Perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I’ve been thinking a lot about perfectionism recently. That’s because everywhere I look, I see it in action.

I see thousands of young people desperately striving to compile the “perfect” résumé so they can get into the “perfect” college and eventually get the “perfect” job. I see parents searching for the “perfect” child-rearing methods because they’re terrified of screwing up their kids. I see families spending large amounts of time and money on decorating the “perfect” house, because Pinterest has convinced them that’s how everyone lives. I see professionals in all industries running themselves ragged because they’ve been told that the “perfect” employee never stops leaning in. Most of all, I see a nation of people making themselves unhappy as they try to fix various aspects of themselves, their careers, and their lives.

Trust me, I understand—the first three and a half decades of my life were filled with perfectionism. I told myself that I was working toward better things, greater achievements, and my best self in general, but in truth, I was pushing myself to the brink mentally and sometimes physically. My thoughts were always fixated on how I had fallen short in the past or on what I needed to do in the future. I rarely, if ever, enjoyed the present moment. And there is no doubt in my mind that this perfectionism-driven anxiety was a major contributor to the breakdown I eventually suffered at age 36.

Unfortunately, as I’ve learned through personal experience, our efforts to achieve perfection usually have the opposite effect from what we intend: They contribute to our unhappiness. In general, here are some ways in which perfectionism tends to harm us:

  • It causes a lack of balance. When you are driven to achieve perfection in a certain area, that quest will often come to dominate your thoughts, actions, and intentions. You may neglect other important parts of your life, such as your relationships, health, or career, as you work toward doing or being the best in that one area. An out-of-balance life is inherently unsustainable.
  • It breeds self-destructive habits. The human body and mind were designed to achieve great things, but not to be perfect. When we try to push ourselves beyond nature’s limits, we end up hurting ourselves. The self-destructive habits that perfectionism causes can be mental (e.g., a tendency to obsess about every little mistake), physical (e.g., ignoring your body’s need for fuel and rest as you work on a project), and/or emotional (e.g., constantly feeling unworthy or guilty). Furthermore, perfectionism can drive some people to cope in unhealthy ways. Drinking, gambling, doing drugs, and more can temporarily assuage the negative feelings that result from “not being good enough.”
  • It lowers your self-esteem. It’s simple: We are all fallible. But when a perfectionist inevitably makes a mistake, she doesn’t see the error as a part of being human; she sees it as a personal shortcoming. She’s never satisfied with herself or her accomplishments; instead, she usually feels like a failure. Plus, she’s constantly comparing herself to others whom she believes are “better” than her. Unfortunately, chronic low self-esteem becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you believe you can or can’t do something, you’ll almost certainly be right. 
  • It causes you to live in fear. Trust me on this one: While a perfectionist’s life may look enviable from the outside, that person is not experiencing the good life because he feels he is only as good as his last star performance. He is constantly afraid: of failure, of criticism, of making a bad impression, of deadlines, of other people’s judgment, and much more.
  • It reduces opportunity and alienates people. The definition of perfectionism is expecting things to be a certain way and not accepting anything less—qualities that don’t exactly foster community and collaboration. Say, for instance, that someone is a perfectionist at work. Chances are, he won’t be able to effectively work with his colleagues because their contributions will never be exactly right or good enough to meet his high standards.

This person might nag his coworkers and tell them where they’ve gone wrong, or he might keep his mouth shut, then go behind them to make “corrections” on group projects. Either way, he will be seen as judgmental, overly competitive, and/or nitpicky. His insistence on doing things a particular way will eventually cause him to be isolated and ignored because he will be seen as difficult and frustrating to work with.

  • It contributes to anxiety and depression. When you “train” your brain to be consistently worried, stressed, and down on yourself, those unhealthy states of mind become your norm…and they’re known as anxiety and depression.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to do and be your best, or to reach your full potential. You should. But I also think that each and every one of us needs to honestly assess our lives to make sure that we haven’t crossed the line from “wanting our best lives” to demanding the impossible from ourselves and others so we have “a perfect life.” That line, thin as it may appear, separates your ability to be happy from constant dissatisfaction, stress, and frustration.

In my next blog post, I will share some tactics that have helped me to overcome my own perfectionistic tendencies and that will enable you to do the same.

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