The Curse of Perfectionism


An inability to deal with imperfections can appear innocuous or even beneficial (if it helps to encourage ambition and high standards, which is known as adaptive perfectionism). However, perfectionism is often pernicious. It is closely tied to issues like harsh self-criticism, feelings of inadequacy, depression, and low levels of life satisfaction. For if perfection – an unrealistic, unattainable standard – is applied to oneself, one’s life experiences, and others, then disappointment and dissatisfaction will be the inevitable consequences.

I have long felt a perfectionist tendency, and I now think this is a root cause of various forms of distress, like those mentioned above. For some people, perfectionism may have a narrow or specific area which it pertains to – this could be someone’s identity, moral character, career, relationships, or creative endeavours. It is common, nonetheless, for perfectionism to infect all of the above, and more. I relate more to the latter. I feel the nagging of perfectionism when it comes to writing, for instance, as well as life experiences. 

One way that I’ve noticed this tendency influence experiences is that the more positive an experience is, the stronger the perfectionism. My mind reminds me constantly of flaws, what is lacking, what could have gone better – and I should shoulder the blame for this. Thinking of this mindset from an outside perspective, it seems strangely unkind. What’s the point of it? I think the basis of looking for these blemishes is a kind of self-sabotaging – an attempt to ruin an otherwise fulfilling experience. Perfectionism in cases like this appears like a strategy to wage war against the self, a way to undermine a healthy self-image. Perfectionism is not, for me anyway, a harmless idiosyncrasy; it is a default mode of thinking that finds inadequacy everywhere, especially in myself – in my character, choices, and actions.

I don’t experience unhealthy (or maladaptive) perfectionism as often or as intensely as I used to, so there are definitely ways to counteract this tendency. Simply getting older and the lessons that go along with that help. Once I became aware of this impulse and the needless distress it causes, that at least made me question it and not just accept it as the right way – and only way – to interpret events. The more active efforts to tackle perfectionism have involved principles like acceptance, gratitude, self-compassion, and self-forgiveness. Cognitive reframing makes a big difference too: seeing mistakes, fallibility, and imperfections as normal and expected removes the pressure, anxiety, and unrest associated with the need for something to be the best it can possibly be. 

Good enough is good enough. When we automatically think to ourselves, not good enough, frustration and misery will naturally follow. Thinking that we or something we’ve done is ‘good enough’ is not a self-imposed fantasy onto a situation – a forced smile or form of self-congratulation in the face of failure; it is, instead, a realistic perception. It is the salve – the antidote – for the familiar poison of perfectionism. 

Perfectionism, like many unhealthy, ingrained habits of thought and feeling, can be viewed as a curse – a misfortune sent from an outside source. Unlike curses, though, the misfortune of ‘never good enough’ does not require magic and some elaborate ritual to reverse it. A kind of ritual – secular in nature – is needed, however. This is the ritual of applying the attitude of ‘good enough’ and the principles mentioned earlier (like self-compassion). These invocations genuinely work. 

The inability to deal with imperfections that can’t be changed is, fortunately, an imperfection that can be changed.

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