Sunday, January 29, 2012

In search of (non) perfection

Are you a perfectionist? It seems like a lot of people are, these days. Perfectionism has almost become a catch all phrase for hard work, achievement and success.

Those traits and outcomes may go hand in hand with some aspects of perfectionism: "positive" or "adaptive" perfectionism is thought to drive people to set goals, strive to achieve them, and do the best they can.

That's not the sort of perfectionism I'm referring to though. It's generally accepted that the "positive" side of perfectionism has an equally negative alternative. Goal setting and striving for achievement might still be present, but the goals will be set higher, the importance placed on achievement will be greater, and the perceived consequences of failure will be catastrophic.

With this sort of perfectionism, doing well can become everything. Self-worth is linked to achieving, and continuing to achieve. Falling short of goals is seen as failure. Achieving goals is still not good enough. 'Success' doesn't bring happiness or satisfaction, but, if anything, relief at not failing, at managing to do what one should have done. Everything needs to be just so and done to your exacting standards.

If you experience "unhelpful" perfectionism, you'll know the self-criticism that can kick in at the slightest mis-step from your plans or goals. And then there's the self-doubt, which makes you wonder if you can do it, even as you tell yourself you have to do it (whatever It might be on the day in question).

Some people opt out altogether, prefering not to try than to try and risk failure.

I used to be an unhelpful perfectionist. In highschool and at university, I defined myself by my academic performance. I lived for praise and positive feedback. I'm conscious of how vain that might sound, but the reality may be different to the image conjured up: receiving praise, or doing well on a test or assignment, was just about the only time I wasn't telling myself I hadn't done enough, or I should be working harder.

My perfectionistic traits have also contributed to my desire for order and control, a feature present from my earliest memories and corroborated by my long-suffering mother (who had to contend with my 5-year-old frustration at things not being right), and which does continue to this day.

At its peak, my perfectionstic tendencies probably extended to every aspect of my life. I wanted to be perfect, in every way, in every domain.

These days, my perspective is a little different. I see the unhelpful aspects of perfectionism. I recognise what I didn't do, in highschool and university, when I was focusing so fully on 'achievement'. Having fun, relaxing, relationships...they were low on my priority list.

These days, I also have other things that I care about. Achieving can't take number one spot any more. I care about people, about Mr Bite, my home life. I don't have space to be focusing on everything being just so.


Sometimes it creeps in.

"You should have worked harder"

"You need to re-do that"

"That doesn't look right"

"You didn't deserve that complement"

"You need to do more"

"You stupid [insert critical word of choice]"

At such times, the desire to be perfect can return. These days, at least, I recognise it isn't possible. If I want to be the perfect girlfriend and the perfect employee and the perfect daughter and the perfect sister and the perfect runner and the perfect friend and have perfect hair and eat the perfect diet - well, it isn't going to happen.

Especially the hair.

And I'm grateful for that awareness. It stops me being sucked back in, and allows me to continue walking on the right side of the "helpful" perfectionism line. Or even, sometimes, skipping out on perfection completely. Life is short, after all.

I apologise for the wordy nature of this post. It's been sitting in my 'drafts' posts list for some time now, and I thought that if I put off posting it for too long I never would. Lighter topics will return soon!

Would you describe yourself as a perfectionist? Has your approach to perfection changed over time?


  1. It's nice to get to know you more, or how things used to be for you! I know plenty of people who are utter perfectionists in every way, and they don't want to be but it's like it haunts them~I think it's awesome that you're recognizing the negatives of it as well. And you're right, nothing and no one can ever reach that--but that's what makes life interesting ;) I'm definitely not a perfectionist (although I sometimes foolishly wish I were), but I guess in some areas I'm more ambitious than in others. I'm more like that when it comes to artistic-type things, or sports, and mostly things that require moving around a lot. For example, when I took art classes, I would be the one who would always finish last b/c I love challenging myself and making every single thing perfect!! It did pay off, but it became somewhat difficult in the end, hehe.

    1. Thanks Ellie - that was a really thoughtful comment! :) It was interesting to hear about how your focus changes across different areas. We're clearly polar opposites with art, because I tend to give up in that area before I even start!!

  2. What a thoughtful post indeed. I most certainly have fallen 'victim' to the 'must be perfect' syndrome....

    1. It's a tricky one to avoid at times, isn't it?

  3. Kari, two days ago I wrote and scheduled a post that touches on precisely this kind of negative perfectionism, though of course my post is done by making fun of myself rather than discussing it seriously and carefully as you've done. I think you know these words here speak to my heart. I'm so grateful we've both got to a place of recognising that perfectionism is damaging, and that being imperfect makes for a far better, more wonderful, happier, dazzling lie. Hugs hugs, loved one!

    1. Good minds think alike, again! I'll look forward to your post :) I think a touch of humour is just what the topic needs.

      I'm glad I wrote this in a way that makes sense to you. And, like you, very glad that we're both learning the benefits of imperfection. It's nice to have someone to share the dazzling journey with, even if they're in a different geographical location :)

  4. While I have some spots of perfectionism, I don't think I really am a perfectionist - in fact I have had times of being a completionist - ie I would rather get a task completed than perfect - and I knew people when I was studying who were the opposite and could not complete assignments because they were never perfect. I think though that as I have got older I have been better at letting go of some expectations of life being perfect, which is a different sort of perfectionism again that strikes so many of us when we are young. I think your sort of reflections are helpful in thinking through what perfectionism might mean - it is something to use at times to goad you on and reign in when it will get in the way of life. And I love the quote from Dali! Makes me think that perfectionism is quite subjective too!

    1. A completionist sounds like just the thing to be! There are certainly days when I am forced to throw myself towards that goal out of necessity, and at the end it is what matters really. And you're so right - there are so many ways of thinking about perfectionism and what is 'perfect' to one person may not be to the next anyway. It's definitely a topic one could get lost in, philosophically speaking!

  5. I think we have a lot in common! I was a total, uptight, everything-must-be-100%-perfect kind of person in high school and uni. I think it only shifted for me when I travelled, at age 19, to Thailand for a month and then to Australia for a semester. Some combination of travel woes (no matter how much you plan things, your flight can still be delayed and you'll be running through the airport trying to make your connection), seeing different ways of life, getting outside of my comfort zone, and immersing myself in the "no worries" culture of North Queensland, has been really good for my mental health. I am definitely a lot more okay with doing just enough on certain things these days, or of sending drafts in order to get feedback while it's still rough, or letting people into my house even when it's a bit messy - sometimes I slip back and feel a bit overwhelmed with things, but Andy's a good counter-balance :)

    1. Definitely a lot in common! It's interesting to hear how travel helped shift things for you - I can see how that would really help. And, of course, lovely to hear that things are a little more relaxed for you these days as well. I'm extremely grateful that Mr Bite isn't at all like me in this regard, as partners definitely can provide a good counter-balance!

  6. Sometimes 'yes' Kari, even to this day. However, as I'm getting older, I'm getting better!

  7. At school I was very focused on things being perfect but for quite a long time now I've been pretty good at finding the balance between "perfect" and "acceptable" in a way that controls stress. Today for example, if I had got up at my normal time I would have had time to give the house the quick tidy it needs. But I was just so tired, I opted to have an extra half hour sleep in and leave the mess. It is about choosing your battles and giving yourself a mental health break. Sounds like you are doing the same thing too and I've found it has made me far more relaxed.


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