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Overcoming Perfectionism in a Culture That Promotes It

Concept: Abandoned Person. Close up of an old doll`s face with tear. Spesial grunge-fashioned image with grain

“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 percent on to everyone’s scores to make up for the disruption.

What did I get? 110 percent.

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 percent?

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 thirty 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 percent”—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 percent 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 percent, because the final 20 percent takes 80 percent of the effort. 80 percent is good enough. And it’s usually the last 20 percent that exhausts us and kills our creativity.

This rule requires the “good girl” or “good boy” in us to settle for 80 percent. 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 percent 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 stretch marks, 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.

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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