The Challenge: We get caught up in making everything perfect–but at what cost?
The Science: Alarming new research suggests perfectionism can be harmful.
The Solution: Explore the secrets of inner perfection.
Every year, we come up with New Year’s resolutions. Maybe to lose weight, to procrastinate less, to write that book, or get a promotion. We want to become more “perfect” in some way. And how often have we let ourselves down in the process?
You know what to do but so often manage to do the opposite. You know you should go to sleep. But instead of picking your body up from the couch, you pick up the television remote. You have work to get done, but spend 20 minutes surfing online for stuff you’ll never buy. You know what to say, but somehow, your brain fails to communicate with your mouth, and the words come out wrong.
In a perpetually chaotic world, perfectionism appears to allow us some semblance of order and control. As a teen, I couldn’t control my emotions, but I could paint tricolor stripes on my nails to coordinate with my yellow, red, and green outfits that day. While I couldn’t control my own mind, I could enhance its development by reading books on self-improvement. I would become a better human being who would one day marry the perfect man and raise perfect children (unlike my parents, whose parenting mistakes I fully planned to correct with my own kids).
Cutting-edge research shows that there is, in fact, a fine line between striving for improvement and striving relentlessly for perfection. How do you know if you’ve crossed it? Is your perfectionism doing more harm than good?
Perfectionists pride themselves on their integrity and commitment to hard work; they make sure everything is the best it can be down to the last detail. As a society, we admire people who push themselves and others to produce masterful achievements—Steve Jobs, David Cameron, and Beyonce, among numerous others.
We laugh at the neurotic foibles of perfectionists on television like Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation, who interrupts her boyfriend’s proposal twice to savor the moment and lets him know, “I need to remember every little thing about how perfect my life is right now.”
But real perfectionism goes beyond arranging your towels in eleven different sections, aka Friends’ Monica Geller. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Psychological Association, perfectionism can be devastatingly crippling, leading to anxiety, depression, and an increased risk of suicide.
Gordon Flett has been researching perfectionism for the last 25 years. “Perfectionists tend to be under chronic stress, in part due to the pressure that is on them,” he observed with me in an interview.
Flett identifies two main types of perfectionism.
1) Self-Oriented Perfectionism, where expectations to be perfect come from another person, such as a parent, spouse, or teacher.
2) Socially-Prescribed Perfectionism, where people respond to external societal pressure by trying to appear perfect. These people tend to promote their strengths and accomplishments while hiding mistakes and flaws, so others have a favorable impression of them. Meanwhile, inside, they feel inadequate “like an imposter.”
Sure, our perfectionism allows us to stretch and create beyond imagined capabilities, but it also handicaps our happiness. The outcome is so important that we forget to empower others by truly letting go (assuming, of course, that we’re able to delegate). We become experts at faultfinding—a surefire way to lose friends and diminish influence. Moreover, we get so caught up in producing the end result that we forget to have fun along the way.
Self-Compassion as an Antidote
Kristen Neff, pioneering researcher and author of Self-Compassion, considers self-compassion the perfect antidote to perfectionism. “Perfectionism creates a sense of isolation, leading to self-criticism. Imperfection is the human experience,” she shared with me. “Self-compassion helps us feel safe, secure, loved and reduces the feeling of being threatened.”
Self-compassion isn’t letting yourself off the hook (akin to not being accountable) so much as giving yourself a break (realizing that imperfections are normal).
Can you imagine how unbearable it would be to live with someone who was totally perfect? This perpetual Pollyanna would turn her pert nose down on your pitiful shortcomings. It’s our mistakes that make us humble. Imagine how intolerable we’d be if we never made a mistake. We would probably be more judgmental and less empathetic and compassionate. It’s our screw-ups that make us endearing, approachable, and lovable.
Leave Room for Imperfection
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, spiritual leader and creator of the Happiness Program, gently reminds us to “Leave some room for imperfection. It is love for perfection that makes one angry at imperfection. Just like a clean house has a small space for garbage in the bin, keep some space in your mind to accept imperfections.”
We get so agitated thinking about other’s imperfections. You do realize that their imperfections are their problem to handle, right? We already have a full-time job managing our own mind, and it’s nuttiness.
Practices such as yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises help us keep our center and develop some perspective into our perfectionism. These practices bring the mind back to the present instead of sticking to the past or worrying incessantly about future results. A meditative mind tempers our tendency to go perfection crazy. It enables us to relax and realize that while your hair may be frizzier than a shih tzu, you’re still grateful because, “heck, any day with hair is still a good hair day.”
When we get upset at others’ mistakes, we’re no better than the person who made the mistake. But when we have acceptance and compassion for others, we simultaneously develop acceptance and love for ourselves as well. When you’re fretting that the mashed potatoes are lumpy or the salad isn’t up to snuff, ask yourself if it’s worth losing your smile over.
This new year, instead of resolving to become a more perfect version of yourself, why not unwind and accept? Inner perfection comes naturally when we leave room for imperfection.