Perfect doesn’t exist: The case for dropping perfectionism

Perfectionism is on the rise and can be super harmful. Jen explores the difference between high standards and perfectionism, and shares tips for battling perfectionism and moving on with your life.
Illustration from Icons8.com

Aren’t we all just doing the best we can?

I hate bowling. And dancing. And video games. What these activities have in common, besides being hated my me and loved by other people, is that I suck at them. I’m a totally embarrassing dancer and bowler, and I never played video games as a kid so don’t have the controller dexterity required to kick when you’re supposed to kick or jump when you’re supposed to not fall into the ocean. (That happens in video games, right?) 

Being bad at stuff is too stressful and somehow too boring at the same time. No, thank you.

I’ve come to understand this to be a kind of perfectionism. It’s true in my working life too. When faced with a difficult project, I procrastinate, putting the thing off as long as I can. I do like challenges, learning new things and the feeling of winning — but it has to be something I can succeed at. If there’s a big risk that I’m going to fail, well, sometimes I might not even bother trying.

When perfectionism feels like a tragic flaw 

It seems more and more people feel like me. Researchers recently found that perfectionism is on the rise with each generation — today’s college students in the U.S., U.K. and Canada suffer more from the toils of perfectionism than college students of past generations.

Perhaps it’s because social media invites us to constantly compare ourselves with peers and strangers. Or maybe perfectionism is a way to exercise control in a world that feels chaotic. Maybe those complaints you always hear from older generations are true: that millennials and kids today have become too accustomed to participation trophies. If you’re used to being celebrated just for showing up, and if you’re always told you’re remarkable, then the fear of not being remarkable, of not living up to that, could be crippling.

Whatever the cause, in some instances, extreme perfectionism can lead to anxiety, depression, self-sabotage, heightened suicide risk and more. Though it’s not always a bad thing to hold yourself to high standards, there’s a limit to what’s healthy.

“When I was in high school and college, I missed out on relationships and experiences because I was so focused on being perfect at school,” said Amy Madore, a university course content manager and my friend and Juggle colleague. “I wish I’d made more tradeoffs on the academic side of things to make space for social and other activities. I also believe my focus on figuring out the formula for getting an A in everything somewhat stunted my critical thinking and problem-solving skills. It’s taken me some time to undo that (and I don’t think I’m done). When you’re driven by the desire to get everything right you miss the point of education and other life experiences: learning. Growth. Figuring out how to approach and solve problems.”

For others, setting impossibly high standards means struggling to feel successful or confident. “Perfectionism is one of my traits that annoys me the most,” said Sarah Overmyer, a content marketer and another friend and Juggle colleague. “Wanting to be good at things is really motivating and has led to a lot of success in my life, but perfectionism sets me up for some gnarly negative self-talk and the feeling that I’m never good enough.” 

She told me about the time she moved to Argentina when she was 22 and very quickly learned Spanish. Within a year she was often mistaken for a local. But once she’d reached that level of fluency, she felt like a failure anytime someone perceived she was a foreigner. “Setting the bar that high for myself was absurd,” she said. “In a year, I had gone from sounding like a confused preschooler to sounding like I’d spent my whole life in Buenos Aires and still managed to beat myself up.”

High standards aren’t always a bad thing

Perfectionism is a weird concept. After all, who would want to do a bad job? Don’t most people want to be good at things? To win?

It’s human nature to hold ourselves to some kind of standard. But that standard varies by person and situation, and seems, like most things in life, to lie on a spectrum of intensity. 

My friend and Juggle colleague, Alyssa Jethani, an engagement and growth manager, told me, “I don’t think being ambitious and hardworking necessarily means I am a perfectionist. Maybe staying up extra late to format a presentation (that no one except me will notice) is a perfectionist tendency, but I don’t know if that means I am a perfectionist or just that I care. Yes I strove for A’s in high school, and my first C in college can still cause a flicker of ire TO THIS DAY, but is that perfectionism? Or just caring?”

And high standards can be a good thing. Author Katie Heaney wrote in “The Cut” last year defending certain kinds of perfectionism, that, “Even as a perfectly rational side effect to a capitalist society, I am mostly grateful for my perfectionism. If I am not here to get better at what is important to me, what is the point?”

What the opposite of perfectionism looks like 

Not everyone struggles with this. Ginny Papper, a pianist and retired sales executive (and my mother-in-law), told me without even hesitating, “Never — I never try for perfection. The more flexible you are, the easier it is to get to the next thing.” And it’s true. I never see her flustered or hung up on anything, and she gets more done in a single day than I could even fathom.

Meanwhile, here I am rewriting the same paragraph (ahem, this one) over and over again for days to try to get it right. Then I’ll reread it in a few weeks and notice — in agony — that it’s still not perfect. But that’s because perfect, by definition, doesn’t actually exist. And if actual perfection isn’t attainable, what’s the point of the pain?

I don’t have the solution. If I did, I wouldn’t have procrastinated for two months before writing this article, or spent three sleepless nights trying to write it, only to get to this point and still feel like I want to change everything. But I’d love to figure out how to control my impulses so that, like Ginny, I can just get on with my life.

Alyssa seems to have cracked the code, at least somewhat. “I think I used to be a perfectionist. I felt very driven by others’ expectations of me,” she said. “But the day I realized that my flaws and imperfections are perfect for me was the day I stopped being a perfectionist.”

Bria Skönberg, Juno award-winning (think Canadian Grammy) jazz musician at the top of her game (also my sister-in-law), told me, “If my band and I work hard, then no matter what the outcome is, that’s perfect. Even if we mess up, it’s still perfect.”

In fact, in jazz, improvisation and even mistakes can be a good thing; they can make music more interesting. As Bria pointed out, she’s not a NASA mathematician trying to land the Apollo (shoutout to Katherine Johnson). 

What’s interesting about these examples is that striving for perfection (or not) doesn’t seem to have a bearing on actual performance. There are plenty of super high achievers who don’t torture themselves. 

Quieting perfectionist instincts

But for those who recognize that striving for perfection has a negative effect on them, managing these tendencies is crucial.

Alyssa said that keeping healthy life habits helps her curb her perfectionistic instincts: “Sleeping. Eating moderately healthily and not sitting glued to my computer screen for 4 hours at a time. You know, the basics… oh and reminding myself that I am perfect just the way I am just like Bruno Mars tells me.”

Sarah said therapy has helped her. It’s made her a million times wiser and more self-aware, and better able to “shut that stupid voice up” in her head: “I’ve found therapy and meditation to be the most life-changing things I’ve ever done. I’ve been in therapy on and off since I was 20 and the breakthroughs I’ve had in learning to see the world and myself in a different way are some of the most exhilarating moments of my life. I also started meditating about five years ago when I was going through a particularly painful breakup and needed urgent self-soothing. It changed my outlook on everything. Perfectionism can drive me to see things in a very black and white way (either good enough or not good enough) and meditation has taught me that there is no inherent value in anything.”

So maybe that’s it — adopt healthy habits and work on changing your negative self talk to positive mantras. After all, the simple fact is, humans are flawed. All we can really do is our best — and try to be OK with whatever that looks like.

But I still don’t think I’ll be bowling or playing video games any time soon.

Can you relate? Commiserate about your worst perfectionist habits or share your best anti-perfectionism tips in the comments.

What do you think? (Leave comments here.)