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Overcoming Perfectionism: The Joy of Just Okay

“The amount of happiness that you have depends on the amount of freedom you have in your heart.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

Yesterday I was talking to my dear friend Erin about all the pressures to be perfect—to be more than just enough. To always be striving to be 100 percent.

I realized later that this has been going on all my life. Haven’t we all felt it?

In grade school, the importance of getting those A’s, being on the teacher’s list, always getting the gold star.

In high school, being popular, being smart, being a jock—whichever lane we chose to fit into to, there was always the hierarchy of being the best.

Later came the career ladder—always needing to excel.  Not to even mention the pressures to be a perfect parent and the ongoing need to be the perfect child.

Okay, my neck is stiff just writing this.

I am a child of the fifties. I remember people having hobbies, just doing things they enjoyed with no value system attached. Whether it was painting a picture, crocheting a potholder, or making furniture in the garage, the point was the joy.

I don’t remember a lot of apologies about how something wasn’t up to some predefined set of standards. The end product might wind up on a wall or in the entryway, but it might stay in the garage.

The point was the experience, not the outcome. A lot of weird crafts on the wall were just accepted.

It would be so easy to blame Martha Stewart for this change in values, but I don’t think she wields that much power. Granted, for many things, the bar became set so high that it was impossible to have fun.

I remember looking at my dyed Easter eggs, a project I have once loved, and becoming the critic. They were a bit amateurish. The colors were blurry and my little dots looked strangely like mold! Ah, I forgot the most important part of the story: I am an amateur!

These are just eggs to be hidden in tall grass and eventually broken up into egg salad. Only I am holding them as a standard of my current worth.

Here is my personal philosophy. I only know this is my truth, but maybe it will resound with you, as well.

The worse I feel about me, the more I need to be perfect.

My birthday cake with the sliding top layer becomes symbolic of my own inner imperfection, and so it is hard to accept. My attempts at watercolor are not ready for MOCA, and so I lose the joy of just splashing some water and paint on paper and having fun.

I am not good enough. The jewelry I love to make has a weird knot midway and instead of loving its imperfection, I toss it aside as not good enough and quit making jewelry. I am not enough.

I think the reason I cannot just enjoy these simple activities is that in some recess of my mind, I have chosen to use each of these as a defining point of who I am.

Instead of finding the fun of pursuing something I like to do, I have used it as a scale of my own value. So each time one of these activities falls short of my personal benchmark, in my mind it is actually me falling short of being perfect, or at least pretty darn good!

I’ve kind of known this for a while, but as I now face it full on, words on a page, I see how I have shut myself off from such a wealth of joy, of fun, of pure pleasure.

If each pursuit is not a review of my personal worth, then my world opens. I can detach from the outcome. Wow, I could even start something and not need to finish it. Now, that’s a concept. Fun could just be fun, no first place ribbons attached.

It’s almost a New Year, a fresh slate and I have a new manifesto. I am okay, perfect in my imperfection. In my life, it is okay to be average, to be below average sometimes! To just be.

I am reveling in the sweet comfort of mediocrity. I am going to look for the end result: the joy. The path that gets to me that place is irrelevant.

No more apologies for a cake with slipping layers. I mean, Hello! It’s cake after all.  Yummy in any form.

Photo by aarongilson

Profile photo of Karen Mead

About Karen Mead

Karen Mead is an alchemist, an explorer and a fellow traveler on this journey of life. Visit her blog, The Peaceful Journey , or check out her website, A Peaceful Path .

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  • Really lovely post Karen – I was always a people-pleasing-over-achiever – and I’ve been able to let go a lot of that because I just had to for my sanity (it has really been a gift). But I do get occasional pangs of panic around not having some areas of my life not perfectly put together. Strange…. You are spot on when you relate the need to be perfect to how we are feeling about ourselves on the inside…

    I need to explore this a bit – thank you again!

  • We will be exploring this together!

  • Jennifer

    Oh, I really enjoyed this post. Yesterday, my boss sent out an email with volunteer hours broken up my employee in my department. This year, I did not have the most volunteer hours due to a major illness in my family. But you can be the first thing I thought when I saw this was: “Wow, next year I need to do more!” Um, no. I scaled back for a reason – a reason that I’m not finished with yet. Then reading this I realized how much of my worth is tied up in doing outstanding things. I won’t join a yoga class because I’m uncoordinated and pudgy – the list goes on after there. Thank you for sharing this, it really made me think.

