The Disease of Perfectionism

Recently, I had one of those “Message from the Universe” moments. You know, when you encounter the same message repeatedly in a plethora of different situations all within a relatively short time frame? I love it when this happens. This time around, I was at singing class, having just finished what must have been my 8th or 9th attempt at getting this one bar of music down. I don’t read music, and I don’t know what the different notes mean with regards to tempo, so I was struggling a little with this one bar. I’d got it right first time, but in every subsequent attempt, I found myself getting stuck at the same point. Overthinking it, overprocessing, frantically trying to figure it out, panicking as the melody caught up and overtook my internal efforts, resulting in messing it up each and every time. After a few goes, I think I got it, but my coach said something at the end that began the theme of the next few days:

“Perfection is never the goal. When you think about it too much, you stop learning – you should trust your instincts more, because they’re right!”

I went off into the night, that sentiment floating around my mind, and thought no more of it until the very next day, when an article forwarded to me by a friend sat in my inbox, entitled The Disease of PerfectionismHow aptly timed (and, if I may say, how very Borg!). I immediately opened it, and was intrigued by the first few lines: “It’s amazing that people admit to being perfectionists. To me, it’s a disorder, not unlike obsessive-compulsive disorder. And like obsessive-compulsive disorder, perfectionism messes you up.”

I’ve seen a lot of “Protesting Perfect” blog posts floating about lately, which I think originated at this wonderful one,  and it’s made me really happy to see so many people recognising that we don’t NEED to be perfect, and taking a stand against it. Not only acknowledging, but embracing our imperfections for what they are – part of who we are. One man’s flaw, after all, is another man’s perfection.  Take a look around. If a friend of yours said something silly, tripped over their shoelaces, or stated an incorrect fact, would you think less of them? Probably not. You’d both laugh about it in a few minutes, and it’d be something that’s evaporated into the past, barely even remembered by the same time tomorrow. So why are we so afraid to make mistakes?

“The huge problem with perfectionism is that people stop learning when they’re constantly afraid of being wrong. We learn by making mistakes. The only way we understand ourselves is to test our limits. If we don’t want anyone to know we make mistakes, which is how perfectionists tend to behave, we are actually hiding our true selves.”

When I read those words, I’m pretty sure my heart skipped a beat. How many posts have I written in the last few months about staying true to yourself? About being genuine, regardless of it costing readership, comment counts, or social acquaintances? I think the Universe tried to send me this message once more this week, when I was attending a Journal Therapy workshop put on by one of my best friends. The first exercise was the “5-Minute Sprint”, where we were given a question (a big one, like “Who Am I?”, “Why Am I Here?” etc. – something that would usually demand an awful lot of thought), and had five minutes to write the first thing that came to mind. At first, I panicked – in true introvert fashion, I like to take my time to construct my thoughts and write them well, paying strict attention to flow, grammar and language – but when it came to sharing, I realised I was having another Universe moment, and thought of the above excerpt, and my voice lesson experience. When I think about it too much and focus on being or creating something perfect, I lose the raw, natural essence of it all. By being forced to write instinctively, without giving the inner critic time to catch up, I was allowed to be my true self. So why do I devote so much energy to perfectionism?

The realisation that we only have a finite amount of mental energy has been somewhat of a theme as of late. I am guilty of having spent far too long allowing futile, unproductive, negative thoughts consume my mind. Setting goals is one thing, but beating yourself up every day for not having achieved them on the journey to accomplishment is entirely another. In my job, I make a point of encouraging others to learn at their own pace, offering support and telling them it’s okay if it takes a little while, it’s okay if they make mistakes, that they’ll learn from them, and that they’ll get there in the end. Yet I tell myself the opposite story. There’s no such thing as a learning curve. You need to be good at it now. If you screw up, you’ll look like a failure. You’ll wear your mistakes like a giant badge for all to see and judge.

The act of writing this out forces me to see this ridiculous mantra of hypocrisy and self-created falsehood. Nobody thinks this way, and by choosing to spend time giving power to thoughts like this, I’m robbing myself of authenticity as well as of time that could be spent infinitely more constructively.  I’m spinning my wheels in a frenzy and remaining absolutely stationary. And what’s the point of that?

