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Overcoming Perfectionism in a Culture That Promotes It

“Good enough is the new perfect.” ~Becky Beauprie Gillespie

I stand accused of being a perfectionist.

My plea? Not guilty, of course! “I’m not perfect enough to be a perfectionist!” I counter.

But the evidence is stacked against me. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Exhibit A:

My first year at University, our mid-term examination in literature. There was major building work going on outside, and concentration was nigh on impossible. As a result, our tutor added 10% on to everyone’s scores to make up for the disruption.

What did I get? 110%.

And what was my first thought:Hmm, I could’ve done better. And any way, it was so easy.”

But, out of the 140 other kids in the class, how many others got 110%?

You guessed it, it was just me.

This is it, you see, the madness of perfection: it isn’t even satisfied with perfection.

Another example: A couple of years later, I planned, cooked for, and led the wedding ceremony for my own wedding. The day went smoothly. Many people said it was the most special, and personal wedding they had ever attended.

But I felt disappointed, in floods of tears at the minor imperfections which no one but me had noticed. And despite having lost 30 pounds and being on the verge of being underweight, I still felt fat.

What is tragic is that I know I am not alone in this.

I had been hypnotized by the madness of the perfection-focused culture we inhabit, where even the most beautiful of bodies are airbrushed, and talented voices are digitally enhanced to reach ever new heights of perfection. 

We are shown the sublime, and have been enculturated to search for the flaw. No wonder we always feel ourselves falling short.

It seems that everything is now within the sphere of the perfection virus, not just our school test scores, but our bodies, our homes, our weddings, our parenting, our intimate relationships.

We are expected, according to conventional “wisdom,” to “give 110%”—all the time.

“Failure is not an option,” we are chided. “You can always do better, be happier, be richer, look younger…” I bet you recognize this?

Even those of us who like to believe that we perch outside this mainstream hysteria are often pulled in by the books of self-help gurus and spiritual guides demanding that we be more mindful, more patient, richer, less worldly.

Everywhere the message is the same.

You are not good enough the way you are.

Must. Try. Harder.

We buy this, right? We take these messages into our hearts and stab ourselves in the back with them every day.

But at some point every perfectionist discovers that even 110% isn’t enough.

We find ourselves trapped in the perfection spiral: creatively blocked, self-loathing, controlling, and alone. And we see that perfection is not an absolute, but always shifting, unreachable and indefinable—outside our grasp.

Perfectionism is our denial of two very basic truths of existence:

  1. We are not perfect.
  2. We are not, ultimately, in control.

When we absorb the law of perfection, we are infected with the virus of self-doubt which eats away at every area of our lives.

The more perfect we are, we believe, the more valid we are as people. But with every advance in one area, we find ourselves wanting in another. We worry that we are not good enough, therefore on some level that we do not deserve love, happiness, or even life itself.

We fear our imperfections will expose us as failures, when actually they show the places we have grown, the markers of our realizations, our unique situation in the sands of time and cycles of nature.

In the words of Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

The truth of the matter is: In our quest for perfection, we negate ourselves and our experiences.

In a perfect world, in a perfect story, the moment of 110% would have been the perfect lesson. So neat and tidy.

But in reality it took many more years of hating my beautiful body, being bridezilla over my special wedding, and finally being a simply a good enough mother with my three imperfect children, that led me to this moment. Which I still have to re-learn continuously.

I will never be perfect. I can only be good enough.

Having seen the impossibility of perfection, I sought another path, another gauge. One which has become popular in recent years: the 80/20 rule.

This states that we need to focus on the first 80%, because the final 20% takes 80% of the effort. 80% is good enough. And it’s usually the last 20% that exhausts us and kills our creativity.

This rule requires the “good girl” or “good boy” in us to settle for 80%. For the overachiever, it can feel, at first, like going out in your underwear.

But, soon you notice more joy in your work, more freedom to experiment, take risks, make mistakes. And most of all you notice that you are getting more of you—your work, your love, your voice, out into the world, rather than withholding it for fear it is not good enough.

Jason McLennan in his wonderful book Zugunruhe talks about the theory of 3/4 baked which he adheres to:

“When I talk about ideas or tasks being 3/4 baked, I mean that they have reached a special moment in time or development where the idea has significant shape … that it can be offered up, in its stage of near completion.”

