One of the most dangerous survival skills we learn in childhood is the desire to be perfect in everything we do. A desire to be perfect energizes and fuels our tendency to procrastinate. It erodes the courage we need to learn new skills. It keeps us from being open to new experiences. The fear it creates within us shuts down our ability to grow; to become the person we were meant to become. The childhood fear of not being perfect protects us from criticism, ridicule, and the possibility of failure, but it also has the power to make our life dull and boring. Stated simply, perfectionism is the archenemy of all creative action.
The perfectionist event that I remember best was my first concert as a violinist in grammar school. The concert was held near the end of the school year on a very warm June evening. Our class was getting ready to perform on the auditorium stage when someone turned on the stage lights. The temperature rose about thirty degrees in seconds. My mother had insisted that I wear my good wool pants since I would be standing in the front row.
We were about half way through the first song when my legs began itching. I slowly raised my leg to scratch myself and accidently bumped my music stand. I watched in horror as it fell onto the stand of the girl playing next to me causing her stand to collide with the stand of the person next to her. Within five seconds there were roughly eight music stands on the floor; all in the front row.
The audience was in hysterics laughing. I was mortified. And sadly, it was the last time I played the violin.
The fear of not being perfect is a survival skill that most of us learn in childhood. In my case it protected me from ever being laughed at as a violinist again, but it also shut down any possibility of a future bluegrass music career. Today as a mandolin player that loves country and bluegrass music, I would love to have learned how to play a bluegrass fiddle. Unfortunately my fear of ridicule and not being perfect prevented that dream from coming true——that, and a significant lack of natural talent.
Another common example of perfectionism is the fear of public speaking. Why are most of us so fearful of public speaking? What could possibly happen to us as a public speaker that wouldn’t happen if we were sitting in the audience? The answer is obvious. Nothing——-except the possibility of not being a perfect public speaker.
As an adult, it is helpful to remind ourselves the mental concept of perfection is not real. It’s an illusion created by our ego. No matter how good you perform any activity, as a perfectionist you will always know deep in your heart that you could have done better! On the other hand, there is no such thing as failure either. It too is an illusion created by the ego. No matter how badly you might have failed to reach your ego’s goal, you still learned something from the experience. So the effort wasn’t a failure.
The fear of failure and the goal of perfection are powerful illusions; sure-fire ways to undermine your ability to achieve happiness or success in life. When you catch yourself backing off because you fear the outcome might not be perfect, it’s helpful to remember that the first Wright brother’s plane only flew a few hundred feet; and Edison built hundreds of light bulbs before he got one to actually work. We can be grateful they were not perfectionists that feared failure.
by Dick Rauscher©