There are many ways in which people can make life hard on themselves. One of the best ways to do so, is without a doubt the pursuit of perfection. Perfectionism is a recipe for unhappiness.
If you are a perfectionist, anything less than perfect is considered a failure. Which means you ‘fail’ all the time. You will always feel anxious, because you are afraid you will fail and failing is unacceptable to you. You feel miserable all the time, because whatever you do, whatever you gain, whatever you achieve, it is never good enough.
If your eyes are only aimed at perfection, you will easily miss the gains you do get and the progress you are making. You will dismiss them because they are not good enough – and by doing so you will dismiss the value they have for you. Instead, you feel ashamed that you didn’t try harder. You will blame yourself and feel like you’re a disappointment – which you are not. You are only human.
If nothing less than perfect is acceptable, chances are that you will not even try, because the challenge is just too big. You will have difficulties making choices, since none of the options will be perfect. So you get stuck in indecisiveness. And perfectionism will lead to overthinking. Ruminating over and over again all the options and pros and cons, in search of the perfect answer. Which will never show.
Of course, you can work harder, try harder, do more. But let’s add some realism, OK? Expecting yourself to do everything perfectly – to be perfect – is an expectation you can never live up to. So you will feel like a failure all the time, feel like you didn’t do enough, didn’t try harder. It’s completely unrealistic and actually quite cruel to do that to yourself. Striving for perfection is exhausting, it’s stressful, and it will drain your energy.
Moreover – and the funny thing is that even perfectionists know this: Perfection is an illusion. An unattainable goal. Perfection doesn’t exist. “Nothing or no one will ever be able to create the perfect world in which life is trouble-free,” the German philosopher Wilhelm Schmid tells us. A perfect world with perfect people in which life is perfect will never exist. Nobody can make that happen. So why would you measure yourself according to an unrealistic standard?
Perfectionism is not something you are born with. If you’re a perfectionist, somehow, at some point in your life, you have come to believe that anything less than perfect is simply not good enough. Chances are that this idea has in some way to do with how you think other people will judge you (or have judged you in the past). Maybe you have been told one time too many that only the best is good enough. Maybe you feel people have high expectations of you and therefore you set the bar for yourself even higher.
So ask yourself why you have such high expectations? Why do you feel you ‘must’ do everything perfect? Are you afraid you will be criticized? Afraid you will let other people down? Afraid of what people will think of you when you do less than perfect? Afraid you will not be good enough? The thing is, fear is actually the main driver behind perfectionism. The British writer Oliver Burkeman points out that “perfectionism is essentially a fear-driven pursuit to avoid failure at any cost.” And this leads to a constant tension.
Perfectionism only leads to stress, disappointment and exhaustion. So why be so hard on yourself? You probably already know it doesn’t make you feel good. Perfectionism is the way to go if you do not want to feel self-confident and up to your task, let alone relaxed and joyful. So why be so strict? Give yourself a break. Focus on what is going right, instead of what is going wrong. On what you have instead of what’s lacking. On what you have achieved, instead of what you haven’t. If you keep striving for perfection, you will not be able the enjoy any of this. It will basically make it impossible to enjoy your life at all.
Of course it’s great if you want to grow as a person or to learn new skill. It’s laudable if you want to be a good person, a good partner, a good employee. Go for it. Do your best. But always, always remember: Good is good enough. Strive to be good in everything you do, but don’t expect things – including yourself – to be perfect. And if you fail? Well, it’s not great of course, it’s not a pleasant experience. But the world will not come to an end because of it. And hey, we all fail sometimes, remember? At least you tried. And you probably learned something.
What perfectionists need, is a shot of realism. Nothing and nobody is perfect. We are all fallible human beings. We all have our shortcomings. We all make mistakes. And we always will. That’s the way it is. No way around it. In the course of our lives we all will fail sometimes. We will screw up tasks. We will make wrong judgements. We will disappoint people. It sounds bland, but acceptance is key. People are not perfect. Relationships are not perfect. Your job probably isn’t perfect. The world is not perfect. In the words of Rebecca Solnit: “This is earth. It will never be heaven.”