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Why Striving For Perfection Is Actually Holding You Back

Stressed girl

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” ~Anna Quindlen

I used to strive for perfection in every aspect of my life. I thought perfection would make me “acceptable” to others.

Deep down, I felt inadequate, insecure, and not enough. And subconsciously, I decided that if I could just achieve perfection with myself, my body, and my life, than I would finally feel the deep love and inner acceptance I longed for inside of myself.

As a kid, I demanded a perfect report card: only straight A’s would suffice. I spent hours upon hours studying in high school and college, doing extra credit, attending office hours any chance I could get, all in a desperate attempt to maintain a 4.0 GPA.

As a young adult, I agonized over what career path to pick, wanting to pick the perfect job that would be my dream career. I was desperate to be the best, wanting to be the perfect employee, and giving nothing less than 150 percent in every project I worked on and presentation I did.

I was terrified to make a mistake and required excellence in every task. I was afraid of others judging me. I didn’t see it my mistakes as learning experiences; I saw them as a way of others seeing what I didn’t want them to see: that I was flawed, imperfect, and somehow not enough.

I demanded perfection in every part of my life. But the area I struggled the most with was the desire for body perfection.

As a teenager, I decided that 110 pounds was the “perfect” body. I spent years trying to whittle my body down with exercise, diets, and restriction in an attempt to get the figure I deemed flawless.

The pressure I put on myself to be a size 2, to eat only 1200 calories a day, to spend at least 45 minutes at the gym daily was agonizing. I lived and breathed this obsession of needing and wanting to be perfect.

Looking back, I can see how detrimental this drive was to living and enjoying my life. In my chase for perfection, I put unnecessary pressure on myself to be something I was not. I wasted hours and hours trying to be someone different and wishing I was somewhere other than where I currently was.

But the biggest lesson of all was that in my quest for perfection, I wasn’t really living.

The reality is that striving for perfection holds us back. We spend so much time doing, striving, achieving, in an endless quest to get it all “perfect,” and we end up missing out on what life is really about: being in each moment and experiencing life where we are, as we are.

I vividly remember New Year’s Eve in 2007. One of the dear friends I had met living abroad in Thailand was in town and wanted to see me. She wanted to do dinner with a group of people, then head out dancing for the ball drop.

I agonized over this decision to go or not. I remember wanting to meet up with her, but feeling so awful about my body not being “perfect” that I didn’t want to go out and have to “hide” my body in baggy clothes.

It pains me to say that I didn’t go. I gave up a chance to catch up with this dear friend, to have fun with others, and to dance the night away because I was unhappy with my body. I stayed home that night and ran on the treadmill in my parents’ basement.

It was the ultimate low in my quest for body perfection: I decided that I needed to burn off what I had eaten that day and work to “fix” myself into a smaller size.

The anxiety I felt about eating more calories at a restaurant, when I already felt “fat” in my body, pushed me to stay home and run on the treadmill. It was a moment of life that I missed out on because I was desperately pursing a perfect body.

When we’re caught up in the pursuit of achieving the perfect body, finding the perfect mate, landing the perfect job, or being the perfect person, it actually hinders us from seeing how beautifully our journey is unfolding right before our eyes.

Perfection detracts you from the incredible life path you’re on and prevents you from seeing the gifts that are always in front of us. So the next time you get caught up in the endless pursuit of perfection, here are three things to remember:

1. Perfection isn’t attainable.

We try so hard to achieve an ideal in our lives that is next to impossible. There really is no perfect body, perfect job, or perfect life. It isn’t possible to have our lives be happy, joyous, and 100 percent problem free. Unexpected tragedies happen. Something doesn’t turn out as you hoped it would. Someone you love disappoints you.

When you understand that perfection isn’t actually something you can achieve and maintain forever, you can let go of the never-ending quest for your job, your body, your parenting skills, or your relationship to be perfect.

Letting go of this unattainable goal is a huge sigh of relief. We don’t have to try to be perfect, because it’s impossible anyway! Once we relax into the idea of letting go of perfection, life becomes easier, less stressful, and a lot more fun.

Perfection leaves little room for error and joy, and while life can sometimes be messy, it’s during these times where we learn and grow (and have some adventure along the way).

2. Perfection isn’t authentic.

When you’re always striving to be perfect, you miss out on showing the world who you truly are. Years ago, when I was in the throes of dieting and restriction, trying to be “perfect” in my eating and my body, I wasn’t being true to myself. I was hiding from the world, desperately trying to conceal what I thought were imperfections.

In the drive to be perfect, I never allowed myself to be vulnerable—to show up and let myself be seen. I thought when I’d reached perfection, I’d find approval and acceptance. But since the pursuit of perfection is an endless chase, the approval and acceptance never came.

It was only when I had the courage to drop my unattainable goals and bring my true self to the world, imperfections and all, when I began to find the inner acceptance I had wanted all along.

It was scary to show up as who I was without wearing a mask or pretending to be someone I was not. But I began making decisions for and from me.

I quit my job and traveled for a year without an agenda (giving up a well-paying, secure job in the process). I ended a relationship that was no longer serving me (letting go of a man who was also my best friend). I took Spanish classes, wore a bikini to the beach without a cover up, told friends I wasn’t into partying anymore, and began to speak up for what I wanted and what I thought.

