Why Life Is A Lot More Fun When We Stop Trying to Be Perfect

Friends Having Fun

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

“Oh, my god,” she said, “I forgot to shave my left leg!”

That may not sound like a particularly dramatic announcement, but Jenny and I were sharing a seat on the chartered bus taking our senior class to the beach for “Senior Cut Day” a few weeks before graduation, and her discovery horrified me.

An unshaved leg, it seemed to me at the time, was scandalous in the extreme.

Had it been me who forgot to shave, I would have kept my sweats on all day rather than display my embarrassing imperfection.

Jenny, on the other hand, not only shared her faux pas with me, she then announced it loudly to the entire bus. She laughed about it, and invited everyone else to laugh, too!

I was appalled.

I was also fascinated. That someone could intentionally draw attention to her imperfection, and laugh about it, was mortifying, yes, but also intriguing…

It was hot at the beach that day. My well-shaved legs were bare, but I had forgotten to pack a T-shirt, and because I was self-conscious that my belly wasn’t perfectly flat as a pancake, I kept my sweatshirt on over my bikini.

Rivulets of sweat rolled down my torso, but heaven forbid I put my imperfection on display!

Jenny, meanwhile, spent the day laughing, playing volleyball, splashing in the waves, quite unconcerned about her hairy left leg.

Can you guess who had the better time?

You might think that this experience would have taught me something, but in fact, before I finally began to let go of perfectionism and ease into becoming myself in all my flawed, imperfect glory, I spent decades flagellating myself for not being perfect.

Somehow I believed that I couldn’t be lovable if I weren’t perfect, so I was caught in a vicious cycle: aiming for perfection, failing, then beating myself up for the failure and goading myself on toward perfection again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Throughout my teens and twenties, in pursuit of the perfect body, I was plagued with eating disorders, kept carefully secret so as not to reveal my flaws to the world.

In college, nothing less than an A was acceptable. The pure joy of learning took a back seat to striving for the perfect grade point average.

Meanwhile, in relationships I hid my true self behind a mask, fearing that nobody would love me if they saw the real, flawed me.

Amazingly, I did find a man I could be myself with, but when we decided to get married, I was the quintessential “Bridezilla,” completely focused on planning the perfect wedding.

My obsessive pursuit of perfection helped me stay in denial about the fact that, although we loved each other, the relationship was built on a shaky foundation.

During my marriage I discovered a love for making art, but the joy I experienced when creating was soon overtaken by misery, because nothing I made ever felt good enough. Eventually it seemed easier not to create at all. I became paralyzed by perfectionism.

I could say that it was the very public “failure” of my divorce that started me on the road to accepting myself. Or that it was the college classes in Feminist theory, which helped me overcome my eating disorder and start to accept my body the way it was.

In fact, I see self-acceptance as a long and winding journey, composed of thousands upon thousands of teeny, tiny baby steps, over the course of an entire lifetime.

Baby steps like the revelation—thanks to Jenny on that high school bus ride—that it’s possible to laugh at yourself, and even draw attention to your flaws, and that this may be a more comfortable way to deal with them than trying to hide them all the time.

Baby steps like the gradual dawning that instead of beating myself up, I could forgive myself for my mistakes and missteps, and that responding with self-compassion was a much more pleasant way to live.

Baby steps like the epiphany that making ugly messes at my art table is infinitely more fun and satisfying than making nothing at all (and that often what I deem “ugly” at first, appears less so after some time has passed!)

Gradually I untangled the false belief that only if I were perfect would I be worthy of love and happy.

Letting go of the attempt to be perfect took a long time. At first it felt like a dishonorable surrender, like giving up and “letting myself go.” But when I thought about the people I loved most in my life, I realized that of course not one of them was perfect.

I realized that the people I love being around the most are those who accept themselves as they are, who are comfortable in their own skin. Why should I expect anything different from myself?

Little by little I began to deprogram myself. In fact, I intentionally embraced imperfectionism, and discovered, much to my surprise, that the more I allowed myself to just be me, the happier, more serene, and more content I became. And the more attracted other people were to me, too!

