The High Cost of Perfectionism

  • I’m not good enough.

  • Being better than my neighbors means I am succeeding.

  • I am a disappointment.

  • I have no time for weakness.

  • If I don’t meet this deadline everyone will think I’m stupid.

  • I have to change the world for the better.

  • I’m never good enough.

  • I don’t look how I’m supposed to look.

  • I must get straight A’s to become a successful adult.

Does something in your stomach feel a little uneasy about reading these statements? I bet you are feeling a twang of panic? It’s because you can feel the conflict. We tell ourselves these types of things all the time – sometimes subconsciously. Right now you may be questioning whether it’s possible to live up to these expectations while trying to pump yourself with positive thoughts on how awesome you are. The conflict is not in our capacity or ability or fortitude to achieve great things - the conflict is in how we define great success.

Often, we put the ability to accomplish great tasks in one of two categories; flawed or perfect and we cut out everything in between. This gives us the assumption that if we aren’t perfect then we must be worthless, because flawed people don’t accomplish great things, right? With this line of thinking we have just devalued ourselves because of our imperfections. Society (Hollywood, news media, etc..) definitely contributes to this perfectionistic ideal. Even those with good intentions such as teachers, parents, neighbors, and religion can make us feel that we have no chance for success if we aren’t perfect.

Brene Brown wrote this in her book Gifts of Imperfection:

Perfectionism is a self destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame… Healthy striving is self-focused: ‘How can I improve?’ Perfectionism is other-focused: ‘What will they think?’”

Success is then defined as healthy striving and NOT perfection. Healthy striving occurs when we set small deliberate goals. It is not comparison. It is intentional growth. Perfection contributes to depression, shame, isolation, inadequacy, and anxiety. Healthy striving encourages connection, gratitude, and joy. It also requires some vulnerability and unpretentiousness. It requires mistakes and a reorganization of priorities. It requires staying true to personal values and integrity despite shortcomings.

Part of healthy striving compels you to accept the reality of who you are. Perfectionism is embedded in an unrealistic expectation of our future oriented selves. Put the future away for a moment and focus on the present. Loving yourself, just as you are today, without anticipating tomorrow is not easy to do but necessary for growth. Carl Rogers said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am then I can change… The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction not a destination.”

I encourage you to look at imperfection as a gift of knowing and valuing who you are as well as a platform for choosing change to become who you want to be. I ask that you define success as a process of being and becoming and less about achievement, tasks, and accomplishments. Could you imagine how we could open up possibilities for change if each of us practiced a growth mindset instead of a perfectionistic mindset? I imagine we would have different expectations of ourselves and others. Maybe we could even reach our greatest potential as human beings and change the world in the process.