The Paradox of Perfectionism
I received an insightful letter from a reader last week. He was wondering what advice I have for dealing with the perfectionism that he sees plaguing so many kids and adults around him. He rightly pointed out that many of us become so convinced by our inner critic that what we do will never be good enough, that we give up on many things before we even begin.
We live in a competitive, hyperdriven culture, so how do we resist the urge to constantly compare ourselves to others? Or, more accurately, to some imagined ideal of others?
The saying “the perfect is the enemy of the good” is germane to this question. I discussed in my post the other week how we can be held back from making the best choice by imagining that there is a perfect choice, when this is so rarely the case. “Perfection” is never attainable and can create a vicious cycle of self-loathing for those who fixate on reaching it.
In the popular imagination, we may equate perfectionism with drive and accomplishment, but what I see in my psychotherapy work is that it is much more closely tied to anxiety than it is to achievement. For the perfectionist, nothing they could possibly have—no partner, no job, no amount of money or accolades—will ever be enough, because it won’t ever be perfect. Doesn’t sound like a recipe for a happy life, does it?
Comparing ourselves to others can be healthy, of course. If it’s kept in check, competition can bring out the best in us, inspiring us to work harder and do better. But when we start to judge our self-worth as people by how we stack up to those around us, that’s where it leads to trouble. When we look at someone else’s perfect-seeming life—their fancy house, enviable marriage, or important job—it’s easy to discount the failures and challenges that led to their good outcome. We grow by making mistakes and adjustments, and if we feel defeated before we even start, we might never embrace that process of growth and change.
The more we can tolerate discomfort and what we perceive as failure, the more resilient we become, and the more courageous we can be. If an athlete sees only the gold medal hanging around someone else’s neck and decides it’s not even worth trying to be as good as that guy, he’ll miss out on the journey that medal winner had to go through to get there: all of the failures and missteps, humiliations and disappointments, that led to that ultimate moment of glory.
to combat perfectionism, we must build our resilience so that we may lead a courageous life.