I have always believed that the desire to do well creates an impossible responsibility to be perfect. To be fair, though, the push to excellence is mostly self-induced. As a perfectionist I believe that everything (my work, writing, and relationships included) are never good enough. There is always room for improvement because everything is a work in progress. Ultimately this desire for perfection has negatively impacted my sense of self-worth because I believe that any kind of disapproval or perceived failure is equivalent to a shortcoming in myself. I’ve found that I am excessively sensitive to criticism and that the underlying motivation of why I do what I do has more so been tied to wanting validation and praise from others than it has been for the sake of doing what I love. Understanding these underlying behaviors is key to kicking perfectionism to the curb. What I’ve realized is that we must strive for authenticity, not perfection.
Perfection is contingent on external judgements (attention and validation) while authenticity comes from within. Praise from others may make us feel validated and important but if the desire to do well isn’t fully rooted in our own search to be a better version of ourselves, then it will never truly lead to happiness. The only path it will lead to is the one called self-doubt. And self-doubt is our worst enemy. It is a malignant tumor that eats away at our minds, our work, our creativity, and our desire to contribute something meaningful to the world. This makes the perfectionist impossible. In my darkest days it has eaten me alive.
A perfectionist will set unrealistic and unattainable expectations for themselves and others around them. Even under impossible deadlines and life circumstances we set such high standards that we rarely, if ever, reach. From the beginning we set everyone up for failure and thus our friendships, romantic relationships, work, creativity, and sense of self-worth suffer. But here’s the truth about perfection:
If you want a perfect body you will never have it. All you can strive for is a healthier, more fit version of you. Similarly, if you want the perfect friend or boyfriend or girlfriend know that it doesn’t exist. If you can get 80% of what you want out of your friend or partner, that’s pretty damn good. When it comes to your job, know there will always be moments of frustration and doubt. While you may land your dream job or be doing something you’re truly passionate about, the pressures of making ends meet and getting burn out will inevitably rear their ugly heads from time to time.
The gist here is that people are human and to be human means to be flawed and imperfect. Setting the highest standards for ourselves and for others sets each of us up for failure. Instead of focusing on the “if only s/he/I did this” and “I wish s/he/I were” we should instead show up and put in the work to be stronger versions of ourselves. All of this requires self-awareness, vulnerability, and intimacy. And that requires putting aside our insecurities and fears, which can seem like an impossible leap for the perfectionist in all of us.
I don’t claim to have conquered my battle with perfection. But I am always in search of a better self. I’m even beginning to love my imperfections, which is a big step forward.