Stop Striving for Perfection

 Voltaire once said that “perfect is the enemy of good.” I would amend that to say that perfection is the enemy of good enough. This probably goes against everything you have been taught by your parents, your teachers, your coaches, your bosses, your partner, motivational speakers, the media, and society at large. Rarely in today’s world are we taught that anything less than perfection is acceptable. If you are someone who has been taught and truly knows that good enough is exactly that, good enough, then congratulations, you are free from one of the most destructive mental constructs of modern culture. From a very early age we are led astray from self-esteem, the acceptance of the fact that we are perfectly imperfect and beautiful just the way we are, and instead are convinced that we are only as good as our accomplishments. Consumer culture as a whole thrives on this mindset. It will tell us: no, you are not beautiful, you are fat and out of shape. It offers an escape however: if you buy this makeup you may look beautiful, if you buy this pill you will suddenly become thin and THEN you will be perfect. Our culture tells us that we must earn more, do better. Your worth as a human is directly ascertainable by looking at your net worth. We are kept in a constant state of shame and dread, believing that if and when we are perfect, then can we be proud, worthy of being seen and loved. Until such time as we achieve perfection in EVERYTHING we perceive ourselves as embarrassments and we ought to feel no pride. This post is about the inherent flaws of perfectionism, why we turn to it, and how we overcome it. I will urge you to do away with perfectionism and accept not just good enough, but even less than, for everyone is worthy of love and appreciation regardless of ANYTHING they may ever become or accomplish. 

Many of us use perfectionism because we believe becoming perfect makes us worthy. We falsely arrive at the conclusion that if we are perfect then there is no room for criticism, for what could possibly criticized about perfection. We use perfectionism as a means of escaping our fear of becoming vulnerable. What is there to fear about being vulnerable if it would only reveal our perfection? Nothing. The problem of course is that perfection doesn’t exist. Because it doesn’t exist it becomes a sysyphean task – something that is impossible to obtain which we will toil endlessly towards. Because it is impossible yet we pour so much physical, mental, and emotional energy into it, we ultimately lead ourselves to even greater suffering, pain, and shame. 

Dr. Brene Brown describes why we turn to perfectionism and what it actually is and how it affects us. We believe that perfection is a striving for excellence, nothing wrong with trying to do better right? It isn’t a striving for excellence. What perfectionism actually is, “is the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement and shame.” We cannot run from those feelings forever. They exist in every single one of us. We will tell ourselves that perfectionism is self-improvement – who could deny anyone who simply wants to better themselves? But perfectionism isn’t about being better, it is about being perfect, and that is impossible. Brene Brown says “At its core it is about earning approval. “I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.”’ This is a critical issue that codependents are known to make, and many perfectionists are codependent as they seek to have their perfectionism adored by others rather than believing in their inherent self-esteem. Ultimately perfectionism only leads to more shame. Because it is a destination one will never reach, we then fall deeper into the hole believing we missed the mark because of some personal flaw, lack of effort, or simply lack of worth. 

On a personal note, perfectionism may be the greatest internal battle of my existence. Somehow, at a very early age I allowed myself to be convinced that I was pretty good at a lot of things, but I would be better as a human if I could be perfect. I was not bad overall, but I wasn’t quite deserving of full love and appreciation, or of being seen by the world. Thus, I dedicated my life to being perfect – failing constantly. If I got a 93 on an exam, I didn’t celebrate the 93%, I looked at the 7% and wondered where I had gone wrong. If I came in second in a race, I didn’t take off my shoes and congratulate myself for doing my best time yet or finishing ahead of nearly the entire field, but instead chided myself for failing to be perfect, for not gritting it out just a bit harder and beating the first-place finisher. It wasn’t a good way to be. Perfectionism kept me postponing my happiness for a future state when I would be worthy and living in a constant state of shame and lack of esteem. Perfectionism kept me from trying new things in the first place. It kept me from trying out for quiz bowl because I was worried I didn’t have the intelligence to compete with the “smart kids.” It kept me from trying out for basketball a second time after the shame of being cut the first time and having to walk home in tears while all my friends stayed behind for practice. Even now perfectionism pervades my very existence: I must be the strongest at every contest, my blog must be perfect. My therapist and I spend great amounts of time working through this which has led me to the very work that inspired this post.

Luckily, I have been practicing and learning more about how to overcome the struggles with perfectionism and I will share some of that info with you here. In her book “Daring Greatly”, Brene Brown describes the issues with perfectionism as a (unsuccessful) way of avoiding shame. She also offers a way to escape the trap of perfectionism. The way out is through genuine self-compassion, during which Dr. Brown mentions the work of Dr. Kristen Neff. Dr. Neff lays out 3 different ways to practice greater self-compassion. The first is to be truly kind to yourself. That is much easier said than done. Recall one of my very first posts describing the work of being on your own side, during which we discussed the book On My Own Side by Dr. Aziz Gazipura. Dr. Gazipura reminds that our fears are actually there to protect us, though they have an interesting way of doing it. Our fears perceive a future state of shame and will hold us back with negative self-talk to prevent us from doing something that might cause embarrassment or shame. In order to get past this, we must do exactly that which is the title of Brene Brown’s book, we must dare greatly. Acknowledge our fears but dare greatly and be brave enough to be authentic. 

The Sistine Chapel inside of the Vatican. 
Many would call it a perfect piece of art.
What about Michaelangelo, who created it? 
He likely thought it wasn’t quite perfect, but he did it anyway and it is revered by many

 To get past perfectionism we must practice self-esteem, recognize that we are not our achievements but that we are simply ourselves, and that is good enough. Embrace our common humanity, recognize that every human carries wants and desires as well as fears and shame and that we all want to be seen as worthy and deserving of love. Recognize the truth that perfection is a myth, it exists nowhere. As Dr. Gretchen Rubin says: A twenty-minute walk that I do is better than the four-mile run that I don’t do. The imperfect book that gets published is better than the perfect book that never leaves my computer.” Where would we be if Mozart was too much of a perfectionist to release his symphonies, if Michaelangelo was too much of a perfectionist to agree to paint the Vatican’s chapel.  Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good enough. Realize that perfection isn’t real and instead acknowledge that you, and everyone you know are simply human beings trying to navigate this journey of live as best as you know how, and that none of us really know what we are doing. To end with a quote from one of my favorites, the Dalai Lama: ““Stress and anxiety often come from too much expectation and too much ambition, then when we don’t fulfill that expectation or achieve that ambition, we experience frustration.” Stop trying to be perfect. You are setting yourself up for nothing but stress and anxiety. 

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