By Katherine Morgan Schafler
In the same way the word “bossy” served to regulate authoritative, traditionally masculine behaviors in girls and women, the word “perfectionist” has quietly risen to regulate ambition and power. As with all implicit messaging, we not only unconsciously hear it—we unconsciously internalize it.
I’ll give you an example.
One afternoon, in a shared workspace, I found myself sitting close to an area a photographer had staged to take photos of her clients. Throughout multiple shoots, the photographer continued to make statements such as these:
I’m such a perfectionist, I know, but can you put your hand a little closer to your hip?
I’m kind of a perfectionist, it’s so annoying, I know! But can you turn your face a little more towards the window?
Okay, I’m going to be a little bit of a perfectionist about this and ask that you keep your chin at a 90-degree angle from your chest.
The photographer may or may not be a perfectionist; I don’t know her. What I do know is that she’s a professional photographer whose job it is to cast the subject of her photography (in this case, other people) by directing them in both specific and general ways. She is repeatedly mitigating her directives with the vague qualifier of “perfectionist” to maintain palatability while also maintaining power over the shoot. Power that, in this dynamic, is pre-granted. She is the agreed-upon expert here, yet she still seems to feel the need to verbally qualify the enactment of her power. Every time she wants a better shot, she cushions her communication within the context of being a perfectionist.
Implicit communication requires subtlety. The marker of successful subtlety is an abundance of plausible deniability. It’s easy to deny perfectionism’s regulatory function by saying something like “Perfectionism can be really unhealthy— that’s why women are encouraged to be less perfectionistic and balance themselves out.” Like a pill in applesauce, the repression of women’s drive to excel is swallowed without detection when mixed into the already-ambiguous, lumpy concept of perfectionism.
The push for increased balance is not a response to the state of women’s health; it’s a response to the state of women’s power. Unfortunately, the implicit messaging works. Women scatter their energy on a wild goose chase to find balance while internalizing their perfectly healthy desire for more as a deficiency in gratitude.
None of this is to deny that perfectionism can be a destructive force in one’s life. Perfectionism can be harmful or helpful to anyone, depending on how that person manages it. Until we acknowledge the dichotomous and gendered nature of perfectionism, we are agreeing to sit idly as misguided men fly themselves straight into the burning sun, and as women’s wings are clipped off in the name of protection.
If you’re not leading a balanced life right now, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. You don’t have to “hit the gym” until you’re too tired to be mad or make longer lists in your gratitude journal until you stop wanting things. You can be angry and full of love. You can be grateful and want more. You do not need to balance any of this out.
You are allowed to want more and get it. Wanting more is healthy. Your desires are real and important, and they do not have to make sense to anyone other than you.
Wanting more may feel subversive and “dirty” to women who are taught that their perfectionism (read: ambition) is bad and wrong, in the same way that being sexually aroused can feel subversive and “dirty” to women who are taught that their sexual desire is wrong. Wanting more is an affront to everything you’ve learned about how to be a grateful, healthy, and balanced woman. A woman who wants more is ungrateful, a man who wants more is a visionary. A woman who seeks power is “power hungry,” a man who seeks power is an “alpha male.” These narratives are boring and raggedy. Be done.
Do not allow your ambition to be pathologized. Refuse to apologize for or disguise your insatiable desire to excel. Reject entirely the notion that you need to be fixed. Reclaim your perfectionism now.
If only for the briefest moment, allow yourself to consider a radical thought in a misogynist world: There’s nothing wrong with you.
Excerpted from the book The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control Copyright © 2023 by Katherine Morgan Schafler. The book was published on January 17, 2023 by Penguin Random House.