He continues by explaining that when we release our work at this stage, it means that others can help us to hone and polish our creations, which makes the end result far more powerful than the work of one mind can ever be.

Learning to drop an extra 5% is another place for learning.

It requires of us that we release our need to define ourselves by our work, for its perfection to be a reflection of our own ego, and instead allow collaboration and feedback to be part of creativity.

It makes us let go of our need to be control.

This is what I aim for now: no longer perfection, but a glorious work in progress. A living creation—be it myself or any project or relationship I have—which is always evolving and changing, with feedback and input not only from myself, but everyone around me.

And so I am, rather imperfectly, learning to embrace my own imperfections—the things I used to judge myself harshly for: the glorious typo that escapes my final edit; my gray hairs; my stretchmarks; the freckles on my nose; my moments of impatience and forgetfulness; the mess in the kitchen; the way I get over-sensitive when I socialize too much…

These are the signs that for today I am choosing to live with compassion for myself—and, by extension, for others. That I am embodying the dynamism of life itself, rather than control or blocking its flow.

Knowing that truly, on every level, I am good enough.

And so are you.

Photo by nosha

Avatar of Lucy H. Pearce

About Lucy H. Pearce

Lucy H. Pearce is author of several books, including Moon Time: a guide to celebrating your menstrual cycle and founder of The Happy Womb, for empowering women’s resources. She blogs on creativity, mindfulness & motherhood at Dreaming Aloud. Connect with Dreaming Aloud & The Happy Womb on Facebook & Twitter.

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  • bettina_rae22@hotmail.com

    I feel this one. Sometimes my fear of not being perfect stops me from starting something. It’s something I’m working on; getting over this fear so I don’t miss out.

    Bettina @ http://lovelylittleone.blogspot.com

  • Eugenia FERREIRA

    Great post ! Every day I realize that many things can not be perfect or that some persons don’t want their life to be perfect and it makes me unhappy (is it weird to be unhappy because my boyfriend spent all day at home and didn’t do the dishes ?!) And I try to be in control of my body / weight all the time. I wish I could let go….

  • http://twitter.com/nicolefdesigns Nicole Foster

    This is such an important topic to talk about. It’s something I struggle with constantly and I’m looking for any and all solutions to overcome it.

    I want to let go of my controlling nature that freaks out when things go differently. I want to let go of the feeling of being a failure when something or somebody isn’t perfect.

    I will definitely work on this and may you all be happy.

  • Clarklj

    I am not a perfectionist. I can easily accept failings of others. I have an issue with my own shortcomings. I have been plagued with self doubt my whole life. Learning to listen to my own voice and believe that voice has always been a struggle. I fail when my standards are that of others and not my own. I am gentle with others always. Being gentle with myself is a lifetime pursuit.

  • http://twitter.com/jhenellesmith Jhenelle Smith

    Love! 

  • Lucy. H Pearce

     Isn’t having a problem with your own shortcomings, and having self doubt, a different way of talking/ thinking about perfectionism – in that you think you are not good enough? Being gentle with others is a wonderful start. When we see that we and others are no different, then BINGO!

  • Maria Pascucci

    As a recovering perfectionist and the founder of an organization that helps college women let go of perfectionism, I applaud you for having the courage to speak out to end the cycle of shame! -Maria Pascucci

  • C king

    This message was so timely for me. Letting go is a life lesson that I recently just started getting the courage to try. Especially as it relates to my current employment searching… Yesterday I had a second round interview and I told myself the day before that I am choosing to NOT wreck my brain with all the “what-ifs” and scrambling to over prepare for a situation that is simply not predictable. Low and behold the day of the interview, none of the questions asked were ones that I could have prepared for or faked. They were all about me as a person, my past experiences, and my own modes of thought. Perhaps it was always this way in other interviews, but this one felt completely different to me, because I was finally trusting myself to be authentic, and not perfect.

  • http://www.mazzastick.com/ Justin Mazza

    Good enough has been my motto for years. We tend to procrastinate because of the need to be perfect. I say just do it. :)

  • Erica Abe

    The exact text that I needed to read this week. Tks a lot! The writting is very good and the contest aswell. Hope you keep posting and making me feel conforted. =) Best wishes! 

