Do you seek perfection? Does everything you do need to be flawless and without the possibility of failure? If so, your pursuit of perfection might reveal a prominent imperfection!
There are times when we need to be perfect or near-perfect, such as when constructing a bridge or performing surgery. Falling short of exacting specifications can spell danger. But for most of us most of the time, there is room for a margin of error. Most accomplished major league pitchers have never pitched a perfect game in their entire careers. Even the best hitters — ones earning $10 million to $20 million a year — fail at least two-thirds of the time!
An attachment to being perfect demonstrates a lack of self-compassion and wisdom. The failure to embrace our humanity with its joys, sorrows, and imperfections leads to a rigid sense of self that shatters easily whenever we fall short of our goals. Our emotional health requires gentleness toward ourselves as we embrace inevitable limits. We can find satisfaction in doing our best, but this doesn’t mean that we need to be perfect.
How often have we faced the sorrow of making a bad investment, whether in the stock market, relationships, or when buying a consumer product? We’re not omnipotent. We can’t see every possible consequence to our actions. We can make a decision based upon the best info we have, but we can’t control life in all of its complexity.
Moving toward a fulfilling life requires intelligent risk-taking. Our risks may or may not pan out. An appealing investment may sour. A relationship that seemed promising might flounder when mutual imperfections interact in troubling ways. Seeking a perfect partner or thinking we have to be perfect is a recipe for failure.
It takes a sturdy sense of self to be flexible enough to take life in stride. When our self-worth and value are tied to our achievements, we take a hard fall when we fall short of our expectations.
Perfectionism means setting our goals too high and having unrealistic expectations of ourselves. Being allergic to failure is often driven by an underlying sense of shame. If we can achieve some lofty goal and be perfectly successful, then no one can shame us.
Failure is often a prerequisite for success. We become more resilient as we replace the aspiration for perfection with a humble desire to learn and grow from our experience. As psychotherapist Maud Purcell puts it:
“As human beings we err regularly … Unfortunately, we tend to view errors as failures. We overlook the possibility that the seeds of success are planted within our blunders.”
We can’t avoid making mistakes, but we can learn and grow from them. Rather than view miscues as failures, we can see them as a necessary rite of passage toward future success. As they often say in 12-step programs, we can strive for progress, not perfection.
Author Kimon Nicolaides echoes a similar sentiment: “The sooner you make your first five thousand mistakes the sooner you will be able to correct them.”
If we’re working on a book, art project, or home improvement, when it is good enough? As Leonardo da Vinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” I know from experience the difficulty of saying, “I need to let it go now; it’s good enough!” The perfectionist in me often thinks, “It can be a little bit better.”
I’ve reached the end of this article. Or have I? My inner perfectionist tells me that it’s getting too long: “If you ramble on, will anyone read it? Can’t you write about this topic in a clearer, more concise, interesting way? Can’t you say it a bit better?”
I know the answer is a resounding yes! If I pore over it a little longer, I’m sure I can find a more compelling way to make my points. But alas, there are other articles to be written and a life to be lived. I take a deep breath — hoping that whatever I’ve said might help some people be a little kinder to themselves. I take another breath and reassure myself that it’s good enough. A big gulp as I hit the send button.