As I believe everyone has the choice with how they spend their time externally, I always advocate for the fact that everyone also has the choice regarding how they spend their internal thoughts. Inner critics may have worked their way into our minds, entangled and entwined themselves around our every thought, masquerading as reality, but through the simple act of recognition and choice, we can cut the strings. Realise nobody cares if we’re perfect, and all anybody cares about is if we’re real. By focusing and ruminating on being perfect, we lose our true selves. So let’s put an end to it now. If we have imperfections, it’s okay. It makes us human. If we have ones we really dislike, we have the power to work at changing them. We can choose to work hard at being a good person instead of working hard at beating ourselves up for not being perfect. We can choose to spend our time and energy productively, or self destructively. We can learn to see ourselves through the eyes of others, and give ourselves a bit of a break.

Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone has the choice to learn from them. And at the end of the day, simply ask yourself the question: Does anybody really care if you’re not perfect, or if you make a mistake? Imperfections are the source of growth, of learning, of adventure. And most of all, I think, of sincerity.

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58 comments

  1. There’s a quote somewhere, isn’t there – about not being able to experience success until you’ve experienced failure (or something like that). The mistakes we make – and how we deal with them – are what make us interesting 🙂

    1. And what make us grow! My favourite quote is “life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it”. I hadn’t realised ’til now that reacting with trying to be perfect can be as destructive and stifling as reacting with negative emotion.

      1. For some reason this all reminds me of the John Lennon quote – “life is what happens while you’re making other plans”

  2. Great post, Emily! I’m thrilled that you found the 5-min. sprint helpful! That gives me an idea; maybe sometime I should tailor a journal workshop for perfectionists…

  3. Wonderful post, Emily!

    I have always struggled with things not being exactly so, always worried that it wasn’t good enough, and earlier this year… I finally realised that there was no way I could continue to keep up the pace I was going at and keep things “perfect”. And to be honest, I wasn’t learning, I wasn’t growing… because I was in my own little bubble of what I knew would work. I wasn’t being innovative. I wasn’t allowing myself my creativity.

    I wasn’t making happy mistakes.

    And now, I’m letting myself realise that it’s the only way to discover new colours… by letting the paint smear sometimes.

    x

  4. wow em this post was fantastic! glad to see you back to health!! i know i can be a bit of a perfectionist sometimes, usually when it comes to outfits, or choosing the right playlist for a party, or saying the right thing in a meeting at work. i worry so much people might pay close attention and think i’ve got bad taste or dont know what i’m on about. but you’re right, nobody really cares that much and it IS a big waste of time thinking about being perfect instead of getting out there and getting on with life!!! thanks for the reminder of whats really important.

  5. I always grew up proudly declaring my perfectionism. Then when life actually began after high school I was constantly beaten down by my perceived failures and my inability to attain perfection. Accepting mistakes is never easy, but I like how you mention that’s how we grow. Because it’s totally true. I’ve just never thought of it that way before.

    Fantastic post Em – here’s to making mistakes and having fun while doing it!

  6. Great post girl. Your friend’s workshop sounds really interesting, is she doing more? I will have to try that 5 minute exercise. Another great lesson – thank you, as always, for teaching me something and leaving me inspired!

  7. This whole past year I’ve kept coming back to this idea too- encouraging yourself and being honestly yourself, flaws and all, is so much more of a freeing way to live! It’s natural to want to do well and be fabulous- but it’s just not kind to tell yourself you have to be fabulous in every moment. Just by waking up and thinking our own thoughts, we’re already unique and real. Why not embrace that as fabulous too? Being perfectly pulled together all the time isn’t all that interesting anyways, no one can relate to it! 😉

    I love the perfect protest, and this contribution to it.

  8. I’m a definite perfectionist and have been known to quit something if I can’t do it right, which is not a great thing. I’ve tried to get better at making mistakes but it definitely takes time.

  9. Yet another great post.

    Remember I told you I took an IQ test? My performance scores were low because I kept second-guessing myself. And why did I? Because I didn’t want to look like a fool. ha. My psychologist friend described me as “a true perfectionist.”

