The Problem With Perfection

The Problem With Perfection

By Jen Kohlenberger

As I sit and write this, thoughts are racing through my mind– Is this even a good topic? What if I can’t convey my ideas properly? What if people read this and say it’s terrible? How can I make this blog great?  In fact, prior to actually sitting down to write this, I avoided it completely because these thoughts had me convinced I was not going to be able to write something good enough to share. 

I’m a recovering Perfectionist. 

Perfectionism makes many aspects of life more challenging than they need to be. Tasks take longer and doubt creeps in every chance it gets. Even when countless people tell you how good you are at something, you never think you’re good enough. It’s not that you don’t believe you’re good at things. You might very well know and believe you’re talented. For example, I know I can create beautiful art. There are many pieces of artwork that I’ve created and been happy with. Yet, even when I’m proud of producing excellent quality work, I always know it could have been better. I see a line and think, “well that could have been a little straighter,” or, “that blue may not have been the best shade of blue to use,” or, “I wish I would’ve had a little more time to make that tree look more realistic.” 

This blog is particularly hard to write because I actually like my perfectionism. I like my attention to detail. I love that I catch fixable mistakes. Perfectionism drives me to be better. It gives me a target to aim for. Maybe nothing can be absolutely perfect, but I like to think I sometimes get pretty close, depending on the task. 

I often rationalize my perfectionist habits by saying I just care a lot and that I don’t mind spending extra time on projects. While both of those things might be true, however, I am still a slave to the perfectionism, whether I want to admit it or not. Aiming for perfection seems innocent until we can’t get away from the intrusive thoughts, and our inability to meet the mark makes us feel overwhelmed, insecure, inadequate… the list goes on. When our perfectionism interferes with our ability to execute tasks and repeatedly interrupts our routine, it is no longer something to be proud of– it becomes toxic.

Identifying Toxic Perfectionism

To keep perfectionism in check, we must evaluate ourselves and our behaviors to recognize unhealthy patterns. 

Habits to Look For:

- Inability to move on when things don’t work out the way you hoped (recurring thoughts)

Example: “I can’t believe I missed that shot in the game,” or “If I had just answered that question correctly I would’ve gotten an ‘A’ on that test.”

- Procrastination (putting off tasks because the thought of doing them wrong/poorly/subpar makes us not want to do them at all)

- Difficulty accepting constructive criticism without feeling attacked 

- Fear of disappointing self and/or others

- Unrealistic expectations of self and/or others

What Can We Do About It?

The problem is that the common idea of perfection doesn’t actually exist, yet it’s what we strive for. Ideally we could strive to hit a specific target, not quite get there, but still be satisfied with the effort that we’ve given. More often than not, however, when we don’t hit the target, we are distressed.

Perhaps the better target would be “snapshot” perfection— meaning, as perfect as something can be at this particular point in time. As if to say, I did the best that I could with the resources I had available to me— the energy I had to give, the mindset I was in, the skills that I had, and the time frame I had to work in. If we were to view perfectionism in this way, we could experience grace instead of shame. When we step back and look at something that we’ve done, created, or said, there will always be room to say “but it could have been better” and that’s, frankly, because it could have. It could’ve been better if we got more rest, had more knowledge, or had more time. Of course it would be better the second or the third time we do it because we would have more experience. But if we view perfectionism in a snapshot perspective, we can confidently say that this single effort is as perfect as it could be with what we had available to us at this time. We can practice self-compassion, and give ourselves permission to be perfectly imperfect in our journey of acceptance and improvement. 

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