I remember being called a perfectionist when I was a teenager. I had been trained vigorously all my childhood to always strive to do my best, so I thought of perfectionism as a virtue. However, that day in my adolescence when I was labeled a "perfectionist," I heard a tone of criticism and ridicule. As a sensitive adolescent, I felt deeply wounded by the negativity. I experienced a sense of confusion and betrayal. Might being a perfectionist be a "bad" thing?
It took many years into my adulthood, before I had gained the necessary objectivity and distance to deal with that critical assessment. As I matured, I saw how it is appropriate to respect diversity in values and opinions. I also came to understand that being confronted with differing values and opinions can seem threatening at times and that people sometimes reaction negatively.
All this helped me to understand that when I was derisively labeled as a "perfectionist" it might simply have been an expression of the criticís personal values and priorities, the degree of her ability and willingness to validate mine. I came to see the criticís condemnation as an attempt on her part to deal with inner conflict. When she saw me exerting effort on my task beyond that which she would have been willing to exert, insulting me as a "perfectionist" may have been her way of avoiding awareness of her own "laziness" in comparison. I suspect the critic lacked awareness of the pain such negative labels can cause to others.
Labeling others in negative ways is a "controlling" technique, an emotional attempt to manipulate the outside world. Children normally explore the use of this technique during their psychological development. Ideally, as they mature they increase in self-awareness and learn more respectful and effective methods of communicating wishes and needs.
While negative labels tend to be destructive and crushing, they also tend to be inaccurate. Fortunately, their inaccuracy provides loopholes, lifelines for the self-esteem of the labeled party. That is to say, because negative labels describe a very narrow form of being, they tend to ignore the multidimensional aspects of an individual. For example, when I was labeled a "perfectionist," I noted that I also had been accused of being lazy about things at times, too. This counter-condemnation acted as a "saving grace" for me. Somehow, the two wrongs seemed to cancel out each other, creating space for a more holistic perspective of myself.
Over time, I discovered simple, positive and powerful ways to disarm negative labels. One is to reframe the criticism back to the critic as their opinion, applying only to this one moment. This is a calm, polite form of emotional self-defense, perhaps most applicable with acquaintances. For example, "Are you saying that you think I am being a perfectionist about this?" This reframed feedback helps create distance from the criticism. If the critic responds with an affirmative answer, one can then simply respond with, "Oh," acknowledging the other person's opinion with respect, holding the knee-jerk defensive reaction in check. One may then counter calmly with oneís own opinion. "From MY point of view, the amount of effort I am applying to this task is appropriate and necessary." This kind of feedback puts the two opinions on even ground and creates a basis for respectful discussion about priorities and/or values. It is the type of calm, rational response that can help children, and adults who are still using emotional manipulation, to grow within themselves.
In more intimate relationships, one may choose to go deeper. For example, "Ouch! Are you intending to criticize me?" I have often found that beneath seeming criticism, loving concern may be hidden. Opening the discussion calmly by asking for clarification, can lead to discovering loving concerns about oneís safety, comfort, and happiness.
If the critic admits to critical intent, it may be helpful to explain how one feels about being spoken to that way, and say what one would prefer. Here is an example: "I felt terrible when you criticized me. Personally, I would prefer that you be proud of me when I manage to rise above lethargy and status quo. I think that doing oneís best is laudable! I would prefer that you compliment me on what fine work I am doing instead of criticizing me about the amount of effort it requires. If you see me struggling in some way, please ask how you can help. If you think that I am focusing my effort on the wrong priority, rather than criticizing, please ask me to explain to you why it seems to be so important to me."
I have found that explaining briefly and calmly how I feel, and describing the way I would prefer to be spoken to, can lead to greater understanding and intimacy in a relationship.
As I near the end of this ode to perfectionism, I will circle back to my teenage years and a related anecdote. The assistant conductor of my high school orchestra was helping with a student, theatrical production. She observed me in action as I rehearsed my group with zeal. She saw that I asked a great deal of my dancers in the hopes of producing the best possible performance. I heard grumbling about this at times, and I suffered for it because as much as I wanted us to shine in performance, I also wanted to be liked. How to get the most from my performers AND be liked at the same time was one of my greatest challenges. As the day of the show drew closer, increasing pressure began to weed-out the less committed participants. When the assistant conductor was informed of yet another student dropping out at the last minute, she expressed considerable frustration. With nothing to be done about it except adapt, she continued on, speaking loudly over her shoulder for all to hear as she departed. What I heard went a long way in helping me construct a positive self-concept. She said, "What we need is more people like you Debbie, people with commitment and dedication, people who are willing to do what it takes to get the job done well."
And so, do we conclude that perfectionism is a good thing or a bad thing? I guess itís really just a matter of perspective.
British Columbia, Canada
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