The Power of Perfectionists
Striving to achieve a sense of perfection has been a misguided belief in my life, often leading me down the wrong path. It has made me, at times, place value on the wrong things. It has made me not listen to my true self for fear that I would somehow fail in another’s eyes. I was curious as to how the idea of perfection has become so pervasive in our society, how it begins, how it hurts us and perhaps, even, if it carries a certain benefit.
The idea of “being perfect” is something that plagues many of us in our society, causing a lot of stress and feelings of inadequacy. Where does this idea that we need to be perfect come from? How can we come to terms with (and find the beauty in) imperfection?
The word Enneagram means design of nine and it’s a system that can be used as a map to journey into our own personality. According to this system, there are nine personality types, each with unique gifts, talents, motivations, sensitivities, and weaknesses. A complex system showing us our habits of mind, false assumptions, assets and liabilities, the Enneagram also delves into how we feel and behave when secure and when stressed. The perfectionist is the “Personality Type One” of the nine personality types.
The perfectionist embodies the gifts of being wise, principled, and conscientious; but, also runs the risk of being too idealistic and judgmental to the point of becoming critical, intolerant, self-righteous and, perhaps, punitive. Perfectionists have a gift for detail but also have an inner critic that finds flaws automatically. (Ask a perfectionist to proofread your work, they are naturals!) So the gift of great discrimination, authenticity, and appreciation of fine points holds the risk of becoming picky, fault finding, and difficult to please. No one is harder on the perfectionist than the perfectionist him/herself who lives with a constant inner critic.
“The downside of perfectionism is the risk of becoming chronically irritated, frustrated, discontent and, therefore, angry because things are not as they should be.”
The downside of perfectionism is the risk of becoming chronically irritated, frustrated, discontent and, therefore, angry because things are not as they should be. They can be truly intolerant of their own “warts and freckles,” let alone those of others. They may focus on fixing themselves, others, and the world around them, trying to right the wrongs of the world. What others may see as the perfectionist’s disapproval or anger may be experienced internally as the energy, determination, and enthusiasm for their cause and the focus on getting the job done right.
As children, they may have relied too much on themselves for guidance, structure, and wisdom before they were developmentally able to do so. Without the ability to deal with ambiguity, uncertainty, and mature discernment, the young perfectionist is too cut and dried and at risk of being way too harsh toward self and others.
“As children, they may have relied too much on themselves for guidance, structure, and wisdom before they were developmentally able to do so.”
So, what to do? Perfectionists can find their way back to their more genuine “true” selves by practicing acceptance and serenity. Serenity is well described by the Serenity Prayer—accepting the things we cannot change, changing the things we can, and having the wisdom to know the difference. In essence, it’s about striving for completeness rather than faultlessness. Listening to that inner critic with compassion can be painful but extremely rewarding and fruitful. It is also helpful to this personality to stretch into just trying on the other person’s shoes. While some other personality types may actually have a knack for this, perfectionists can find it extremely uncomfortable, as if it is bad or wrong. It takes an open mind and heart and lots of kindhearted practice and patience.
“It’s about striving for completeness rather than faultlessness.”
When perfectionists automatically judge or condemn, it is helpful to reflect on when they think they first came up with their opinions and, with lots of loving practice, they may stop and reflect with simple phrases such as: That was then, this is now. Would you rather be right than happy? Does it really matter? This is a process that takes time, dedication and patience. It goes against the grain for the perfectionist who is so convinced that their imperfections need to be fixed, preferably, eradicated; but, the wisdom and enlightenment that blossom from Enneagram work can be truly divine.
“Would you rather be right than happy?”
—Dr. Susan McNary, Ph.D is a psychologist with a home practice in Palos Verdes, California evaluating kids and young adults who are experiencing difficulties at school or at home. She is also an Enneagram scholar, having studied extensively with Riso/Hudson, Palmer/Daniels and Richard Rohr. She currently teaches Enneagram at the Mary and Joseph Retreat Center in Rancho Palos Verdes.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Enneagram, you can take the short free personality test here and, at goop, we’ve gotten into Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson’s book, The Wisdom of the Enneagram.