It wasn’t easy or comfortable, but it was incredibly freeing. I felt vulnerable and naked, but as I began to express my honest opinion to others, voice what I needed or wanted, follow my own preferences instead of what was expected of me, and show more of who I was to the world without hiding, it got easier and easier.

Your imperfect self is enough. Allow yourself to show up in the world as you are. When we’ve demanded perfection from ourselves for years, it can be scary to let go of our ideal and let the world see us as we are. But this is where your true, authentic beauty resides. Not in perfection, but in bringing all of who you are to the world.

3. Perfection is stagnation.

No one is meant to be perfect in any area of life, whether it’s your body, relationships, personal growth, habits, or your career, because in a “perfect” world, everything is stagnant. There is no growth and no evolution. It is only through mistakes, missteps, and experimentation that we learn and grow. 

Looking back on my life, most of my decisions that seemed irrational or didn’t make sense in the traditional way ended up leading me to a path that was a perfect fit for what I needed and wanted. Life is funny that way.

I quit a stable job, but had incredible adventures traveling South America for a year. I left my hometown to move cross county without a plan, but ended up starting a business that is my true passion. I mistakenly got thrown into a role that I didn’t want at a job, but learned so much about fundraising and development that I ended up enjoying it.

These “mistakes” allowed me to see how perfection would have actually held me back. If I had followed the “perfect” path, the path without risk, without chance of failure, and the path that felt safe and easy, I never would have had these life-changing personal growth experiences.

Many people who are striving for perfection in their life path, wanting to plan it all out and have it go exactly how they think it should, end up missing out on some of life’s best surprises and most meaningful moments.

It is a refreshing way to view life. To allow ourselves to make mistakes is a relief, whether it’s messing up our food plan, getting into a fight with a family member, expressing emotions to a close friend and having it come out all wrong, or experimenting with a new hobby knowing you’ll likely mess up trying to master it. It’s these “mistakes” that allow us to incorporate feedback and chart a new course.

If we’re constantly striving for perfection, we end up missing out on the lessons we most need to learn. In the pursuit of being flawless, our eyes are always looking three steps ahead of where we are. And as we’re consistently living a few steps ahead, we end up missing out on life’s most precious moment: now.

Perfection isn’t something you can achieve because it doesn’t actually exist. So the next time you find yourself striving to be a more perfect version of yourself, remember that the imperfect, flawed, vulnerable you is perfectly enough.

Profile photo of Jenn Hand

About Jenn Hand

Jenn Hand, founder of jennhand.com, helps you end your relentless battle with food demons, daily struggle with cravings, and constant war with binging. She will hold you by the hand and gently help you find freedom in your eating and fall (back) in love with your body. Tired of “starting over” every damn Monday? Download your “Must Have Guide to End the Diet Cycle Today.”

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  • Donnie

    Excellent article Jenn! I admire your courage to be yourself. So beautiful! Many of us acquired perfectionist personalities because someone close to us such as a parent modeled that as we were growing up. When we are constantly trying to be perfect we are admitting to ourselves that we don’t accept ourselves. Thanks

  • Anonymous

    “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”

  • Leah

    I just posted an article like this last week called “Recovering Perfectionist: Being Okay with Okay.” It’s taken me a long time to get to this point. Writing about it was joyful for me because I have come so far.

  • ShaunTheCHB

    I am very much someone who strives for perfection. To the point where little things don’t matter to me. My family often expresses frustration when I dismiss my small successes, but that’s me I guess. The big goal is what counts to me, it’s the destination not the journey.
    I don’t think people who embrace small goals are wrong, I just don’t see what they see.

  • Shirley Liu

    I can relate to the feeling of not being good enough. I always wanted to have perfect grades and perfect body that would study and work out like crazy, but it was hard. I would criticize myself if I got a bad grade on one test. thanks for your article:)

  • Brian4541

    Thanks for writing this article, Jenn, it’s a great read and rings very true for me. I spent most of my life being a perfectionist and being mostly miserable doing so. I still have a ways to go, especially when it comes to loving the imperfections of my body. Just the very concept of a person embracing their imperfect body and wearing a bikini is so wonderful to me. I was extremely overweight for a long time and now I am much more average-sized but I still wear a t-shirt in the pool to cover up. This article has me rethinking that approach to my body. : )

  • I’m so glad you enjoyed it! It’s so interesting because we all see our “imperfections” magnified SOOOO much more than anyone else! Most of the time, everyone else is so worried about their own imperfections that they don’t even notice what we’re self-conscious about 🙂

  • You are most welcome! And I can definitely relate 🙂

  • Oooh this is a big one for me. I have really worked on trying to savor the small successes, because yes..it’s hard to see them as “success” when you haven’t reached the goal yet. A work in progress!

  • Amen to that 🙂

  • You are most welcome! Glad you enjoyed it and I think so many of us can relate because we grow up feeling like we need to be perfect to be loved (whether that’s conscious or unconscious!)

  • Well put, Jenn. Perfection is a paradox that needs to be stamped out so that we can start to feel good about ourselves. Great work! 😉 #keepgrowing #keepcreating

  • Gustavo Woltmann

    I continually try to meet perfection in whatever I do even if I had to put a lot extra effort to get the best work complete. Thank you, now I know it is holding me back.

    – gustavo woltmann

  • Beautiful article. Thank you for sharing!

  • raise_your_word

    Really great article – I felt myself breathing out reading it! Thankyou