  • Lucy. H Pearce

     I’m glad it was a timely post for you. What great realisations you had before your interview – kudos for then being able to apply it. Here’s to being authentic (and to your job hunting success!)

  • Lucy. H Pearce

     Thank you, Maria. I wish that your organization had been around when I was at college.

  • Lucy. H Pearce

     Thanks Erica

  • Lucy. H Pearce

     Hear, hear, Justin!

  • Lucy. H Pearce

     Thanks, Nicole. I find the best start is with the body, rather than with the mind. When we think we must stop being controlling, then we are still being controlling, and still making ourselves wrong.

    The way I do it is to simply breathe in and release my belly, breathe in and release my shoulders, breathe in and release my chest, breathe in and release the pelvic muscles. And then allow a feeling of deep, loving acceptance for ourselves, imagining yourself as a tiny child.

  • Lucy. H Pearce

     Glad it resonates with you Bettina.

  • Lucy. H Pearce

     Ah, Eugenia, the old partner and housework routine – I danced that one for years! That could be a post in itself. The short answer is being angry at him only makes you feel worse. Can you separate your need for him to be different from your need to live in a clean and tidy house?

  • Mark

    Great post, thanks! My perfectionism often takes the form of a “yo-yo.” Spending that last 20% is so demanding and tiring and ultimately, unsustainable, leading to feelings of deflation and demotivation. Then I pick myself up and start the cycle again: “This time it will be different.” The real challenge is to do less and accept “good enough,” so that I can actually achieve the goals I set, develop real momentum and stop the yo-yo. 

  • Bean

    I always say that if you take life as a race, instead of putting all of your effort into finishing first you should step away from the track and stop to smell the roses- therefore, the only way to win this race is by losing.

  • Lucy. H Pearce

     Totally, Mark

  • Kathy (yinyangmother.com.au)

    Hi Lucy – dare I say it, this post was ‘perfect’ or at least ‘perfectly timed’. I’ve been loving Tiny Buddha for a while and am about to push the go live button on my own blog, but I know I’ve been procrastinating in my quest for ‘perfection’. Striving for perfection really is the worst kind of ‘wanting more’ because not only are we never satisfied with anything, but we are never satisfied with ourselves. I love your line about how we stab ourselves in the back with our own messages and Leonard Cohen’s line is so true too. And your paragraph about our fear of our failures was perfectly poetic. I’m really trying to forget perfection and foucs on just being ‘better’ in the moment, and forgiving myself when I’m not.

  • Anna Hengartner

    Don’t you think that perfectionism is as much a delusion as ‘not perfectionism’ ?

  • Yogesh J

    I have realized this and im glad I did. I keep reminding myself of this. Because perfectionism is exhausting, demotivating, and ultimately unreal. Theres no “perfect timing” or the “the perfect moment” to do a task or some such. Blindly just let go of it, even if it means you getting out of the house in ur jammy’s :p (this is just an e.x) . Completely let go of it, you will automatically attain balance. The best part
    is.. It wiill absolutely and completely set you free.

  • Lucy. H Pearce

     Thanks Kathy – Loving your response x

  • Lucy. H Pearce

     Oh, now that’s very zen… my mind is spinning – yes, no, both, neither? What is illusion, what is reality? Great koan!

  • Katia Mouvet

    Fantastic, I had tears in my eyes reading your post. Soooo recognizable… 
    Reading this I feel less alone, understood and more ready for your 3 last paragraphs!
    Bless you Katia

  • http://www.stopstressandanxiety.com/ Mulkurnia

    Glad to read this article.  I have been practising to let go the need to be perfect over the past year and, guess what, I find myself to be a happier person. 

  • Sparkle Style

    Letting go is very magical – accepting one is not in control is one of lifes great lessons which leads to great strength, wisdom and sense of calm and happiness!

  • Ilene

    You hit on two really important points in this post:
    1. when we strive for perfection, we miss out on living our lives
    2. when we strive for perfection, by default (and unconsciously) we hold others up to that standard…so when we are compassionate with ourselves, we are by default, compassionate towards others.

    Thank you for this beautiful message!

    To being perfectly imperfect!
    -Ilene

  • Jacky Liang

    Thanks for this beautiful article =).

    The last sentence “And so are you.” was very powerful.