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Perfectionism: It's All In the Eye of the Beholder

Sep 16, 2008
The other morning I got out of bed before my husband and, as I was brushing my teeth, I saw him get up and make the bed. Making the bed for my perfectionist husband means throwing the blankets willy-nilly back over the bed, period. What is wrong with this picture? Is that the way a perfectionist makes a bed?

I said, "Don't bother. You know I am going to make the bed again the right way." To which my loving spouse replied, "Of course, Madam Perfectionist." How dare he call me a perfectionist! This from a man who took a year to complete making bookcases for the living room and got upset because they were 1/100 of an inch off.

I admit that I used to be a perfectionist and still have traces of it. I ask you, dear readers, what is perfectionistic about wanting to smooth the creases from the sheets, fluff the pillows and straighten the blankets so the wrinkles don't show? It's not as if I measure how many inches the comforter hangs off the floor. I don't even demand hospital corners.

The trouble with perfectionism is that there are no concrete guidelines against which to measure bona fide perfectionism. Each purist stakes out an area to focus on. In that sector of life the need for perfection takes over, yet in other parts "good enough" is tolerated. Perfectionists tend to fall into different categories, but all share the burden of having unreasonably high expectations. Some tend to be detail oriented while others are uncompromising about rules. Another group's behavior is influenced by their need to avoid mistakes. Most perfectionists worry about how they will look to others.

Although I don't think I was expecting too much by wanting to have my husband make the bed the "right way," the definition of "right" is what started our disagreement. People who are sticklers for doing things right are perfectionists if their standards are irrationally high. But who decides what is too high? There's the rub.

My husband thought I was too demanding, while I staunchly held to my belief that what I considered the right way to make a bed was reasonable. I am entitled to my preference for neatness. Which of us was right or were neither of us right? As the day went on I started to doubt myself. Was my request a sign that I am still a perfectionist?

One of the hallmarks of perfectionists is their discomfort and frustration if things are not done the way they want. Yes, I felt frustrated because I didn't want to go to sleep in a "used" bed that night. That would feel icky.

Continuing to look into myself with rigorous self-honesty, I realized that I might still fit into the category best described as obsessive about rules. I admit that I get a wonderful feeling of satisfaction putting things in order. Nothing beats using my label-making machine to create a load of files to store papers, articles and assorted detritus that wash up on my desk. I even have a small notebook where I keep track of all the books I reserve at the library, in alphabetical order by author. Spending time in my hobby closet with the boxes that house the beads I've gathered over the years to create necklaces gives me great pleasure. I get a thrill looking at the boxes of red, blue, green, black, white, turquoise, and glass bits all in their proper containers.

Wait a minute! The reason I do not accept the label of perfectionist is that I am not driven by the fear of what others will think since most of my orderliness is never seen by anyone but me. A place for everything and everything in its place seems reasonable to me. At my age it is mandatory since I frequently put things down and can't remember where I put them.

Perhaps my love of order is because I have Virgo as the Rising Sign in my astrological chart. I have to go now because we've just put in new kitchen cabinets, and I have to make sure everything goes in the right place.
About the Author
Gloria Arenson, MFT, treats stress, anxiety, trauma, phobias, and compulsions. She has authored How to Stop Playing the Weighting Game, A Substance Called Food, Born To Spend, Five Simple Steps to Emotional Healing, Freedom At Your Fingertips and Procrastination Nation.
http://www.GloriaArenson.com
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