The Curse of Perfectionism
This first blog post of 2023 is momentous because it’s my first post in nearly 11 months! The truth is, I’ve begun writing lots of posts over the past 11 months, only to crumple them up and throw them in the trash. Why?? Because I’m a recovering perfectionist who relapsed.
Perfectionism is the belief that a perfect outcome is not only possible, but expected, and that any other outcome is not acceptable.
American culture seems to convey that perfectionism is synonymous with excellence, hence the very cliché answer to a standard job interview question, resulting in the self-aggrandizing statement that, “my biggest downfall is that I’m too much of a perfectionist.”
But research has shown that, more often, perfectionism doesn’t lead to excellent outcomes, it leads to abandoned efforts. This is why the sweetness of our New Year’s resolutions often turns sour within a short period of time.
When we set idealistic goals for ourselves, we naturally have an ideal outcome in mind. Typically, the goals are intended to improve upon something in our lives that would be beneficial for us—better health, better finances, better relationships, better careers, etc. The problem arises when our goals are motivated by a belief that there’s something flawed or imperfect about us that needs to be fixed, and a perfect outcome will somehow remedy our personal imperfection.
When the need for an ideal outcome is fueled by a sense that there’s something wrong with us and achieving this goal will fix the problem, we fall victim to perfectionism.
I happen to know a lot about perfectionism, stemming from my experiences as an insecure kid. The combination of bullying and attention deficit challenges meant that I was constantly seeking approval, but was often left feeling less-than-awesome about myself. I learned to be very strategic about my efforts with school, work, sports, and friends to prevent myself from feeling like a loser.
Over the years, with hard work, I learned to do life in a powerful way and my confidence grew alongside my achievements. But I still find myself abandoning meaningful goals rather than running the risk of feeling exposed and deficient if the outcomes don’t live up to my idealistic expectations.
Perfectionism showed up in my youth to keep me safe, but now it just keeps me stuck!
Perfectionism expert, Dr. Thomas Curran, emphasizes that striving for perfection makes us vulnerable to setbacks, and achieving anything less than perfect becomes a threat to the idealized version of who we want to be and who we think we should be. In other words, the curse of perfectionism is that it doesn’t lead to excellence, it leads to self-criticism and it stops us from taking risks. In the context of New Year’s resolutions and other meaningful goals, this often results in self-sabotage. Afterall, I can’t fail at something if I don’t even try, right??
I realized I had relapsed back into perfectionism first when I identified that my lack of action toward something meaningful was motivated by fear, and second that my fear was about how I would feel about myself if my results weren’t what I hoped for and expected. But this realization has been a gift! It’s had the effect of turning on a light in a dark room so I can see what I’m doing, instead of stumbling around in the dark. It has also illuminated the door, so I now have the choice to leave this self-sabotaging space behind.
I now see myself embodied as three characters in the story of my life: The Child, The Engineer, and The Sage.
1. As The Child, I’m seeing my goals through a beginner’s eyes and with a beginner’s mind. A child doesn’t yet know what they’re capable of and they can’t see very far ahead, but they’re excited to develop the skills and strength to do the things they feel compelled to do, even if it means taking only a few steps and falling down multiple times along the way.
2. As The Engineer, I’m just as focused on the process as I am on the outcome. I don’t hold the expectation that my first several attempts will work out. I learn to find joy in the problem-solving and I begin to get comfortable in the space of the unknown.
3. As The Sage, I’m guided by a sense of curiosity. I’m inspired by the prospect of discovery, illumination, and impact. I’m fueled equally by a desire to learn and a desire to share what I’ve learned with others in a way that inspires them too.
The beauty and meaning behind your goals lie more in the doing than in the achieving. The imperfection of the journey is what facilitates your growth and transformation. It's in the doing, the struggling, and the overcoming that you'll develop the mental strength and the emotional skills needed to make progress toward your current goals and toward even more meaningful goals in the future. It’s with this realization that I’m looking forward to continuing to share the abundance of ideas that are dancing around in my head, however imperfect their expression may be. 🤗
For additional wisdom and inspiration on the topic of perfectionism, I recommend the following resources:
· Re:Thinking podcast with Adam Grant: Breaking Up with Perfection
· TEDx Talk with Lori Harder: Turn Your Struggles into Strengths
· TED Talk with Astro Teller: The Unexpected Benefit of Celebrating Failure
· Sounds True podcast with Lissa Rankin: Love and Guidance from Your Inner Pilot Light
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