Although it can lead to imperfect — or even damaging — consequences, many of us strive for perfection anyway.
Procrastination, ironically enough, is one of those unfortunate consequences.
“In our pursuit of unreachable standards, we endlessly spin our wheels rather than move forward. In some cases, we never even start. The quest for perfection can be so intimidating that our productivity screeches to a halt,” said Debbie Jordan Kravitz, professional organizer and author of Everything I Know About Perfectionism I Learned from My Breasts. For some people, perfectionism can become all-consuming, so “reaching perfection is all they can see, feel, want or even need,” she said.
Fear of failure is part of perfectionism.
It stops us from seeking adventure and exploring new things. “By not taking chances, we never really get to know what our real limits are because we put the ‘brakes’ on ourselves and our efforts to expand our horizons,” Jordan Kravitz said. This is known as “life-paralysis,” as researcher Brené Brown writes in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.
Life-paralysis refers to all the opportunities we miss because we’re too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect. It’s also all of the dreams that we don’t follow because of our deep fear of failing, making mistakes and disappointing others.
Perfectionism also makes us boring, said Véronique Vienne, author of The Art of Imperfection: Simple Ways to Make Peace with Yourself. We try so hard to be flawless that we lose our quirks, the very qualities that make us who we are.
Self-doubt — perfectionism’s second cousin — leads us to become self-absorbed about our own performance, Jordan Kravitz said. This can deeply affect our relationships. It prevents us from truly participating in “conversations, or to even make authentic connections with others.” Interactions and relationships become superficial.
Predictably, striving for perfectionism leads to a cycle of disappointments. “We never have any genuine gratification in anything we do,” Jordan Kravitz said.
And that’s just a selection of perfectionism’s negative consequences. Below are some ideas for overcoming perfectionism.
- Try new things. When Jordan Kravitz was trying to overcome her own perfectionism, she started trying new things, even though she feared failure. But her failure ended up being an effective teaching tool. “Learning to laugh at my mistakes and move on was a new experience, but one that really helped me put my perfectionism aside,” she said.
- Know the difference between excellence and perfection. Many of us think that if we abandon perfectionism, we’ll be abandoning our aspirations, our ambition and our desire to accomplish great things. But there’s a big difference between wanting to excel at something and striving for perfection. “Excellence is something we can reach, perfection just doesn’t exist,” Jordan Kravitz said.
“Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth” or about “striving to be your best” or wanting to improve yourself, Brown writes in her book. At its core, perfectionism is about seeking approval and minimizing shame.
In other words, as Brown writes, “Healthy striving is self-focused—’How can I improve?’ Perfectionism is other-focused—’What will they think?’”
- Become ________ enough. You may think that organization and perfectionism are inseparable. But, as a professional organizer, Jordan Kravitz helps her clients “become ‘organized enough,’ and that can mean different things to different clients, but it never means perfection.” Because perfectionism can be paralyzing anyway, striving to be good enough, for instance, is more feasible than reaching for something unattainable.
- Rethink the “why” of your priorities. “Before you can make a change in your behavior you have to define why you want to make this change and then set your goals accordingly,” Jordan Kravitz said. Keep reminding yourself the reasons you’re striving for good enough or for excellence and not perfection.
- “Seek simplicity,” Jordan Kravitz said. She explained that perfectionists are known for complicating things, but “seeking simplicity in all that you do helps you set easier expectations and goals for yourself.” For instance, when she’s working with her clients, the goal is “a renewed sense of calm and order that is customized to their own specific needs,” not a perfect, clutter-free home.
- Set realistic goals, even if you have to lower your standards. “Done is better than perfect,” Jordan Kravitz said. For example, organizing is an ongoing process, “not an all-or-nothing situation.” It’s easy for people to develop a “why bother attitude,” she said, especially if you’re overwhelmed with a project. “The thinking is, if the area can’t be ‘perfect’ then why even try? It becomes a huge vicious cycle.” This applies to any situation or goal in life. When you create sky-high standards for yourself, it usually results in nothing getting done — and probably a whole lot of heartache.
- “Think of each of your imperfections as qualities that make you more human,” Vienne said. “We try to be perfect in order to impress others or win their affection, not realizing that what makes us lovable are our small idiosyncratic flaws,” she said. These idiosyncrasies make us unique.
- “Listen to those ‘voices’ that make you strive for excellence, but take control of them and put them in their place before perfectionism takes hold,” Jordan Kravitz said. When her perfectionism creeps in, she tells herself, “I am NOT a perfectionist any longer. My best efforts are good enough.”
Pitching perfectionism doesn’t happen in days, “but have patience with yourself, be kind to yourself, and surround yourself with people who love you as you are, imperfections and all,” Jordan Kravitz said. Vienne quoted these lyrics from Leonard Cohen to remind us of the benefits of accepting imperfection: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”