    Ouch. It made me realize that I need to think less and just let things pan out naturally. Like your teacher said…follow your instincts! Lord knows my brain needs some rest 🙂

  10. I don’t know if I can be called a perfectionist. I never considered myself as one but maybe, sometimes, I am. I agree that everyone makes mistakes and we have to own up to our mistakes in order to learn from them.

    Your posts are always inspiring.

  11. Good post. I like to think that perfectionism is healthy if it means being the best person I can be, not being the conventional notion of “perfect.” And it also means that we get to stay with things, even if the results are less than we would like them to be. That’s where all the growth is. And wow, sometimes that part is really difficult.

  12. I can remember the first time a psychologist told me I was a perfectionist! I actually argued the point. Perfectionism has a lot to do with fear. Thanks for writing about this.

    1. Oh it has an AWFUL lot to do with fear… which is why it’s funny now to hear people self-describe as perfectionists, because it’s really another way of saying “I’m afraid of not being perfect”. Which isn’t so much something to brag about.

  13. This is fantastic. Something we all need to hear and absorb.

    It reminds me of what a musician friend of mine told me once “expect excellence, not perfection”. From the stand point of musicianship (both vocally and instrumentally) perfection does not exist. But we can hone our crafts and make them as excellent as we are capable of.

    I think this can be translated into other areas of life; relationships, jobs and even hobbies. If we expect perfection in anything we are only going to be disappointed or we won’t even try.

    If people stop taking risks because they are afraid the result won’t be perfect, what a boring place this world would be.

    1. I like your friend’s quote – putting your effort and control into being excellent, not perfect. It can definitely be translated to other areas of life, and you’re right, if everyone played it safe all the time this probably would be a rather boring place!

  14. I grew up struggling with perfection. I think mine stemmed from having a chaotic childhood and an alcoholic father. Everything else was uncontrollable, but my own life was. Grades, cleanliness, being on time, being involved in activites, etc. And you know what happened? I developed insomnia – when I was ELEVEN! It’s certainly not a trait one should aspire to, because it leads to all sorts of problems. I still find myself attaining for it sometimes, and then I have to remember to embrace my flaws.

    Wonderful post!

  15. My struggle with trying to be perfect results in me just not doing things… that way I won’t be dissapointed with it not being perfect. But really, the things left undone or unenjoyed is more disspointing than having something slightly less than perfect but probably still pretty great.

    Working on that…

  16. Oh, so so so true, Em.
    I think it’s a lot harder to admit that we’re not perfect (and that it is ok!) than proudly marching around calling ourselves perfectionists, because in the end nobody’s perfect!

  17. i definitely have been afflicted with the perfectionism disease from time to time. i’m becoming more aware of it now and realize how much simpler (and more wonderful) life can be when i’m not completely hung up on being “perfect” all the time.

    it’s a work in progress….or should i say, i’m a work in progress…

  18. I used to read music, but rhythm has never been one of my strengths. I might have been able to tell you ‘that’s a quarter note’ or ‘a full four beats’ but odds are I would have played it for the wrong amount of time anyway. I definitely think most music is about feel and instinct – that’s why I love Santana, Slash, the Chilis; they may not be the fastest players or the most technically advanced but they play with soul.

  19. I love this! I don’t necessarily worry about being perfect but I do feel guilty about now – I guess that might be the same, haha! Ah tis life.

    And she did do drummer boy!! And the one that goes ‘he does nothing the boy does nothing’ which has been on my running playlist for a long time but I didn’t know it was her, I was so excited!!

  20. I am not perfect.
    I know that lol.

    Imagine being perfect you never do anything wrong you’re always right and surely you’d never be able to lie if you were perfect – ow imagine all the people you’d hurt
    “Does my butt look big in this?” “Well I can’t lie and tell you it looks okay so actually yes your butt looks gigantic”

    Okay so I’d never say that unless my friend knew I was joking and that I knew they’d take it as a joke too.

