Home > Playing in Life's Ballpark > #10 — On Being Perfect: Not quite good enough

#10 — On Being Perfect: Not quite good enough

In 1938, pitcher Johnny Vander Meer of the Cincinnati Reds established a record that is unlikely ever to be broken or even matched.  Vander Meer pitched two consecutive no-hit no-run games, first against Boston, then against Brooklyn.  Eighteen consecutive hitless, scoreless innings!  Early in his next game, one of the opposing batters ripped a line-drive up the middle for a solid base hit.  Later, Vander Meer confided, “I could have walked over and given him a $10 bill because that foolishness has to stop sometime.”  Perfection can be a very heavy burden.

Few of us achieve Vander Meer’s level of performance even briefly.  Yet many of us have come to believe that anything short of perfection in life is unacceptable.  Starting very early in our lives, we are taught what is expected of us by parents, grandparents, extended family, friends, teachers, and others.  Later our education is expanded by various institutions — academic, religious, governmental, commercial, and so on.  Many seemingly well-meaning people repeatedly show us our deficiencies and how to correct them.  Time after time we are compared with others, shown how we are falling short, and “encouraged” to raise our performance level to match or exceed theirs.  Ultimately, we learn what to buy, what to wear, what to say, what to do, and even what to believe, especially about ourselves.  Those of us who are fortunate are offered instruction and support, and we come to believe in our own worth and potential.  If we are not so fortunate, we learn to believe only in our inadequacies.  As casualties of perfectionism, we come to expect some unnamed but desperately awful consequence if we make a misstep or omission or fail to get everything right the first time every time. 

I remember Charlotte, a woman in her late forties, who came into my office complaining of severe anxiety, which made it difficult for her to function and sometimes even to breathe.  She had grown up in a well-to-do family dominated by a father whose take-no-prisoners approach had enabled him to start and direct a number of highly profitable businesses.  Casting a critical eye on everyone around him, he made it clear that no one’s performance or judgment quite matched his own and that every effort other than his, no matter how successful, could have been better.  The home and family in which Charlotte grew up was subject to this same scrutiny.  Despite doing well in the prep school her father insisted she attend, then graduating from a local college and going on to obtain a Masters degree, Charlotte never seemed to be quite good enough.  Her younger brother, a “disappointment” as an A-minus student, had been arrested three times for drunk driving by the time he was 18.  Each time, his father bailed him out and quietly dealt with the authorities, then loudly berated the boy.  Charlotte’s mother, meanwhile, abdicated her parental responsibilities early on, retreating into a state of hypochondria and rarely leaving her bedroom.  By being aggressively helpless, she repeatedly frustrated Charlotte’s father and turned Charlotte herself into a combination nurse and housemaid by the time she was nine. 

Upon finishing school, Charlotte became very accomplished as a financial analyst.  Then she met and married a young replica of her father, who insisted that she leave her job and stay home to raise the children that Charlotte was expected to have and to “be responsible for the household.”  Charlotte dutifully complied and spent years trying to satisfy an ever-growing set of expectations.  Little by little, her stress took its toll.  First, she started to have migraine headaches, then insomnia, and finally racing thoughts that could only be quelled by compulsively repeating behaviors involving counting and shuffling her feet.  After seeing her doctor and trying medication, she was referred to me. 

Variations of Charlotte’s story occur all too often.  Too many people grow up believing they are not good enough and that revealing their imperfections will bring on public humiliation.  To compensate, they strive for a standard of perfection that no one could ever maintain, and they come to believe that they must be everything for everyone.  Ironically, the more these people manage to satisfy others, the more dissatisfied they become with themselves.  Increasingly aware of how they are sacrificing their own needs and wants in favor of those of other people, they start to resent those others for talking advantage and themselves even more for allowing it to happen.  Yet, driven by fear, they persist until, like Charlotte, they begin to break down.  As Johnny Vander Meer pointed out, maintaining a state of perfection is neither realistic nor even pleasant. 

Beyond the obvious stress that perfectionism brings, there is an even more insidious effect resulting from the underlying fear of being exposed as inadequate.  While this fear is a strong motivator, it only causes us to avoid things, even when those things might be beneficial.  Perhaps this is why Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”  If Thoreau were writing today, he would likely have referred to “most people.”  With avoidance as a coping strategy, life becomes characterized by what is not done.  Ambitious projects are not started, fulfilling careers are not attempted, and satisfying relationships are not even contemplated.  I recall times in my early years when I saw friends try things and fail, only to be criticized and even mocked by their peers.  And so, thinking that I might also fail and look foolish, I held myself back from things I now wish I had tried.  The price of perfectionism can be very high.

Moreover, even when it is achieved, being perfect may not bring satisfaction.  Years ago I had a colleague who observed, “Perfect is boring!  Once you’re there, the best you can do then is not screw up.”  By opting for excellence as our goal, we make it possible to perform well and still have room for improvement.  This in turn gives us incentive to keep getting better and to keep moving forward in life.  What we find is that we can feel good about our accomplishments while looking for ways to get better.  With excellence, there is always a new goal to strive for; with perfection there is not. 

For myself, I have found that increasing age has a tendency to make the prospect of public embarrassment far less threatening.  I now prefer making errors of commission rather than errors of omission.  After all, life without striving, without trying to get better, is not really life.  I have always believed that Johnny Vander Meer would have been willing to give up being perfect and just settle for being excellent.  And, yes, it’s important to remember: $10 was a lot of money in 1938.

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