According to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, the definition of perfection is as follows:
- the quality or state of being perfect, such as
a: freedom from fault or defect, flawlessness
c: the quality or state of being saintly
2. an exemplification of supreme excellence
3. the act or process of perfecting
Those are incredible standards to live up to, right?
The Road to Perfection
It is hard to tell where the need to be perfect begins for most people. Some people realize early on as children they need to make straight As in school to please their parents or to get out of a poverty-stricken upbringing. Some feel the same amount of pressure to excel in a sport, dance or other competitive activity. Those things are meant to be fun and bring out a talent that their parent sees in them, but the pressure can destroy the fun for the participating child. Either way, stress is a big factor. Stress appears in multiple ways- problems sleeping, eating, concentrating, withdrawing, maybe even lashing out at those around them. It’s hard to express the thoughts going through your mind when you are a young child trying to please everyone around you. When you feel like you’ve let everyone down, you feel even worse about yourself. Your self-esteem takes a very hard hit, and eventually, you may not have any left.
It’s also hard to shake these thoughts and actions, so they stick with you throughout your childhood into adulthood- into college and beyond. Getting into college is a huge competition that takes a lot of thought, hope and even more stress. You have to get good grades, know what you want to do, and have a great essay. If you don’t have extracurricular activities, you won’t look good enough. If your ACT/SAT scores aren’t perfect, or close, that will hurt you. Getting a job after college is also difficult, and you want to please your boss and co-workers so that you can move up in the company- which means long hours and hard work. You might miss some fun times with friends and family, sleep, and other things, but if you’re seen as “the perfect employee”, it’s worth it, right?
The Pressure Cooker Inside
Meanwhile, the pressure builds up. Lack of sleep, internal bashing, and not taking a break will take its toll, emotionally and physically. It may not be right in the middle of the work itself, but it does catch up. It happens while you’re not looking. When you don’t sleep for two days because you’re extremely stressed over the report you may have made a few small mistakes over, your body is missing out on the rest it needs. When you tell yourself “I suck” because you made those mistakes, you’re lowering your self- esteem, little by little. Not being able to sleep, eat, let your body relax once in a while is not good for you.
These things and more can lead to physical and emotional consequences- sometimes dangerous ones. For example- I am a former perfectionist. I am a mother of three, but I was so focused on keeping a spotless house (my kids were very small, so this was an impossibility), working full time, making a (then) very demanding husband happy and caring for two special needs kids that I didn’t stop to think that I could do any of this with any help. I thought that I had to do it all alone and do it all perfectly. I believed this because my husband wouldn’t help out and I wanted others to think I had everything handled. I didn’t want them to think I couldn’t take care of my own family. On March 30, 2013, I had a transient ischemic attack, otherwise known as a mini-stroke.
This stroke was caused by a severe migraine that went very badly. I’m lucky to have survived- but I was left with speech, memory and balance issues. I also had to re-evaluate what really mattered, because I needed to lower the amount of stress in my life. I had to stop trying to be perfect. I had to learn how to let things go, which was a concept that, at the age of 30, I hadn’t thought of. This was not the easiest process, but it was necessary.
It’s Okay to Be Less Than Perfect
The stress will lift when you stop trying to be perfect. It feels much better not trying so hard. This is not to say to let things go entirely, but if not everything on a to-do list gets done, there is always tomorrow.
- Like yourself a bit more. You’re a much more fun person than you may think. If you make a mistake, it really is okay. Everyone beats themselves up at some point, but to do so daily, even for small things, is not healthy. If you need to do some work on yourself to improve self-esteem, self-worth, or confidence, do it. You are worth the work.
- Remind yourself of your accomplishments. Most perfectionists have something to show for their hard work but rarely show it off. My biggest career accomplishment is hanging on my living room wall- my BA in Clinical Psychology. I just don’t say much about it. Why? I don’t find it necessary. I didn’t tell my husband about my first few guest posts because I didn’t think he would get how important they were to me. (He’s not in this field, but is very supportive.) If you need to, make a list and keep it somewhere for those moments in which you need to remind yourself that even if you mess up, you’ve still done a lot.
- You don’t have to do it all at once. Take small steps away from perfectionism. I started with housework because it was my biggest battle. If yours is work, try leaving your desk just a little messier than usual and walking away from it for lunch, then for the day, then for the weekend. It will become natural. This is not to say become a total slacker at work or in life in general, but taking it easy on yourself will pay off in the long run. Taking a 3-day weekend may do wonders- the office will run without you. Don’t check in!
The world we live in is a fast-paced, competitive one. Don’t let it pull you towards something that can harm your well-being.