  • Jennifer

    Oh, I really enjoyed this post. Yesterday, my boss sent out an email with volunteer hours broken up my employee in my department. This year, I did not have the most volunteer hours due to a major illness in my family. But you can be the first thing I thought when I saw this was: “Wow, next year I need to do more!” Um, no. I scaled back for a reason – a reason that I’m not finished with yet. Then reading this I realized how much of my worth is tied up in doing outstanding things. I won’t join a yoga class because I’m uncoordinated and pudgy – the list goes on after there. Thank you for sharing this, it really made me think.

  • Elizabethsadhu

    I love this!! AND I love Karen. Thanks Lori for sharing all these wonderful people with us and for doing what you do for the world!!
    Elizabeth in Oregon

  • Boy Jennifer – I get it – for many years I have not joined a group I know I would love because I can’t sing – I just went – it was wonderful.
    Yoga – here you come!

  • Emily

    This post really spoke to me. I’ve always had a problem with things being perfect, and at times I would realize that maybe it was because I was letting those objects/products that I made so meticulously be a value for who I am as a person. Even now I struggle with doing my art because I look at it with an overly critical eye. Artists are supposed to be somewhat critical, but I look at it with a fine magnifying glass and scrutinize over the tiniest flaw. It took reading your article for me to fully realize that, and to realize that some of my favorite artists out there have works that I found flaws with, but overall I was in love with the entire picture. So not everything has to be perfect. Seriously, thank you so much for writing this it really hit home with me : )

  • Thank you! Very refreshing and so inspiring to consider at this time of year….yes, where have the pleasure hobbies gone… thanks for adding to the colors of my intentions of the new year 🙂

    Wishing you a joyful and simply delightful year!

  • Rose

    This really resonates with me. I’ve given up (or not even started) things I want to do simply because I’ve already made myself out to be a failure. It’s sad, really. I’m getting older and beginning to realize this life is not very long, my worst critic is looking right back at me in the mirror. She needs to lighten up, to accept her flaws, and start living her life according to what’s burning to get out from the inside. All held back by that wet blanket of “perfectionism”.

  • Tee Fimmano

    Terrific article, Karen!! I think back at all the things I missed out on because I was afraid of making a mistake. I always wanted to play the piano in public. I was a gifted musician from the age of 4, but I couldn’t bear the humiliation if I screwed up. So that will be one of my life’s biggest regrets. ( I can no longer play piano because of RA). Anyway, I’d like to share my favorite quote. It’s how I live each day now: “If you have low expectations, everything will make you happy.” It solves all my problems!! 😀

  • Yes, I really enjoyed this post! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
    I recognise a lot of the examples you wrote. It makes me realize that all over the world people are facing the same kind of things in life..
    I think it’s a wonderful thought to love your imperfections. However it’s easier said then done! 😉

    with Love from the Netherlands,
    Ymke

  • DOillustration

    I feel like I’ve been travelling through life this way the whole time, and i still manage to find outside sources of crticism and doubt. People dont like to see other people happy in their mediocrity, mostly because they arent happy in theirs.

    I never saw the point in studying and studying just to get an A when I could give it a once over an hour before the test and get a B…they both get me a diploma.
    I never wanted the best stuff in life, just the stuff I wanted…wether it happened to be the best or 100th best. It was the thing i wanted, I didnt care either way.

    The place I am really struggling with mediocrity is in my relationships with others. I feel like everyone has a million best friends, and theyre all dating the prettiest, sweetest women. I am jealous of them severely. I miss having a big group of friends, but I’m almost 30 and everyone is either married with kids or on the way, so i understand that.
    When it comes to women, I’ve just never been happy with what I get. I dont lack female companionship, friend or other, but I cant say i’ve ever come close to any sort of ideal I have in my mind. I dont want anything incredible, my standards are very rational (I’ve been told too low sometimes), just a person I can appreciate inside and out. Although I have alway been severely partial to redheads. I feel like everyone else I know found that 10 years ago, and I’m starting to realize the well has probably been sucked dry.

    Is it irrational to want some kind of cosmic justice for not being shallow like everyone else I know?

  • Celine

    Thank you for your article. It helped me reflect on this year, and recent experiences.

    This year, at the age of 24, I came to a realization that I was not “doing” anything anymore during my leisure time, wasn’t seeing any of my friends, and my life had entirely become my work. Over time, with a lack of motivation building up more and more, I was drifting from that too, and was feeling lost, not even knowing who I was anymore. I realized I needed to “get up” our of this hole and do something, but had frozen in angst because I felt that nothing I would do would be perfect. With the uncertainty of knowing whether something would turn out “right” or not, everything was anxiety.

