Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Women and men gathered Friday at Utah Valley University to discuss something that many work for but never achieve — perfectionism. Speakers presented information to help others change their perspectives and embrace imperfections.
Being a detailed person is not a bad thing. Having my heart reach out to people who are suffering is not a bad thing. Taking meticulous care of my things is not a bad thing. It's only when I allow my perfectionism to control my life and create a lot of fear and stress that it becomes a monster. —Elona Shelley, author

OREM — Michelle Johnson clapped with the men and women in the auditorium at Utah Valley University as another speaker left the stage.

Leaning toward her friend, she whispered, "I don't consider myself a perfectionist."

It was the topic of Friday's symposium. For many, it was a time to re-evaluate their lives and the meaning of "perfectionism" in it.

Johnson said she feels pressure to be perfect in her job. She feels the need to perfect her body and her marriage. She has trouble saying "no."

The more she thought, the more Johnson recognized her perfectionistic tendencies.

She isn't alone. Her friend Erin Bowles said she didn't realize how hard she had been on herself. The pressure to balance work, motherhood and a clean house weighed her down.

Another audience member, Edgar Burgos, said he and other men also feel that pressure. Burgos attended the symposium to let go of the idea of perfection within himself and those around him.

"I want to love other people by what they are and not by what I want them to be," he said.

Julie de Azevedo Hanks, therapist and owner of Wasatch Family Therapy, spoke to audiences members Friday, introducing herself as a recovering perfectionist.

"Perfection is trying to prove that you're lovable through being exceptional," Hanks said.

Perfectionism is driven by fear; it's trying to earn love, she said. But maybe people don't need to work so hard, Hanks suggested.

"Although our motivation is to connect, what actually is the result of having this perfectionistic shield?" she asked the audience. "Separation. It's the opposite of what we think we're trying to do."

Hanks said it is through imperfections that people connect.

"The thing we see as a flaw can actually just add interest to the painting of our lives," she said.

Author and speaker Elona Shelley said her perfectionism is still a part of her life, but it doesn't control her life.

"Being a detailed person is not a bad thing. Having my heart reach out to people who are suffering is not a bad thing. Taking meticulous care of my things is not a bad thing," she said. "It's only when I allow my perfectionism to control my life and create a lot of fear and stress that it becomes a monster."

Shelley gave the audience tools to maintain a healthy perspective that brings her peace, joy and love. Some of those tools are to love others instead of judging them, forgiving yourself and others, embracing reality, and living in the present.

She said it is important to establish a relationship with God, express gratitude and have a sense of humor. Shelley also suggested setting appropriate boundaries and managing thoughts by focusing on the positives.

Hanks said Brene Brown, another therapist who studies vulnerability, differentiates between perfectionism and healthy striving.

"Healthy striving is internally motivated: I want this," Hanks said. "Perfectionism is self-critical and externally motivated: I want to look a certain way so people will like me or approve of me."

Burgos said he believes everyone struggles with perfectionism at some point.

"This is a great opportunity to realize that we are humans, and we all make mistakes, and we can just live our lives, and don't be worried about what people are going to say about us," he said.

Looking forward, Bowles said she hopes to forgive herself and live in the present.

"And just let go," she said. "My house can be a mess, I think. … My house can wait until the kids are napping."

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