Many people would quietly, or even proudly, consider themselves perfectionists. It’s tossed around as a synonym for excellence and high achievement — it’s the infamous non-flaw answer to the “what’s your biggest flaw?” interview question. The truth is, however, that being one is more harmful than we acknowledge. As a recovering perfectionist, I know firsthand that perfectionism is the opposite of self love.
It’s not even productive. Perfectionism is cruel and consuming. The most painful criticisms I’ve ever received have been my own — insulting my appearance, berating myself for past mistakes, and cringing endlessly over embarrassing moments. The fact that perfectionism is more strongly linked to suicide than hopelessness should be a wake up call for all of us.
In his book, Will Storr places much of the blame on social media. He asserts, “People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become.”
Makes sense, doesn't it? Perfectionism can cause crippling anxiety about what others think and creates an extreme fear of failure while sites like Instagram are a breeding ground for these so-called perfect ideals. Whether it’s having a flawless body, throwing a dream wedding, raising catalog children, living in an immaculate house — the pressures are pervasive and the bar keeps getting higher.
The issue is particularly prevalent for women. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic is a masterpiece of a book in its entirety, but her thoughts on perfection should be required reading for all women. Gilbert believes perfectionism is just an elegant word for fear, “Underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.”
She comically points out how men typically have no problem applying for positions they are only 41% qualified for while “too many women still seem to believe that they are not allowed to put themselves forward at all, until both they and their work are perfect and beyond criticism.” She then reminds us, of course, that nothing is beyond criticism.
While we should always seek to grow and improve, the sneakiness of perfection is that it actually debilitates growth — it cripples creativity, it defeats us before we even start. In fact, it doesn’t even make us better at our jobs. As psychologist Thomas S. Greenspon notes, “Research confirms that the most successful people in any given field are less likely to be perfectionistic, because the anxiety about making mistakes gets in your way.” This even pertains to surgeons and lawyers, in case you were wondering.
So what’s the answer? For me, it lies in two powerful words: good enough. It's a phrase I breathe after toiling too long with a piece of writing, a drawing, my hair. The antidote to an overly critical mind is understanding that imperfection is a uniting force. As author Mark Manson puts it, "People fall in love with each other's rough edges." There is nothing perfect about Picasso's line drawings or Henri Matisse's cut-outs, yet they are beloved masterpieces.
Perfect is, indeed, the enemy of good. But also of appreciation, of confidence, of compassion. Ironically, it’s the enemy of creating a life you can feel proud of.