    However, ironically, I decided to take up ballet lessons. After thinking about it for many years I made myself start again. At the age of 14 I had stopped because I was so nervous of what the teacher thought of me, with any sign of critique, which mattered more to me at the time than if I enjoyed dancing or not.

    But at my first adult class I saw clearly that this was the reason it took me so long to start again (even 10 years later)…the instructor made one small comment to me and the immediate feeling that she hated me and I wasn’t good enough came to mind and I flinched. However, I told myself that this wasn’t true and to let go. Even if by chance it was, I was the one paying for the class!

    Ever since then dancing has not been about being perfect. Its about enjoying it. If I can’t do what the rest of the class is doing I try my best. Of course the feeling of doing a sequence correctly is uplifting, I’ve realized my “hobby” is more about the feeling I enjoy stretching with ballet slippers on and moving in flow with the music.

    Its been quite a journey recently, but getting myself to just relax and enjoy ballet instead of feeling the need to be better than the rest of the class, or worrying about what the teacher thinks of me (I’ve realized how much they actually want to help you!), has been a great lesson.

    (I’ve also recently started Yoga, I would definitely recommend it!! Ballet can be more about doing things “perfectly” in some ways, but yoga is connecting with yourself in many different forms).

  • Come2cali4nia

    There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action,and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. –Martha Graham

  • Joy >i<

    Thank you Karen ~ it feels like you looked into my heart.
    ~ Infinite Love & Gratitude ~

  • Great Article. Wonderful tips in here. Hope to read more from you.

  • kizel

    Thank you, Karen. Your post was really inspirational. When I think back on all the things I didn’t do because I felt I wouldn’t be perfect, it makes me sick. All the joy I missed out on because I was so paralyzed by my fear of what other people would think. All the years I have been miserable because I thought it was safer to hide than to take a chance and do what I really love. It was so nice to read your post and all the resulting comments and learn that there are so many of us out here who are incredibly wonderful people (just as we are) who feel the same way. Perhaps we can give each other the courage to just be who we are and do what we love in spite of the unreasonable and impossible standards we set for ourselves.

  • Christa Avampato

    Thank you so much for this post, Karen. We do need to get back to just enjoying activities and trying new things just for the fun of it. We are so driven to be the best at everything that I think we shy away from new experiences for fear of not excelling. We’re missing out on a lot of happiness.

  • Karen

    What has amazed me Kizel is how many of us have such similar experiences. The last line of your comment is so well said – I truly believe this is a group recovery!

  • Karen

    There are so many wonderful comments in response to my post – I just want to thank you all for sharing your stories. I know one the best tools for me to feel courageous is not to feel alone. I believe that as each of us becomes aware of our utter “okayness” – we give other permission to find theirs. And maybe we will find we have become the majority!
    Again, thank you so much for letting us see into your hearts.

  • Anonymous

    I feel as though I’ve come to the same realization at intervals over the past 10 to 15 years, yet somehow I’m still struggling with perfectionism. I’d love to read about specific techniques that people can use to let go of perfectionism. (and then I will do those techniques PERFECTLY — wait a minute — )

    🙂

  • The Manifestor

    As a quality miser, one needs to look at perfection as a measurement. Not of self-worth, but an agreed upon expectation. The expectation of the deliverable (product or service) should have specific requirements that all parties involved agree upon, as well as terms in the event that the deliverable it does not meet the expectation. This is necessary on a lot of our products and services today (could you imagine a seatbelt that did not work because there was no requirement set? Would you want to trust your life to a mediocre serviced airplane?) So, perfection has its place.

    But NOT when it comes to you. The you you think you are. Our true nature is perfect as it is. Our ego (mind) that we tend to think of as the real you and me, is the illusion. Applying perfection here is only setting you up for unrealistic sadness and depression. You are not your body/mind. You are not your doings. You are not your accomplishments. You are not your beliefs. You are not your associations. These are the ego. You are awareness of all this world. Pure consciousness. Perfection is an illusion of this reality we live in. And when you apply perfection to yourself, you only move further from your true nature and strengthen your ego. You can *BE* perfect, failure, mediocre,…. You just are. That is all. You could never BE the gross labels of words we use to describe things. Labels are just a tool, not a reality (a whole other topic). Most of what we call reality is just agreed-upon mental concepts. Understand this and you will start to free yourself of the “suffering” that you and others bring upon your heart.

