At The Bridge to Recovery, we talk a lot about perfectionism and do a lot of therapeutic work to overcome its grips. This article, written by our co-founder Carol Cannon in 2001 has certainly aged well. It seems we simply have become more accepting as a society of our ability – no, our need to do right, be right, and feel right. Check out Carol’s personal insight into perfectionism and decide whether you are a beloved blunderer or pathological perfectionist.

Obsessively Right

Carol Cannon

Doing the right thing and believing the right things have always been very important to me. I was an extremely conscientious child. As an elementary school student, I recopied my math papers over and over to make sure the rows of problems were in perfect alignment. In my adolescence and young adulthood, I placed such high demands for perfection on myself and othe1S that it affected my social and emotional health.

Perfectionism is about getting it right. There’s nothing wrong with being right. The problem is being obsessed with being right. When people make being right and perfect their sole source of meaning, identity, and value, their primary basis for evaluating their own and other people’s worth, perfectionism takes on an offensive quality at best, an addictive quality at worst. According to Alanon literature, “The compulsive drive for perfection… can be a neurotic symptom as difficult to deal with as the alcoholic’s compulsion to drink.”

Perfectionism makes us very unattractive to the people around us. People run from us because they feel so flawed in the presence of our flawlessness or, worse yet, so annoyed by our arrogance.

There’s a basic principle involved here that Veronique Vienne articulates in her charming book The Art of Imperfection, “Our innate idiosyncrasies are actually more endearing to others than our most glorious personal achievements. History is full of incompetent people who were beloved, blunderers with winsome personality traits, and inept folks who delighted their entourages with their unassuming presences. Their secret? To accept their flaws with the same grace and humility as their best qualities.”

According to Ms. Vienne, there is no penalty for not being able to walk on water. One can make quite an impression by ordering a second serving of dessert on a first dinner date or setting the stove on fire while cooking a fancy meal. To emphasize her point, Vienne says, “You’re a smart laver, but your kids adore you because you make scary faces. You’ve just been elected president of the board, but your best friend says, ‘You fooled them, didn’t you?’”

In an appealing description of an imperfect world, she describes a society in which people don’t spend an inordinate amount of time and energy fuming against their fate whenever they make a mistake. “It would be so civilized…Folks would bump into furniture, miss deadlines, get lost on the way to the airport, forget to return phone calls, and show up at parties a day early, without getting unduly annoyed with themselves.” Sounds pretty nice, doesn’t it?

Vienne suggests that although most people believe the adage “to err is human,” many consider themselves the exception to the rule. “What’s good enough for you isn’t good enough for me. Make a mistake? Not on my watch!” I wonder how many people unconsciously subscribe to this notion? I can testify to the fact that it doesn’t bring peace, contentment, or genuine intimacy.

To quell my perfectionistic tendencies and keep my grandiosity from running amuck, I remind myself daily that no one’s happiness (or salvation) depends upon my exemplary behavior. Human beings prefer to relate to human beings like themselves—not to paragons of pathological perfectionism. Anything I have to offer another person must be offered in the context of reality: I am and always will be perfectly imperfect. That’s the best I can hope for. It’s my fallibility that qualifies me to mediate hope to my fellow travelers—not my flawlessness.

This is not to suggest that the pursuit of excellence is inappropriate or that it’s wrong to seek biblical truth or to espouse sound values. But if we want to have a healthy faith and a viable witness, we may need to step down from our perfectionistic pedestals! Notice this powerful line from The Art of Imperfection: “Whenever in a moral quandary, do the right thing. But don’t consider that having principles makes you special, superior, or heroic. If, on the other hand, you fail to be as ethical as you think you should have been, don’t act surprised.”

Signs of the Time • July 2001 •