“I’m a perfectionist,” is one of the most popular answers to that dreaded interview question, “What’s your greatest weakness?” It feels safe because, while we realize that being a perfectionist can slow us down, we also admire people that strive for excellence in this society. We make movies about people that single-mindedly pursue being the best against incredible odds, and we revere the slightly mad innovators. If you don’t believe me, just consider Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Nikola Tesla, and Amelia Earhart–just to name a few.
However, the pursuit of perfection has a dark side. First of all, perfect doesn’t exist. There will always be someone who can do things better than you can. There will always be someone smarter, more educated, richer, prettier, and more talented. Years of practicing a skill can make you an expert, but it will never make you perfect. There will always be more to learn, and new innovations to master. Therefore, perfection is the proverbial carrot on a stick that you can never quite reach. The minute you achieve the goal you had set for yourself, is the minute you realize there is more to do and learn.
For example, in my younger mind, completing my master’s degree in psychology was the most wonderful thing I could accomplish. Years of study, writing papers and taking exams finally culminated in the proud day of my graduation. I was thrilled, and then I realized that I still couldn’t work as a therapist.
Instead, there was a new goal–to get my license. Five years after graduation, I accumulated 3,000 intern hours and passed two state board exams, I could finally call myself a licensed therapist.
That was incredible, until I started working more complicated psychological cases and realized that I still didn’t have the expertise that I needed to help people in the way that I wanted to, and they deserved. So, I started completing additional certifications. Now I realize that I will never be finished learning how to be a therapist. There is no perfection.
If I beat myself up every time I was presented with a patient that I didn’t understand, or was asked to perform a type of therapy that I don’t have training in, I would be paralyzed by the weight of what I don’t know, and that is the danger of perfectionism.
The very fact that you’re pressuring yourself to be perfect, combined with the truth that perfect does not actually exist, is a recipe for disaster.
It usually begins with parents or teachers who cannot see the value of rewarding children for doing their personal best, and hold them up against a standard that is out of reach. Over time, children internalize the message that they need to perform like professionals when they are only beginners, and they start beating themselves up for all of the mistakes that they make as they try to learn a skill. Instead of seeing mistakes as part of the learning process, they see them as failures. Why? Because that’s how they were taught to see them.
Eventually, the fear of failure overcomes the desire to learn something new, and the person drops the learning process altogether. Even if nobody else is judging the performance, the internal critic created by this perfectionistic society, is so harsh that it seems better not to try than to face its judgement.
How many great artists, scientists or philosophers have we lost because of perfectionism getting in the way? It’s impossible to know. However, I do know this. I am far kinder to myself when I make mistakes than the average person, and it took me several years to start trying to publish my book because I feared the judgment my work would inevitably receive. I still fear it, but I know that I will regret it if I let my life pass by without trying.
I also know that I hear about perfectionism getting in the way of my patients’ lives on a daily basis. One of the most important thing I work on with people is bringing things into their lives that create a life worth living–whatever that looks like for them.
I ask, “If you had a life that felt worth living, what would that look like?” Answers vary. For some it’s finding a partner. For some it’s travel.
Whatever it is, my next question is “What can you do today to begin bringing that into your life?” Usually, they tell me that there is nothing that they can do. It’s hopeless. So, I start throwing out suggestions.
Sometimes people take my suggestions and start making progress. However, much of the time they tell me, “I can’t do that. It won’t work, and it will hurt too much if I fail.”
It will hurt too much if I fail. The fear of that pain is enough to keep people living lives that don’t feel worth living.
Don’t be one of those people.
Instead, change your mindset. Accepting that perfect does not exist is freeing. Why strive to achieve something that isn’t there in the first place?
Instead, here are three simple truths to live by:
- The thing that you do is better than the thing that you don’t even try.
- Mistakes are not failures. They are part of learning. Each time that you make a mistake, you learn something new that will help you to do the thing better next time. With that in mind, congratulate yourself next time you mess up. You’ve just taken the next step towards mastery.
- All that you can do is your best–no more and no less. If your internal critic, or some person in your life finds fault with what you’ve done, simply say, “I did my best.” Don’t expect to be an expert immediately. Just do your best.
Next time that you hear your inner critic giving you a hard time because you aren’t doing something perfectly, talk back to it. Tell yourself that you’ve done your best, and that you are learning from your mistakes and will do better next time. Remind yourself that perfect does not actually exist. It will set you free.