Why ‘Perfect’ Will Never Be Enough
Are you a perfectionist, or do you strive for excellence? There is a difference.
I recently listened to psychologist Thomas Greenspon on Morra Aarons-Mele's Anxious Achiever podcast about perfectionism. I learned that the urge to overachieve and make everything perfect is rooted in anxiety and insecurity. Perfectionism usually forms in childhood and is reinforced by a highly individualized and competitive culture.
No wonder so many people proudly label themselves as 'perfectionists' and accredit their accomplishments to it. I was one of these people until now.
The Truth About Perfectionism
Contrary to popular belief, perfectionists are not the great, successful genius' we think they are. In fact, most people with talent struggle or fail because of their perfectionistic tendencies. Those who succeed do so because they don't get bogged down in the details and the second-guessing.
Perfectionism develops, in most cases, when a child feels that the love and acceptance they receive depends on what they can do, not who they are.
They are not told, 'I love you, even when you make mistakes, or when you are different than me.' So, they develop protective measures to meet expectations. I find it heartbreaking how this defense mechanism stems from a lack of self-confidence and self-worth.
The Different Between Perfectionism and Striving for Excellence
I've begun to feel the difference between striving for excellence and perfectionism in my own life. Striving for excellence feels like the flow state where everything fits together seamlessly, with enjoyment. If there is stress, it’s the kind that brings bliss. Like going for a run. It’s not always fun, but it is worthwhile and healthy. I can feel myself operating from a place of passion, and all the final details that will bring it to the next level become clear.
On the other hand, perfectionism feels like spiders in my brain, nitpicking and nagging at every little detail. My heart beats faster. I become more irritable. A timid, nervous voice in the background asks, 'is this good enough?' But ‘good enough’ feels like failure. I can't tell you how many times I’ve butchered something, trying to make it perfect but instead stripping it of its natural spark.
With perfectionism, it's hard to complete anything. Probably because most things are never perfect, and perfection is not always authentic.
How to tame your perfectionist
Here are a few things I've been trying out to stress less:
1. Taking time to rest and ground myself when I start feeling the anxious need to nitpick everything and the mental paralysis that accompanies it. It took a lot of practice to shut my computer down and walk away, but once I realized I waste more time trying to force myself to create than taking a break and coming back to the project fresh and invigorated.
2. Learning more about psychology and reexamining my upbringing under the guidance of a qualified and compassionate professional. It's important to see things in a different perspective to rewire thought patterns and emotional defense mechanisms.
3. Acknowledging my perfectionist and her purpose. She's not a bad person because she only wants the best for me. But her actions no longer serve me as an adult. Like a mother, she needs to know that I am safe and am capable of defending, protecting, and validating myself before she can step back.
The third option is the easiest place to start. I encourage every perfectionist to have a conversation with that part of themselves. It can be as simple as writing a letter.
A letter to my perfectionist
We've accomplished a lot together, haven't we?
Thank you for helping me get to where I am. We have a good reputation as diligent in attention to detail, prompt, creative, and clever. The work you create is beautiful and flawless. And I appreciate all the effort you put into keeping our health in shape and our home in order.
All the effort you exert doesn't go unnoticed. But I know it wears you out, which is totally understandable. I see how you get tired and how it makes your guard come down. And then we don't do as good of a job as we're capable of or dread the thought of doing it at all because we're weary. Or we don't treat someone with as much kindness as we would've wished, and that makes us feel anxious and ashamed.
You want to be on your a-game all the time, but I'm an introvert. I need alone time to recharge and do absolutely nothing. You wear me out, so I isolate myself from as many interactions as possible. Then you try to cut into my rest and make me feel lazy and ashamed. Well, maybe that's not you, but you don't do anything to stop it. 'Sure,' you say, 'let's get up and perform again.'
For as much as you do for me, you also get in the way. The pressure you put on me is paralyzing. It's like I'm a scientist who loves exploring intricacies under a microscope, only to find their vision has gone blurry.
I know you have good intentions. I know you're only trying to protect me. But please, hear me when I say I am safe.
Hear me when I say we are well on our way.
Hear me when I say we need rest. Undistracted, joyful, shameless rest. I know you've seen this to be true. And I also know it's not always you who cuts into my time of rest. It's your best friend, the Workaholic, trying to make me feel worthy through accomplishment. But that's another letter for another time.
All I ask of you, Perfectionist, is to step back and see the bigger picture. I don't always need you, but I promise to give you my full attention when I do. Wouldn't it be nice not to constantly second-guess yourself and waste time trying too hard? To share our work with the world? When you keep worrying that something isn't perfect, I hesitate to speak up. Like you're worrying that I, as a person, the sum of all my parts, am not perfect.
Nothing is ever perfect, and that's okay.
Remember one of our favorite quotes. 'Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.' You know what our flow state feels like. I know you want to feel like this all the time. I want it too. I want it so badly. This is your permission, Perfectionist, to loosen your grip.
I'm asking you to join teams with me, instead of taking over. That's the only way we'll become whole. I can meet you halfway. I promise I will call you when I need you. I trust you know what you are doing and that you won't let me down. I won't let you down, either. So, please, save your energy. It will be so worth it.