their confidence (although as a community college professor, I also get to see them build and gain their confidence). If they are not good at something, they give up.

    Over the years, my smart but definitely not very athletic son was reluctant to do anything sporty because he didn’t feel he was any good at sports. I have repeatedly emphasized that being average is okay — you can’t be great at everything and being in the middle of the pack is a good thing, especially if you are doing great things like getting exercise and enjoying teammates. This past year, he surprised himself, I think, with his ‘average-ness’ in track and field — he never won a race but often came in second or third.

    Now you’ve inspired a post for me — something about a call to averageness!

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      June 23, 2014 at 11:21 am

      A Call to Averageness — I love it! If we keep feeding off of each other this way, we’ll never run out of blog post ideas, Dianne. 🙂

      Stayed tuned. My post for tomorrow is about overcoming perfectionism. I’ll bet you can add some helpful hints to my list.

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