    Best regards,

    The Manifestor

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  • Katia

    This was exactly what I needed! It sounds so recognizable… I will print your article out and post it above my bed… This year I will start to enjoy myself and my imperfections! Txs for sharing K@

  • What a thought! I always believed that the imperfect was a perfect in itself. So perfect that there was nothing as much. I don’t try to be perfect. I just try to be the perfection of my existence.That means, simply me.

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  • After my second, unsuccessful attempt at running a marathon, I realized: my attempts are not quite because I love running, but because I feel compelled to keep going, to attain some level of perfection in form and in my every day physical appearance. Just running and enjoying the pureness of movement and the opportunity to actually run should be enough. That’s been lost because of this “I’m not good enough” mentality. Thanks for your insights. For me, it’s time to stop this kind of thinking.

  • Alex Rae

    This is a beautiful and honest post, totally resonates. Perfectionism will trap you and drive you mad, its purpose is to straight-jacket your authentic self. I actually just wrote an article about this here http://www.wildheartgirl.com

  • steve. wozniak

    as I was walking people cold heartedI don’t know if people believe in psychic abilitiesbut I do most people have psychic intuitionwhen I was walking I wanted to trance everything was moved fast forward I see the hatred peoples faces seeing things in fast forward children do it all the time now I leave that up to you to figure out

  • Christina

    Thank you!

  • Jennifer

    This is such an uplifting, wonderful article. I really needed this in my life right now. Thank you so much.

  • Andrew Canberra Hellcat Pelech

    I love the line “I’m revelling in the sweet comfort of mediocrity”
    I’m very guilty of a) being WAY TOO hard on myself and b) attaching my self-esteem to outside activities (sport, video games, work). Consequntly I felt I wasn’t good enough at most activities. Especially with cricket. I’ve always thought being a good cricketer would make me feel good about myself, so I’d try too hard and over-practice rather than just playing for fun.

    I was involved with Amway a while back and message was “if you’re not spending EVERY second building the ‘business’ then you’re not trying hard enough. They championed the overachievers and shamed those who didn’t want “the dream” badly enough! For them money = happiness

    There’s almost a taboo on mediocrity. Yes it’s good to be a success but there’s a lot of ordinary folks doing their best to survive but are still quite happy. Nothing wrong with being an honest cog in the machine: work 40 hours a week, pay the bills, then spend your free time relaxing with friends or family or doing fun hobbies. Quite simple really.

  • Julie

    Thanks!

  • Julie

    This article helped me. This is a poem I wrote:

    P.

    People always tell me I am a perfectionist.

    Politely of course, in the same way you’d ask for your morning

    Pastry. Hi, can I get a scone with a side of perfectionist? Thanks.

    Placing emphasis on how hard I work,

    Perfectly peeling back my layers and making me feel positively insecure.

    Perfection is my personal philosophy

    Perfection is my daily

    Poem, a poetic dance of self-doubt in my head

    Perfectionism, it seems, doesn’t just describe me. It defines me. Me. Me? E.

    E.

    Everybody assumes that working hard equals success.

    Easy to think, but I am here to tell you that I often fall into the shadow of

    EVERYONE. Not just the people who don’t try hard.

    Even the people who don’t try at all.

    Every time I try to be better, I fall short.

    Ever so close to the finish line but just barely missing out

    EVERY SINGLE TIME. And sometimes it feels like I’m running a race I’m not just losing. I’m running a race I’m not really…

    R

    Running in at all.

    Rewind.

    Run.

    Rewind.

    Run.

    Rewind and play it over

    RUN I am not good enough

    REWIND and do better next next time

    RUN. I AM NEVER GOOD ENOUGH

    REWIND. BE PERFECT

    RUN. JUST BE BETTER

    REWIND. I DON’T KNOW HOW

    Lose. Does that start with R? Shoot.

    Rewind. Start over.

    INTRODUCTION

    F.

    Feeling insecure all the time is SO

    FUN.

    Feeling inadequate all the time is just a blast.

    Friends tell me to calm down

    Family tells me to relax.

    Fine. You want me to calm down? You want me to relax? Then I’ll just get rid of everything about me that isn’t me. I’ll have a

    Fire sale. Yes.