There’s nothing wrong with self-improvement, but the truth is, none of us is—or can even hope to be—perfect. We may pursue mastery, excellence, improvement, and be challenged by the pursuit, but insisting on perfection can only lead to self-disgust and unhappiness.

The only thing we can ever really hope to be perfect at is being our flawed and wonderful selves.

If you’ve been stuck in a perfectionist spin cycle, what’s one thing you might do to press the pause button?

Giving up on being perfect is hard. The work of becoming yourself is hard. The payoff, though, is truly amazing, and you’ll continue to reap the benefits for the rest of your life.

Friends having fun image via Shutterstock

About Melissa Dinwiddie

Melissa Dinwiddie helps people turn their creative taps to "on," and transform their lives from grey to full color. She blogs and podcasts at Living a Creative Life, where you can get a FREE printable poster of her 5 reminders of why creative play is a world-changing act.

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  • Hi Melissa
    Thanks for sharing your story. This post really resonated with me because this is something I have been working on a lot myself over the last few months. I realized on some level, I thought my personal development ‘work’ would lead to this perfected version of myself. Consciously, I didn’t expect this of course..and I suspect this is the case for most of us. But, that deeper part..yeah, it is something we hope for.

    I have gotten better at taking myself less seriously. I have made pretty amazing changes in my life and it didn’t require me to be perfect .I will forever work on myself, but I have a different view of that work, and I no longer have any expectation of perfection.

    You are so right…life does become a lot more fun and just better overall if we can go easy on ourselves and stop being our own worst critic.

    Thanks for such a great post!

  • MJeC

    thumbs up! 🙂

  • Great Post Melissa! I enjoyed very bit of it. We should never try to be someone else. Life is all about dealing with your imperfections and loving it 🙂

  • What do you suggest for someone who wants to start taking the first steps toward embracing imperfection, but isn’t sure how? What has worked well for you, especially in the beginning when it’s the most difficult? Do you have any practical suggestions for things I can try to give this a shot?

  • Sarah Somewhere

    Yes, yes, yes!! Striving for perfection has never, ever made me happy but rather resulted in me constantly feeling ‘less than’ because I could never measure up to my own expectations. Moving toward unconditional self-acceptance and self-forgiveness while embracing my imperfection as an important part of my spiritual journey has proved to be the most liberating way to live. Blessings to you and thank you for sharing!

  • Thanks, MJeC. 🙂

  • Thanks for your comment, Kelli. I think taking one’s self less seriously is a big part of imperfectionism, AND noticing the amazing things we’re able to create, WITHOUT being perfect!

    We always get to work on ourselves, but trying to *perfect* ourselves can lead to so much pain and misery.

    Plus when I think about the people I’m drawn to, none of them are perfect! Perfect people kind of turn me off — maybe partially because they make me feel inadequate in comparison, partly because they seem unreal (and probably are…)

  • Thanks for sharing, Sarah. It *is* a spiritual journey, to learn self-acceptance and self-forgiveness, and embrace imperfection. I think it’s a lifelong journey. 🙂

  • Such a great question, Amy! I really see embracing imperfection as an ongoing practice, kind of like meditation. You don’t ever reach a place with meditation where you’re *done* — you just keep practicing.

    The first step for me in transforming from a perfectionist to an imperfectionist was noticing that perfectionism was making me miserable, and asking whether another way was possible.

    I’m a slow learner, so I actively resisted letting go of perfectionism for many, many years, fearing that if I did so, I’d be “settling,” or “letting myself go.” Still, I kept noticing, and asking.

    Continuing to look at this question over the years and decades allowed me to shrug off the rigid “requirements” I’d set for myself — little by little, layer by layer. (A process that I’m still engaged in now!)

    One thing that has helped a lot is looking at the people I love and adore in my life, the ones I most want to spend time around. Are they perfect? No! Not one of them! And yet I love them and love being near them.

