Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Perfection - Southwest Conference Blog

…Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Perfection

by Don Fausel


There are a number of obstacles to living a happier life. I believe that perfectionism is at the top of the list. I say that not just from my own experience growing-up as the perfect child, the perfect friend, the perfect student, and ending up as Mr. Perfect, but also from evidence that scientific research confirms. Among other things sciences shows that for many of us adult perfectionists our journey begins early in life. But first my story!

One of my earliest memories from my childhood was the day my mother took me to Red’s Barber Shop for my first hair cut. I must have been close to five years old. My mother prepared me for this experience by warning me that I needed to be a “good little boy” in the barber’s chair to avoid losing one of my ears. I was prepared to be the perfect customer.

As Red placed me on a booster seat on the barber’s chair, I noticed he not only had red hair but his arms were covered with red hair. That in itself was scary for me. I clearly recall thinking something like: I need to do everything that Red tells me to do. Don’t move one way or another. If I do that I bet he’ll tell his family about the perfect little boy’s hair he cut today. As they say in the 12 step programs, “That’s stinkin thinkin”.

Moving on to my life as a catholic schoolboy, I remembered how I had respect or perhaps it was fear for the authority of the nuns, brothers and priests that taught me, and I embraced whatever they taught me as “the truth”. I learned to have that respect for authority from my family. It’s not something my mother and father preached to me, but I was very aware of the esteem my parents had for our religions “superiors”. No one ever told me, “Donald, you are not allowed to challenge any of the doctrines of the church, or you’ll go directly to hell.” I just observed early on the unquestionable deference my parents had for clergy. I’m not blaming anyone for my not being more assertive in expressing my convictions. Although I think I was influence by the words that G.K. Chesterton paraphrased, “My church right or wrong!”

It wasn’t until my adulthood that I learned the process of critical thinking. I was in my middle twenties. I had already been ordained a priest and taught two years in a seminary. I was then sent by the Bishop of Albany, NY to get a Masters degree in Social Work at Fordham University. Critical thinking was new to me. Over the next few years I was able to start my path of recovery from my addiction to perfectionism. I even started doing workshops entitled, Be Ye Perfect: Mission Impossible. I’m not going into details, since my life is an open book. The title of my book which was published in 2010, From Blind Obedience to a Responsible Faith: The Memoir of a Cradle Catholic should give you an idea of the rest of my journey.

Speaking of journeys, one of leaders, and pioneers in the field of recovery from addictive behaviors and a nationally known author and lecturer was Earnie Larson. I had the good fortune to attend several of his workshops. He had a strong influence on my realizing the negative effect my perfectionism had on my life. So after all these years I googled him and found his website, Change is a Choice. To my dismay I found out that Earnie died in 2011 but fortunately his website is still going strong thanks to his wife Paula and colleagues. After he was diagnosed with an inoperable cancer he spent the last two years of his life writing a book that shared his insights of his final journey. The title of the book is, Earnie Larson: His Last Steps.

Reading the book not only brought back fond memories, but Earnie’s way of facing his last days could be a model for all of us.

Among other things one of Earnie’s favorite dictums came back to me:

What we live we learn.

What we learn we practice.

What we practice we become.

What we become has consequences.


In psychology there are a number of definitions of perfectionism. Here is one from wikipedia that’s as good as any: “Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards accompanied by over critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations…psychologists agree that there are many positive and negative aspects.”

There are also many methods used to overcome perfectionism. Below are several TED TALKS and articles that you might find helpful.

When Perfect Isn’t Enough is a TED TALK that lasts for about 15 minutes by Martin Antony. He also wrote a book with Richard Swinson titled When Perfect is Not Enough: Strategies for Coping with Pefectionism. The book was awarded The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies Self-Help Seal of Merit. They state in their book that “People who are perfectionists tend to have standards and expectations that are difficult to meet…Although high standards are often helpful, perfectionism is associated with having standards that are so high that they actually interfere with performance. Does that ring a bell?

Here’s a combination of a short YouTube and an article. I was not surprised that there was even a 12 step program for perfectionists so, here it is: 12 Step Program for Recovering Perfectionists

This is an article by Tamar Chansky titled, How to Overcome Perfectionism: 8 Stategies for Making Life Better . She is a psychologist and anxiety therapist committed to making the mind a safer place to live for children, teens and adults. I believe that her strategies can be very helpful.

My next blog will be on another obstacle to living a happier life—anger!