The Problem With Perfection: Making Space For Grace
In today’s world where Instagram filters life down to carefully posed moments and success is measured by status and job performance, the need for perfection reigns supreme.
Whether it’s retaking a selfie for the sixth time, impossible-to-meet #relationshipgoals, or writing a flawless paper, brief, proposal, etc., the search for “perfect” pervades every aspect of our lives.
“You want things to be as good as they can. There’s nothing wrong with that,” says life coach and teacher at London’s School of Life Fiona Buckland. “The problem with perfection, though, is that it’s kind of unachievable. You’re never satisfied.”
Instead of valuing their achievements, perfectionists constantly find themselves falling short.
“We’ve become very well-versed in criticizing ourselves rather than giving ourselves credit,” Buckland says. “You take on more and more stress, because nothing is good enough.” Like the nightmare of a never-ending hallway, no matter how far we run, we can never reach the impossible.
“Perfection often limits our ability to move forward because ‘if it’s not perfect I can’t take that next step,’ and if every step has to be perfect we’re not taking very many steps,” says life coach and author Jay Pryor. This vicious behavioral cycle holds us back in a big way, leading to procrastination and feelings of intense guilt and shame, as if by not being perfect we’ve somehow failed.
“It makes people more brittle because it leads you into what we call catastrophic thinking,” says Buckland. “You’re crushed by it. You’re constantly hypervigilant, looking all the time for what’s not going well, and that will only increase your anxiety and ultimately lead to depression.”
This increased stress can actually alter our brain chemistry and take a physical toll.
“Your amygdala fires when you experience a threat or get upset by something,” says Pryor. “It floods your right prefrontal cortex with hormones that flood your reasoning and thinking brain.”
The chemical reaction makes it harder for us to manage our minds and can have physical symptoms including raised blood pressure and increased belly fat.
Buckland calls this burnout, “A critical situation where you’re in toxic stress and you just can’t get out of it. You can’t think creatively, you find it difficult to collaborate because that’s compromise, [and] you find it more difficult to talk to people, so you end up just closing yourself off a lot.”
We work so hard to be “perfect,” but the negative effects of the grueling journey don’t let us really enjoy the path. So how can we veer off this treacherous road and break free of harmful patterns?
“First, notice your anxiety is at a toxic level,” advises Buckland. “You’re having difficulties in your relationships, you’re scrolling Facebook and spending hours redoing photographs, etc.”
Pryor calls this practice of noticing your anxiety mindfulness, often achieved through meditation, which he explains actually lowers the amount of cortisol in your brain and decreases stress levels. “Being mindful has you observe and see that it’s not how you really are,” he says.
Once in the moment, “Spot your inner critics,” says Buckland, referring to the destructive thoughts holding you back. “They will say things like you’re useless, nobody likes a loser, you’re just not good enough,” she says. “Name them; say ‘Oh look there’s my judge turning up again. Ok, thank you very much. I know you’re trying to help me but actually you’re not helping me at all.’”
Instead of giving into the negativity, replace your detractors with allies, “Think of it like a compassionate friend,” Buckland suggests. “What would they say to you if you were going completely mental over a presentation you’re going to deliver the next day?”
Putting it another way, Pryor asks clients to simply be kind to themselves. “Commit to your personal development, to constant forgiveness. [Make] a shift towards loving yourself and practice progress towards your goal, not perfection.”
This means accepting and letting ourselves be impacted by whatever experiences life has in store for us, be they good, bad, or straight up ugly.
Though it may not seem likely, even our failures can be positive experiences. “When people fail they take more risks,” Buckland says, emphasizing that risk-taking is integral to today’s culture of innovation and technological advancement.
“Thomas Edison once said, ‘I haven’t failed, I’ve just discovered 10,000 ways it won’t work.’ We take failure as the end of the story, when actually it is a moment to regroup and go, ok what have we learned here?” she concludes.
Edison’s can-do attitude reminds us that even our mistakes illuminate new paths. There’s so much we can achieve personally and professionally if we just give ourselves the space to come up a bit short once in a while.
Pryor describes committing to the process as being, “Responsible for your own humanity rather than beating the crap out of yourself.” After all, we are only human and, “part of the human experience is being imperfect.”
Laurie Kamens is a freelance writer living in New York. She has written for several publications including The New York Times, The New York Post, The Jewish Daily Forward, Flavorwire, Interview Magazine, and Long Island Pulse. Follow her on Twitter @lauriekamens.