I just recently ran a long-distance race; my very first one. I have been exercising out of sheer pleasure for years, but never signed up for a race before. I love running and I just told myself to do my best, but mostly to enjoy it. The race started and as I noticed some of the runners pass me by, I started to pick up my speed to an uncomfortable pace. I quickly caught myself and went back to my happy place, but this behavior turned into a competitive pattern throughout the race. You may be thinking that there is nothing wrong with that and I would tell you that there is. Because this is not just a healthy competitive mindset or someone just trying to do their best. This is the mental pattern that goes on inside the mind of a perfectionist and it is not a pretty one. In situations like these, there is a nagging voice deep inside me that says; “You can do better than this. You can run faster. You can beat the other runners. You can run a perfect race.” And while still, this might look pretty normal to you, it is not. Because of the extra stress that I put myself through when it was completely unnecessary to do so and because of all the nasty feelings that I am left with after everything is said and done. I did get to enjoy the race in the end, but it was harder than I thought it would be. Because I was all in my head about running “the perfect race”. About doing “perfectly well”. And that was not the point at all. Instead of feeling super accomplished in the end -which I did, regardless-, I left scolding myself a little for not being faster. And that to me, sucks!
Have you ever stopped to realize how inappropriately the word “perfection” is overused? I know I have carelessly used the term several times with my kids when I want them to strive for excellence. I sometimes find myself using the phrase “practice makes perfect” and I now realize just how demoralizing, shallow and unattainable that term really is.
We are imperfect beings by nature and definition. We live in a world that is far from perfect and we all lead imperfect lives as the beautifully flawed humans that we are. Why do we demand and idolize perfection then -from ourselves and others-, when it is clearly unattainable, and furthermore, damaging even to our performance and motivation? Why are we being told every day, in several different ways (mostly media) that anything less than perfect is not worth it?
For the sake of this article, I will repeat this inevitable truth: Perfection doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion and it only sets us up for failure. Every time. I know you’ve heard this before, but allow yourself a few minutes for it to really sink in.
This is something that I constantly have to remind myself of. I need to know this because when I truly understand that even my best result will never be perfect, I free myself from always feeling like I failed, which can lead to frustration, anxiety, depression, fear of making mistakes, never trying anything new and even procrastination and poor performance. When you keep disappointing yourself with unachievable standards, eventually your mental health is impacted negatively, and your self-esteem suffers a hard hit. You also start to become alienated because your excessively high standards are applied to everything and everyone and nothing and no one are ever good enough. Because nothing and no one are perfect.
I simply need to understand that good enough is, well, good enough.
Yes, sometimes being this way has helped me give that extra push, but it has never really given me peace of mind. Because giving that extra push meant I spent worrying excessively over something for days, feeling anxious about the end result and feeling terrified of failing. Peace of mind is a luxury that doesn’t come easy to me these days and sometimes it’s all that I long for. Logically, I would tell myself; if you give it your all, you will feel at peace. But I don’t. See where being a perfectionist is never a good thing?
Perfectionism is valued and reinforced by our culture too. Our modern world has become very visual, polished, edited and photoshopped and our brains tend to trust and believe in everything that our eyes see. The internet, social media and everything in between always portray an image of perfection that can sometimes leave us feeling like there is something wrong with us; we are wrong for not having the ideal job, or the perfect house, family or partner; it can lead us to punish ourselves for not having the “perfect body” and we question our “likeability” for not having the cool friends or the impeccable taste in food and /or clothes. You might think; ‘this never happens to me’. But at a subconscious level, it does. One of my favorite quotes from Mary Schmich’s commencement speech and Baz Luhrmann’s lyrics to the song “Wear Sunscreen” is this; -do not read beauty magazines, they will only make you feel ugly-. Can you relate?
I have had several life lessons that have slowly opened my eyes to these truths about myself and I can tell you that “recovery” from perfectionism has not been easy. I have gone to therapy, developed wellness tools, and even made it the core of my professional practice to find ways to cope with this negative self-talk. I cautiously don’t want to deepen on the subject of depression, because I am far from being an expert. I can only talk from my very own experience. And what I find is that talking about these issues and uncomfortable feelings with others is not an easy thing to do. Mental health is something that we should be able to discuss more openly, and I encourage anyone reading this article to seek help if you feel like you need it or reach out to someone who you might think needs it. We have to stop stigmatizing it; there is nothing wrong with us for not feeling great or “happy” all the time. And there are things that we can do to help ourselves and others. So, let’s do them and let’s start having more of these conversations.
I can tell you that this personality trait has brought me anguish, depression, anxiety, shame, self-doubt, tremendous fear of making mistakes, of being embarrassed, of being rejected and so much more. And these things that I feel myself, I may regrettably have made others around me feel about themselves. And that is the very last thing I would ever want to do. Especially to my loved ones; my peeps. If I ever made anyone reading this right now, feel any of these negative and demoralizing feelings, know this: it was never ill-intended, and it has been more crippling to myself than you will ever know. I deeply apologize if I ever did.
I now try to set realistic standards for myself and everyone else and also try to purposely be somewhat “careless” in certain areas that don’t really matter. I try to be ok with the fact that life is hard, some people are bad, hatred exists and sh!t happens. Reminding myself of this and working towards ridding myself of the negative self-talk has been instrumental. Focusing on the big picture and understanding that the big lessons come to us when we mess up, has been key to my recovery. I no longer chase happiness in perfection and I hope that my ‘coming out’ with these truths can make at least one person relate and maybe start them on their way to a better place mentally and emotionally. I hope that you are nothing like me in this perfectionist sense and I hope that you embrace your imperfection, because in it lies the beauty and magic of life itself.