The High Price of Perfectionism

Copyright © 2016, Liz Currin, Ph.D.

How many times have you thought “I could have been”, “I could have done” ….. “if only”.  If only what?  More money?  More time?  More energy?  More talent?  Fewer responsibilities?

I know whereof I speak.  Having studied for a career as a concert pianist from age 10 to age 18, practicing from four to eight hours a day, I knew the demands of that lifestyle.  While I had a broad range of interests—studio arts, writing, architecture, languages and academics—there was nothing more satisfying than performing a Bach invention, a Chopin mazurka, a Beethoven sonata flawlessly.  Of course, “flawless” required a huge expenditure of time, energy, passion, devotion, and sacrifice.

As high school graduation approached and decisions about college needed to be made, I struggled with my piano teacher's (herself a well-known European pianist) prodding me to attend conservatory versus my desire to explore other disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, languages, literature, etc.  I was sure of one thing—that I could not continue my career as a pianist at the level of which I was capable, while exploring a liberal arts education at one of the nation's most competitive colleges.

And so I made the decision to go the academic route.  In my eighteen-year-old mind, that also meant I couldn't play piano.  If I didn't have the option of maintaining my technique and my repertoire as I knew I could, I would simply close the door on that part of my life.  And so I did.

College and graduate school were a wonderful and exhilarating time of my life.  I also undertook my advanced clinical and research training in psychology.  I married and eventually had two amazing daughters.  Life was good.  I even owned pianos over the years, but almost never played.  I would gaze upon the music I had played much earlier in life and wonder how I had accomplished that at a very young age.

A few years ago, my husband and I built a home with a music room (he has a musical background, as well).  We bought a grand piano.  The piano has taught me numerous lessons, including “you can go home again”, it's never too late to indulge a worthwhile passion, and something is definitely better than nothing.

And so, these days, I will sit down at the piano just for the pure joy of it.  I will pedal while playing a Bach prelude or fugue (strictly forbidden in rigorous classical studies), I will change the tempo, I will play Lionel Ritchie's “Endless Love” the way I remember hearing him sing it, and it will be okay.  No one is judging me—unless I undertake to do that myself—there is always tomorrow, if I want to improve upon something, and it's okay to do something simply for the pure pleasure and joy of doing it.  I am now the judge of what's good enough.

I could berate myself for not coming to this realization sooner, but choose instead to focus on the lessons I've learned along the way that have allowed me to revisit my life's passions with a measure of relaxation and acceptance.  While I maintain high expectations and standards for my undertakings, I have chosen the path of joy and pleasure in my pursuits over self-denial because of lack of time for the illusion of perfection.  Are there areas in which your perfectionism is robbing you of precious time with your own interests and passions?  If so, perhaps this is the time to take stock of what you're missing.