Striving for Perfection

When I’m asked what I see as the most common issue related to emotional distress in the clients I see for counselling I can answer overwhelmingly… it’s striving for perfection.  And the most common response from clients when I suggest this may be an issue for them?

“No, I’m not a perfectionist, I just never get anything right”.

I meet people who are striving for the perfect body… the perfect home… perfect school marks… perfect children… perfect relationships… perfect families… perfect jobs.  Usually all at once, with a striving that takes them deeper and deeper into dissatisfaction and away from any sense of gratitude and acceptance of what they already have in their lives

The term perfection comes from ‘perficio’ — ‘to finish’, ‘to bring to an end’.  Perfection is in essence, a being or object in its’ whole, complete state.  That is, its’ own individual and unique state, rather than a being in the image of another.

Our culture though, often represents perfection as a state of being without flaw, an uncompromising personal standard which is judged by comparing oneself with another, with an external standard which we strive to attain.

The issue of perfection becomes particularly messy in human nature when we confuse the pursuit of:

  • Excellence on a personal level, i.e. being MY best, with
  • Being without flaw on a comparative level, i.e. being THE best.

Many people drive themselves from a notion of perfection which is a standard established by comparing aspects of ourselves with a collection of the qualities we see as ideal in others – maybe we want one persons appearance, another persons relationship, the temperament of another, the home of another, and the job of yet another.  In this process of comparison we establish a standard for ourselves which is not based on us at all, but instead is based on those things we perceive as having value in others.

If we feel we’re failing it’s good to question whether we’re actually not achieving at all, or if the standard we’ve set for ourselves is not achievable.  Maybe the unattainable standards we set are the very cause of our distress?  It’s possible that the striving for our concept of ‘perfection’ is the very thing precluding us from acknowledging our innate worth, that part of us which is already whole and complete and reflects our own true nature.

Consider what makes a flower perfect?  A beautiful sunset?  The scent of jasmine on a warm night?  All these things are experienced as perfect when we observe them in their natural completeness, without expecting them to be anything other than that what they already are.

Consider also things that have gone awry in your life… things which at the time you may have perceived as less than perfect, as wrong, or even as a failure.  Maybe some of these things you can look back on now and see as the very obstacles which (directly or indirectly) enabled you to have richer experiences or opened up new opportunities.  Maybe a relationship breakup gave you the space to travel the world, a loss of a job which sent you back to study leading to a more enriching career, a wrong turn which led to a better path.

And what about our painful experiences?  Admittedly, it’s difficult to see our pain and suffering as ‘perfect’, but if we consider all emotions and experiences as part of the full spectrum of human existence, even our pain is part of who we are, it goes toward making up the complete story of the essence of us.

So what can we do about perfectionism?

  • Consider a sliding scale with optimal success and very poor at opposite extremes, and pay attention to the many steps in between these two extremes… perhaps a progression from optimal success down to very good, to good enough, to adequate, to poor, to very poor at the opposite extreme
  • Question where your own values of perfection come from and consider that these standards may be significantly contributing to your emotional distress
  • Take on a new task you can’t be good at immediately – eg. salsa dancing, a new language, or watercolour painting, entering the mind of a beginner with the willingness to explore and learn rather than emphasising achievement
  • Teach children the value of trying and learning from their attempts, rather than focusing on getting things right
  • Give and receive praise and encouragement for effort (process) rather than achievement (outcome)
  • Focus on your own individual worth and value, rather than making comparison to others.  Celebrate what makes you uniquely you
  • If this is a significant and debilitating issue for you, seek help from a trained mental health professional.

Striving for Perfection can be both debilitating and demoralising, and may be the very thing holding us back from being our best at any given time, with any given set of circumstances.  Learn to be happy with being ‘good enough’ when good enough will do, and save the extra effort for times when it is necessary and required.