Perfectionism is an increasingly common challenge in our lives and families. It creates dissatisfaction with ourselves and with others – the sense that good is never good enough; that mistakes are unacceptable; and that only our very best is worthwhile. Perfectionism literally feeds depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, family conflict, and hopelessness. While some believe it pushes them to higher and higher levels of achievement, it comes with high costs – to oneself, and to others.
Perfectionism is ever more common in our time, in both the young and old. Surrounded by perfect air-brushed media images of physical beauty; caught up in an increasingly competitive environment at work or school; drowning in picture-perfect shelves of manufactured products competing for our purchase – we can easily get the message that everything in our lives should be flawless, polished, and perfect. We may get impatient with imperfections in ourselves, our family members, or others, when we expect constant perfection. We may get discouraged, angry, even hopeless, when we are only content with perfect products, perfect people, and perfect performance.
Perfectionism is one of the many factors in our society fueling the epidemics of depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems. We may become depressed or lose self esteem when we fall short of our own perfectionistic expectations. We may become anxious when we anticipate our possible “failure” to perform at a less than perfect level. We may become angry at our children, our spouses, or others when they act in a less-than-perfect way. We may even descend into addictions or self-harm to escape the pain of constant pressure – and constant disappointment – of perfectionistic expectations.
The truth is – all living things, including human beings, grow gradually – just a little bit at a time. A seed does not instantly become a tall tree. A baby does not learn to walk without falling on the first day he stands. A musician does not become a virtuoso the first time she picks up her instrument. We all learn and grow gradually, over the process of time. Learning and growing always involves mistakes and false starts, as we learn and practice new skills.
The world of nature teaches us to be patient – to appreciate the gradual sunrise, the slow-growing tree or flower, the baby who learns gradually to hold up his head, then to sit without support, then to crawl, then to walkAll of us, throughout our lives, are growing and learning. These processes take time. We are always expanding our capacities, our knowledge, and our strengths – a little bit at a time. We’re not going to be perfect on our first few attempts at any new thing– and neither will our loved ones. We’re not going to always have a perfect performance. Even the finest baseball player doesn’t hit a home run every time he swings the bat. Sometimes he just gets to first base. Sometimes he misses the ball altogether. Even after he’s hit his home runs, he will still sometimes have his less-than-perfect moments, on and off the field.
It’s that way with all of us. If every swing of the bat was a home run, then home runs would quickly lose their magic and excitement. If we were all already perfect, life would lose its meaning and purpose. We are here to learn, to grow, to help each other gain new understanding and capacity. Much of what makes life thrilling is to watch ourselves and others grow in strength and ability, over the process of time.
So how can perfectionism be overcome? Here’s a few practical suggestions:
Learn to enjoy the journey
Rather than berate oneself or others for less than a perfect performance, recognize that life is a learning process. Enjoy each stage of the unfolding journey.
Cultivate “an attitude of gratitude
” Acknowledge and celebrate the small successes in yourself and others. Start a gratitude journal, keeping track of each day’s small achievements.
Develop realistic expectations
Recognize that every new capacity in yourself or someone else is going to take time to grow; and that even well-developed capacities are going to be better some days than others.
Learn to laugh
Humor can help you weather the disappointment of a less-than-perfect performance or situation.
In yourself, your spouse, your child, your employee, or whoever you might be dealing with, enjoy the gradual unfolding of new capacities and strengths. Patiently cultivate these new strengths with praise, appreciation, and warm encouragement.
Finally - remember there’s no such thing as failure
Be patient with your less-than-stellar moments (and with those of others), knowing that these are the early learning experiences upon which your later successes are being built – one step at a time
Edison, after thousands of attempts to make a light bulb light, would say to himself and others, “I have not failed to produce electric light. I have simply been successful in identifying one more way NOT to light an electric light bulb.” Each unsuccessful attempt brought him one step closer to his desired result, his ultimate triumph – like a baby learning to walk, falling down many times first. Be patient with your less-than-stellar moments (and with those of others), knowing that these are the early learning experiences upon which your later successes are being built – one step at a time.