Embracing Imperfection

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a word we hear a lot. It may be said with pride, self-deprecation, humour or perhaps even exasperation at someone else.

Perfectionism is a personality trait where we feel driven to constantly strive for flawlessness.

We can be perfectionistic about any part of our lives, including our appearance, career, studies, parenting or housework.

At its core, perfectionism is all about how we want to be perceived by others. This may make sense when we consider the messages we received when growing up or the high pressure environment we work in. Additionally our modern world of social media has created a virtual reality where we compare ourselves to others and try to live up to the illusion of the ‘perfect’ life.

When is perfectionism a problem? 

As with any aspect of our personality some degree of perfectionism can be a positive trait as it gives us a standard to work towards and can help us to succeed in the areas which are important to us. However, it’s all about balance.  

Brene Brown sums it up ‘perfectly’ when she writes:

“Perfectionism is the believe that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimise or avoid the pain of blame, judgement and shame.  It’s a shield.  A twenty ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, its’ the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”

The Gifts of Imperfection

Excessive levels of perfectionism have been linked to burnout and problems with depression and anxiety. This is something I frequently see in my therapy room.  I’ve witnessed how people can become exhausted by constantly having to maintain the high standards they’ve set themselves and how fear of failure can stop people living the full lives they dream of.

Perfectionists are often what we call ‘all-or-nothing thinkers’, there is only ‘success’ or ‘failure’ with nothing in-between. This is a very high standard to expect yourself to reach and can lead to fear of failure and stoping you from even trying to reach your goals. 

Perfectionists are often haunted by self-doubt and low self esteem. They tend to be highly self-critical, putting themselves down for any perceived flaws and losing sight of the great things they have achieved. If mistakes are made then perfectionists can be so distressed by this that they miss out on an opportunity to learn.

The boy, the mole, the fox and the horse by Charlie Mackesy

Another difficulty with perfectionism is that even if you do achieve your high standards it doesn’t end there because it all starts over again the next day. Like the Greek myth of Sisyphus who was cursed to spend eternity pushing a rock up a hill only to have it roll back down again every time it neared the top. Being a perfectionist is exhausting!

There are only so many hours in the day, so perfectionists can fall into the trap of focusing on one area of their life at the expense of others. The classic ‘workaholic’ is a good example of this. Whilst this may be great for their career, the workaholic perfectionist can end up feeling miserable and burnout because they haven’t prioritised self-care, family relationships or hobbies.

At the end of the day perfectionism is a problem because it simply isn’t realistic and it drains the fun out of life. 

Learning to embrace imperfection

Have a think about the different areas of your life such as your appearance, career, studies, parenting or housework. Is a desire for perfection limiting your enjoyment in any of these areas?  Is it time to make a change and take the pressure off?

Consider the standards you are setting for yourself and ask if these are realistic? Would you expect others to reach these standards? Are there ways you could think more flexibly?

Experiment with breaking your own rules. For example, do you need to reach ALL your targets at work ALL the time, or is 90%, 90% of the time good enough? Do you have to do all the dishes before bed or can they wait for the morning? Could you post that photo on Instagram without photoshopping it first?

Notice how you speak to yourself. Try switching ‘should/must’ to ‘could’, and ‘always’ to ‘most of the time’.  

Focus on what you have achieved despite difficulties.

If something doesn’t go to plan then consider what you can learn.

Focus on your own path through life rather than comparing yourself to others.

Consider what is important to you – what are your values? How can you let go of perfection and strive towards balance across these areas instead?

If perfectionism is holding you back from your values then consider what your end goal is and break it down into smaller steps. Then start to make progress and focus on the journey rather than the end goal.

Remember ‘good enough’ is ‘good enough’!

Things to explore …

Podcast: CBT For Clinical Perfectionism from the BABCP ‘Lets talk about CBT’ Podcast.

Ted Talk: Our dangerous obsession with perfectionism is getting worse by Thomas Curran

Ted Talk: Perfectionism holds us back. Here’s why by Charly Haversat

Overcoming Perfectionism by Ros Shafran

The gifts of imperfection by Brene Brown

Love for Imperfect Things by Haemin Sunim