The Problem with Perfectionism
As humans, we are imperfect, flawed. However, many of us have a difficult time acknowledging, accepting, and owning our imperfect condition. (I would know, because I happen to fall squarely into this contingent of perfectionists-living-in-denial myself).
Those of us who make up this tormented group feel a relentless urge to get things right, do things as flawlessly as possible, and project an image of success to others. Our quest for perfection is something that we practice and gradually learn to hone as part of our socialization process while growing up.
The academic institutions we attend additionally play a role in boosting this drive in us. In high school, in particular, we’re encouraged to get good grades, play sports, participate in music or the arts, compete...make ourselves as look as polished as possible on paper so we can get into a good college, and then possibly grad school, or even just land a decent job. A bar is set for us.
And with time and practice, our desire for perfection gets so deeply ingrained within us that it starts to become largely subconscious in nature - habitual, even - only periodically bubbling up to the surface and stealing our attention (like, for instance, in one of those embarrassing moments when you suddenly realize you’ve been agonizing for entirely-too-fucking-long over which Instagram filter is most flattering).
To add even more positive reinforcement into the mix, being a perfectionist can get you pretty far in life. Perfectionists are diligent, willing to push themselves, and always hold themselves to the highest standard. They tend to do well academically, excel at the hobbies or activities they choose to pursue, and do a superior job of tackling all of the administrative tasks that oh-so-glamorously punctuate our everyday lives.
Oftentimes, those of us who pursue professional degrees are perfectionists. And historically, those very professionals - the doctors, lawyers, et cetera - were the people who made good money, had job security, and commanded respect and authority in our society.
But perfection is a double-edged sword, and striving for it can also have its downsides. In fact, depending on one’s goals, I would go so far as to argue that its negatives far outweigh its potential positives.
Here are some of the most significant issues with our quest for perfectionism:
It’s an exercise in futility.
Again, humans are flawed - no matter how desperately or compulsively we may work to try and hide it. Some individuals appear to come unnervingly close to having achieved perfection, but don’t be fooled. I assure you, they have issues just like the rest of us.
Humans just aren’t capable of being perfect – not all the time, at least. So to regularly strive for perfection is usually an inefficient, if not impossible, endeavor. It drains our energy, and it pulls us out of our hearts and into our heads.
It deters us from producing, creating, and sharing as freely as possible.
If we are constantly focused on producing things that are as perfectly edited and curated as possible, we are holding ourselves back. We are limiting the scope of our own productive potential by reiterating and/or reworking what we have already created instead of creating more.
And if we get too caught up in producing, creating, or building something perfect, we likely won’t share it as freely either. We are more inclined to hold back and only share what we’ve created with others when it’s achieved some level of quality that we are satisfied with.
And that’s tragic. Because, by nature, it limits the amount of our creative work that gets put out there and shared with others. If we were instead willing to share with abandon, we’d have the ability to contribute so much more to the world around us.
It prevents us from connecting with others.
Perfection is inhuman. It’s cold, android, and machine-like. And humans, who generally feel driven to connect with other humans, lack that urge to connect with people who don’t feel real, authentic, genuine, and human.
We have a tendency to think that if we’re perfect, people will like us more. That our perfection will result in us having more friends or achieving more success.
However, although it’s a bit counterintuitive, we don’t actually connect much more than on a surface level with people who come across as “perfect”. We connect far more deeply with others within whom (or within whose creations) we see reflections of ourselves and our own struggles.
Perfection is a mask, an illusion. It’s not real. It’s just something some of us try to hide behind. And as a result, it serves to separate us.
We are all driven by the need and desire to connect with others, and perfectionism directly holds us back - on both ends - from achieving that goal.
So what if we dropped our mask and stopped hiding?
I’d like to invite you to be brave and test this out. No mask, no makeup - just you.
Take an activity, something in which you typically find yourself striving for perfection. Maybe it’s a social media post of some kind. Or maybe it’s something you’ve written, a piece of art you’ve created, or a website or an app you’ve built.
Instead of cranking on it and endlessly tweaking it through various iterations and making a series of incremental improvements, I would instead challenge you to release it as soon as it’s in full draft form.
I know. Scary as shit, right?
But try it. Share it. Put it out there in the world. And see what happens.
Even if you don’t get as much positive feedback as you may have wanted (or hell - any at all), the point is that sharing something imperfect with the world won’t kill you. Accepting this challenge might actually serve to make you stronger.
But the real beauty of suppressing your drive for perfection and taking this sort of bold action lies in the potential that what you create and share might help or resonate with someone else, and not just in spite of its imperfect form, but because of its imperfect form.
So give it a shot. Create something imperfect - something flawed that reflects your flawed self. Then toss it out there and see who catches it.
Be vulnerable. Connect. And let me know how it goes.