By Renee Langmuir
Why is it that sometimes the words of others have an eternal shelf life? Such was the case during my teaching career when my principal said, “You are just one step below a perfectionist.” Although intended as a compliment, at the time it landed as an insult. To me, performing at extremely high standards in life was always a virtue. Lately, I’m finding that perfectionism is certainly not a desirable quality as one ages, and fortunately, I seem to be losing that moniker.
Perfectionism vs. High Standards
What’s the difference between a perfectionist and one who simply has high standards? A person with high standards is satisfied with a job well done and enjoys the ride. A perfectionist is overly critical of herself and others. Those high standards are sometimes unrealistic and there may be no joy in the process because only the results matter. Are you wondering if you might be a perfectionist? You can find out by taking the Very Well Mind’s Perfectionist Test.
What is the origin of perfectionism?
I was groomed to be a perfectionist. One of the hallmarks of this personality type is a parent with unrealistic, high expectations. My mother, although loving and devoted, created a military-like environment in which routines and expectations of cleanliness, appearance, and commitment were non-negotiable. I was also an avid, amateur ballet dancer for most of my life. In that realm, the mirror required a lithe body, constant comparison to others, and an eating regimen as rigid as my upbringing.
It is not easy to change this mindset, especially if it was established in childhood. Although I am “in recovery,” the little patch on our leather loveseat where my husband accidentally spilled coffee (who knew coffee was acidic?) and the gouge in the kitchen countertop where the pantry door was opened too forcefully, unfortunately, attract my attention daily.
Long term perfectionism negatively impacts health outcomes
Prem Fry, a Psychology Professor from Trinity Western University in Canada did a study on perfectionism and health in maturity. She followed 450 people ages 65 and older for 6.5 years and found that those with high “perfectionist” scores had a 51% greater risk of death due to high levels of stress and anxiety. These seniors just couldn’t perform up to their own expectations. They were unable to let go of the parts of life which were outside their control. They tried to hold onto a past that was gone. I certainly do not want to be in that cohort!
When does the retreat begin?
My retreat from perfectionism probably started in my 50s in the physical realm. My carefully cultivated ballet body now had diagnosed osteopenia and dermatology issues. My initial reaction was denial, but as the years passed, I noticed that my cohort was developing an alarming number of physical maladies. These situations are growing daily, and I don’t remember being issued an exemption. In fact, I believe healthy agers might be passing through stages, similar to Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s concept of the Five Stages of Grief. There is probably some denial in one’s 50s, some anger, and bargaining in one’s 60s, possibly accompanying depression, and finally acceptance somewhere along the way.
Strategies to move forward
For healthy aging, accommodations are key. Such changes begin with the self: noticing and labeling perfectionistic thinking, eradicating negative self-talk, and developing self-compassion. Without making these changes, it would be impossible to eliminate judgment of others. Primary beneficiaries of these new attitudes would be those in your close circle, especially domestic partners. They will certainly notice the changes!
What are my own baby steps in turning away from perfectionism? My daily plans are more spontaneous. Some days, for the first time ever, I don’t know in advance what I’ll be doing for the day. Yes, I have a weekly calendar, but I will always prioritize something timely or more enjoyable than my plan.
Physically, I’m looking at my changing body as a life stage similar to those we pass through from birth through early adulthood. Of course, it is natural to “have a different look” in your 60s or 70s. We are not living in a science fiction movie in which we experience a static appearance and immortality.
On the home front, I am much more forgiving of my husband’s household faux pas and enjoy his company so much more because I’m not hunting down domestic blunders. I’ve also been able to ease up on worrying about my adult children and trust them on their paths in life.
When I look in the mirror, I try to frequently smile at the older woman who stares back. In fact, I now tend to avoid mirrors! I wear pants with elastic waists and longer tops. My nightly Retinol regimen allows me to eliminate stress over my wrinkles – I’m doing my best! I look around at the older ladies I encounter daily and consciously acknowledge that they are probably members of my generation, despite their varying appearances.
Ultimately, one of the tasks of older age is to release attachment to things that no longer serve us. The ability to release the grip of the desire for wealth, power, possessions, status, success, and a youthful appearance ultimately will make the difference between passing through our later years gracefully or not. Loosening the limitations of perfectionism allows us to celebrate all we’ve achieved through a lifetime of exemplary effort and to finally take a breath.
Renee Langmuir has been an educator for 34 years in Pennsylvania public schools and as Director of Student Teaching at a local university. Several years ago, there was a perfect alignment of personal, family, and work-related issues which resulted in a very abrupt and unplanned retirement. Because the teaching of writing to children was a lifelong passion, and professional writing was always part of her job description, Renee decided to chronicle the transition from the world of work to the world of retirement in a series of personal essays. As each challenge arose, research was done, and an essay was penned. These musings are now housed on the website, www.therookieretiree.com, for the benefit of the growing cohort of the newly retired. Renee is the mother of two adult children and lives with her husband in Chadds Ford, Pa. Besides writing, she spends her spare time as both a livestock and garden volunteer.