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    Something to Think About: The grip of perfectionism

a little boy holding his messy paint covered hands over his faceDr. Amit Sood says, "Can the grip of perfectionism be softened?"

Dear friend,

Our three-year-old likes to put everything on the carpet—books, cookies, straws, toys, bowls, phones, cereal boxes, tablecloths, paper napkins—everything. Keeping up with her is enough to meet the American Heart Association’s daily recommendations for physical activity. It also tests our patience.

One week, she became very sick—not the usual cough and cold, but a raging bacterial infection. Those few days our home was clutter-free and clean—ghostly clean. We didn’t like it.

She recovered and bounced back faster than we could blink. The experience changed us. We now look at clutter in a much more favorable way. Most days we smile when we step on sticky Cheerios in a carpet fold. Spoons, pencils, and keys discovered behind the sofa have become moments to celebrate.

We had to go through an adversity to loosen our perfectionist grip. We should learn from this experience and be more proactive. We should still strive to do right; however, we need to broaden our definition of right. Our desire and effort toward perfection should enrich our lives, not suffocate us.

We have now devised a simple solution. We have three categories in which we place our priorities—perfect, preferred perfect, and flexible. We strive for perfection in values. Lying, cheating, envying, bad-mouthing—we want perfection in eliminating these from our lives. Kindness, compassion, thankfulness, patience, faithfulness to a partner—we want perfection in living these values.

A step below are aspects that are important yet not as critical—remembering memorable occasions, paying utility bills on time, getting places on time, exercising, eating healthy—these and many more are preferred-perfect aspects of life. We never wish to delay paying any bills, but we have received our share of utility-disconnection notices that we have managed to evade just in time. Recently, when our elder daughter received her third tardy ticket of the month at school, she came home and said with excitement, “Look at this; it is pink.” We knew right then that we wouldn’t achieve perfection in reaching the school on time anytime soon.

The third category contains preferences that may be considered trivial or a bit more important, depending on your lifestyle and idiosyncrasies. The color of the tablecloth, the brand of paper napkins, the precise layout of furniture at home, the type of melon—a million little details we can choose to be flexible about. Flexibility doesn’t mean apathy; it means the ability to appreciate all the different colors of the rainbow and not limit yourself to a single one.

With this wise choosing and inner flexibility, you’ll pick the right priorities, not annoy others by your rigidity. You’ll enjoy the multiple flavors of life, and if a mistake happens, you will not consider it a sign of personal inadequacy but instead see it as a prompt to work harder. This will allow you to save energy to pursue your life’s higher meaning.

Choosing not to improve can be a great improvement.

May you become a little more perfect by letting go of the striving for perfection.

Take care.

Dr. Sood 2

Read previous blog posts and follow @AmitSoodMD on Twitter.

Dr. Sood is director of research in the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program on Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus in Minnesota. He also chairs the Mind-Body Medicine Initiative at Mayo Clinic.

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