    I’m not perfect and I’m okay with that

  21. Great post, Emily. The majority of us don’t like making mistakes and surely don’t like them being pointed out to us by others, which perhaps is one reason why we hate making mistakes in the first place. I really like the graphic you chose to use with your post, though, because it’s so true. In 100 years, no one will remember the mistakes we made today………… 🙂 I’ll have to remember that the next time I make a mistake.

  22. I also like how more people are saying, ‘look at me, I am not perfect’. I think we are so incredibly hard on ourselves, but we aren’t nearly as hard on the other people in our lives. I am trying to treat myself more like I would a good friend…

  23. On my way to school this morning, I was thinking about this very topic. I don’t know if a song came on the radio, because I came to this realization how terrified I am of making mistakes. I see it as a form of weakness and it makes me question everything I’m doing. I realize I need to break free of this perfectionist mentality, but it’s not easy.

  24. Wow!

    “Realise nobody cares if we’re perfect, and all anybody cares about is if we’re real.”

    Brilliant! I especially like that quote about people not caring in a 100 years whether we make a fool of ourselves or not. That EXACTLY what I needed to hear right now. I’m in this Blogger competition {seems random but you’ll see the connection in a bit} but I was worried what people will say or think if I lost it. The purpose was just to put myself out there, to take a risk, but somehow I got all caught up in the winning. Of course I wouldn’t mind winning, but the whole process has brought up all these insecurities. Like “I’m probably annoying” or “I’m not that good at blogging” or “maybe this was all a mistake and I was stupid for even trying” or “I’m wasting so much time” or… etc etc etc. Anyways, it’s all me trying to be this perfect human being!

    But I’m over it. Thanks to your post. That does it. You’re going on my blogroll lady. 🙂

  25. On point Ms. Em: “Imperfections are the source of growth, of learning, of adventure. And most of all, I think, of sincerity. ”

    You are wise and wonderful. I enjoyed this as this is one of my favorite topics. I think of this often in regard to art and writing, too. I used to have a horrible time with ‘analysis paralysis’ in regards to my writing. Edit, edit, edit, edit and edit more. It wasn’t until I landed a job with deadlines that I was finally able to shake that nasty version of perfectionism.
    Great post, m’lady.
    ~xo

  26. Lately I’ve been learning to give myself a break when it comes to the mistakes I think I’m making; sometimes others don’t even have a clue I’m making them so I guess it’s not such a big deal in all actuality.

    Protesting perfection is kind of fun 🙂

  27. i enjoy SAYING i’m perfect. i enjoy PRETENDING i’m perfect sometimes. i don’t enjoy the REALIZATION that i’m, in fact, NOT perfect. i don’t like realizing that there simply isn’t enough time in the day (or the week) to do everything, that i get tired, that my brain fatigues, that i need alone time every once in a while, that i need more sleep than i’ve been getting, that i’m HUMAN.

    i don’t always like being a mere mortal. but, by the grace of God, i’m growing. i’m maturing. i’m ACCEPTING. and though i become 60 posts behind in reader and now am attempting to catch up, it was worth it to come that half-step i’ve come. to own the realization, to accept it (which doesn’t mean LIKING it). it’s one of those things that was worth the wait and pain.

  28. Was and still consider myself as a “Perfectionist” but have learnt to accept the hard-hitting facts of life that no one’s perfect! I now feel that the overbearing sense of perfection kind of owerpowers our sense to identify the beauty or rather should I say the humor of our and others imperfections!

  29. I think the next step for me is getting better at dealing with the criticism that comes after the mistake. I know that’s really what I’m shielding myself from and stressing out about.

  30. This is a lesson I struggle with a lot. I grew up in family that always pointed out every little mistake. Blink too much during a video presentation? They’ll ask what was wrong with your eyes. Get a zit? They’d point it out and ask what “was wrong with” my face. I always felt the pressure to be perfect and no matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried, they were always there to point out the little tiny flaw I didn’t even notice.

    As an adult though, I’m working on acknowledging that it doesn’t matter. Not really. Imperfections are exactly what you said – the parts of us that make us, us. Without them we’d lose a little bit of ourselves.

  31. Pingback: 2010: Brilliance |

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