    This has been hugely helpful particularly around expectations of physical perfection. When I looked at the people I love most, not one of them looks anything like a supermodel, and yet I absolutely adore them. It may seem stupidly obvious, but I had to make these kinds of direct comparisons in order for it to sink in that I was and am lovable, even though I’m not a supermodel, not a model of perfection in ANYTHING.

    Also, I’ve noticed that people tend to feel a positive connection with me, are drawn to me, when I allow myself to be vulnerable and flawed around them. For example, when acknowledging some mistake that I made in my life — not trying to hide it, but simply acknowledging it, and even laughing at myself, like my friend, Jenny, did on the bus that day in high school.

    Not everyone does this. So many people only ever show masks to the world, afraid that if they reveal their true, flawed and vulnerable selves, it will show them as weak and pathetic, and make them unlovable. In fact, the reverse is true: people resonate with authenticity and vulnerability. Good people are attracted to it, not repelled (and the ones who are repelled, or use your vulnerability to hurt you, are not the ones you want in your life anyway!)

    And again, I really believe things like embracing imperfectionism are life-long practices. The more you set your mind to it and engage in the practice, the better you get at it.

    Hope this helps!

  • So glad you enjoyed my article, Benja! Thanks for commenting. 🙂

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  • Flo

    Hi Melissa. question for you – I often feel like this but I’m not in the pursuit of perfection, I’m pursuing being “good enough”. Do you think that’s really no different?

  • Great post. Inspiring. Next time I am near a Kareokee machine I will sing.

  • matthewwtoler

    just as Doris answered I am inspired that a person able to make $5920 in a few weeks on the computer . navigate to this site

  • Tara Woodruff

    Self Awareness and acceptance Makes Life FUN!!

  • Thank you! This is very helpful. I like what you said about taking a look at the people around me (my friends and loved ones) for a direct but positive comparison. None of them are perfect, but that’s not what I expect from them; I think the same could be said for their expectations of me.

    One approach I will also try to incorporate is catching myself trying to “be perfect” or enact/embody a “perfectionist” self, and just try to stop myself and see what happens as a result. I bet that getting more comfortable with enacting imperfection on purpose will be helpful in the long run.

  • Brilliant, Amy! My “Golden Formula” is: Self-awareness + Self-compassion = the Key to Everything Good. It all starts with noticing. Once you have the awareness, then the next step is to change the behavior, and ideally with as much self-compassion, love and kindness as possible. 🙂

    That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it does work! 🙂

  • Life is not “perfect”, only “meaning”.

  • Tina

    Melissa, this is a very inspiring post. I have also struggled with perfectionism for years and it only makes life suck. I’m going to follow in your footsteps with my own baby steps in loving myself for who and what I am, as I am. Thank you for your writing.

  • HM

    Thank you for sharing this article. It definitely resonates with how I have been feeling for the past few years. I have held myself back on various activities (dating, making new friendships, job interviews) because I don’t feel like I will be accepted for who I am. I create what I envisage to be the perfect person in my head then beat myself up when I am unable to portray this ideal to others.Too many times I say ‘Maybe things would be different if…I had nicer hair, If I was thinner, If I was smarter, If I had a different voice.’ I’m slowly learning that in order to truly live in the moment and not deprive myself of the greatest joys in life that I have to let go of this ideal. It’s still a daily struggle but hearing other perspectives and knowing I’m not alone definitely helps 🙂

  • Marlon O’neill

    One thing awakens me by reading this great article is on how we accept our own imperfections perfect in our own way.We have to embrace our own flaws from inside out so we can appreciate what we truly have within ourselves.

  • Rob

    Thank you for this article. I recently lost my dad and my sister. I felt like I had to be the one to fix everything and be strong. I felt like I had to be perfect for my job, my wife and my family. The funny thing is no one else put that burden on me. I did it to myself. I would start panicing about work, always assuming I didn’t finish or do something and I was going to be fired. It is a vicious cycle because you hold yourself to the most impossible standard. I started reading bible passages about giving my worries to God. I’m slowly learning to let go and be myself. I already feel like a thousand ton weight was lifted.