    FIRE SALE: Everything must go. Even the

    Fixtures. Even the fixtures? How do you sell off the fixtures? Aren’t they

    Fixed? Fixed to the wall, to the ceiling, to the

    Floor. Can we sell something that isn’t supposed to move? I remember my mother telling me once that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. But if ain’t broke, can I unfix it? Ugh. See this is what I do. This is what I do every time.

    Fixate on every little thing I do wrong.

    From the way I dress to the way I talk to the way I be myself. And then

    Finally. Finally I do something good. And then that

    Familiar voice tells me stop. It was just a

    Fluke.

    E.

    Eventually you give up.

    Earlier and earlier

    Every time.

    Echoes of those voices telling you that what you’re doing isn’t good enough, never good enough, never will be good enough. Until

    Eventually you just think maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m not

    Enough. Maybe

    Everything we do is like an

    Electrical outlet. Alone, it’s just a series of

    Empty holes in the wall. Waiting for something

    Else to fill it and make it something worth using. What if we are all just parts of a system of

    Energy? Some of us are positives and some of us are negatives. What if I’m a negative

    Even though all I’ve ever wanted to be is a positive.

    C.

    Charge. Positive and negatives charges.

    Clearly my mind is somewhere else.

    Caged from the rest of my body like some of wild beast.

    Constantly thinking one thing but doing another. Or perhaps

    Capable of one thing but always doing another. Or maybe so

    Consumed by a fear of failure in one thing that I fail in everything.

    Christ. My mind is

    Chaos.

    Changing priorities every year, every month, every day, every hour, every second in a

    Clock.

    Click click clicking away because I never have enough

    T.

    Time. I spend so much

    Time trying to be better

    Time trying to get better

    The worse I feel about what I have done, the more I feel the need to be perfect

    Truth be told,

    Time is my greatest enemy

    Time passing

    Tick tock

    Tick tock

    Tick tock

    Taking everything I am and

    Tearing it apart.

    Tearing me apart.

    Tensions rise as I put so much too much pressure on myself

    Time passing by as I try to be better.

    Tick tock

    Tick tock

    Tick tock

    Try to be better but

    I.

    Instead,

    I spend most of my time wondering why people don’t like me.

    Insecurity.

    It is my daily routine.

    In fact I think that’s the hardest part of being a perfectionist. You tell me

    I am not good enough, and

    I will think,

    “I will double my effort”

    “I will try harder”

    “I will be better”

    “It will be different next time”

    I am always in my own head.

    Impatiently waiting for things to

    Improve. But deep down I know that

    It

    Is

    Impossible.

    I will always have these doubts.

    O.

    One time, I went with my mother to the zoo.

    Owls and

    Otters and

    Ospreys

    Oh my. She held my hand as we walked to the

    Ocean exhibit. I remember gluing my eyes to the glass, waiting for something to come into view.

    Only, it didn’t. And instead I

    Only saw the reflection of my

    Own face. And it was so

    Ordinary. Mothers are supposed to tell you that anything is possible. They’re supposed to give you

    Optimism. Mine never gave me that

    Option. Mine never gave me any

    Option. Mine was gone when I turned around from a glass exhibit at the zoo. And sometimes, it feels like I’m still waiting for her to come into view. But

    N.

    No. I always hear no. No, do better, no, be better, no get better.

    Nope

    Not yesterday

    Not today

    Not tomorrow

    Nothing goes my way

    No

    No

    No.

    I.

    I am never good enough

    I want to feel good enough

    I want to be better

    I want to stop being compared to other people

    I want to feel perfect

    I want to get out of this trap of perfectionism because I AM

    S.

    So exhausted.

    So tired.

    So sick of overthinking everything

    Stuck in this cycle of

    Self-doubt.

    Sailing across a sea without a ship.

    Swimming alone without a life vest as the

    Sharks circle my body,

    Screaming

    Searching

    Scared. And

    Somehow,

    Surrounded by everyone telling me it’s my fault I’m here in the first place. All I can think is

    Sorry.

    Sorry I’m not who you want me to be. I’m not who I want to be either.

    So what now?

    T.

    The truth is, I am learning that I have to find

    Trust

    Trust that I am good enough

    Trust that it will all be ok

    Trust that it will get better

    Trust those around me

    Trust that one day I can fully accept who I am

    Take my imperfections and know that if I can accept them, I can accept myself

    Perfectionist.

    Noun: Me. But I am more than the letters in my name. I am

    P. Positive.

    E. Enjoyable.

    R. Resilient.

    F. Fighter.

    E. Electric.

    C. Capable.

    T. Taking it one day at a time.