I spend most of my days trying to get to zero—trying to have zero unread e-mails in my inbox, zero unreturned calls, zero unseen items on my Facebook feed, an empty laundry hamper, a vacant kitchen sink, no tasks or errands left to do, none of my work for the day still incomplete.
My parents taught me that work should come before fun—that before I could play or watch television, my homework and chores needed to be done.
Throughout my academic (and now my adult) years, I’ve embraced that philosophy. I enjoy myself most only after I’ve addressed all of my responsibilities. But perhaps I’ve taken it a bit too far. I don’t fully relax and enjoy my breakfast until my cats are fed. My day doesn’t begin until I’ve made my bed. Sometimes (too often) I wait to pee or eat lunch until I’ve reached a “neat” stopping point in my work—i.e., the end of a chapter, page, or section.
As a recovering perfectionist, I have had to learn how to let things go—how to walk away from an unfinished project or unanswered e-mail so that I can eat, pee, sleep, or go home. It’s been an uncomfortable lesson—learning how to leave things for later, for (gasp!) someone else, or for tomorrow. I like to make my “done” checkmarks myself—and today—now!
True zero, much like perfection, is a Sisyphean goal—an elusive target that will never be struck. There is always more to be done. And what has already been done can always be improved upon. Perfectionism looks at the best a person can do and says, “Not good enough!”
The world is hostile towards perfectionists because the world is imperfect. It is full of rough edges, crooked lines, scars, scratches, and dents. It is full of things that were begun and never finished. Nothing is flawless. No one is perfect.
Perfectionism can get in the way of satisfaction. How can a perfectionist love life when life is messy so often?
Because I’m a perfectionist, I struggle to enjoy certain things. For example, for me, manicures are an adversary. First I obsess over picking the “perfect” color. No matter which hue I choose, I regret that I didn’t pick another. Once my nails are coated, I marvel at the feel and sheen of the enamel. I find my fingers fascinating. My attention stalks them. I can’t stop staring.
Inevitably I find a fault—a small sliver of my nail the technician failed to cover or a chip that formed because I don’t coddle my hands—I make them work. Once spotted, I can see nothing except for the flaw. I stare at it, making it bigger in my mind’s eye, until I can’t stand it any longer and reach for the acetone—one finger’s flaw requiring the rest to loose their color.
Perfection appears ideal, but it’s a dangerous mirage. It is blind to what is good because it is so focused on finding faults. Perfectionism is an ailment that pretends to be a cure. It promises to make things better (perfect), but it just makes things seem worse.