Why You May be the Enemy of Your Own HappinessNov 04, 2017
One of the biggest mistakes a person can make is to become preoccupied with perfection. That’s different from envisioning perfection as a goal. It’s about whether perfection is a goal, or something that you demand. Believing that you can realistically attain perfection is no different than wandering through the desert, ever-thirsty, toward a mirage that only recedes toward the horizon. A lot of people obsess over perfection. This obsession is a massive waste of time and energy.
Perfectionism is a distraction, a justification for procrastination, an excuse for never getting anything done. When perfectionism is about one’s own striving, it is hostility aimed inward. When it is aimed at others, it is a cold and compassionless hostility toward the world. Perfectionism is a refusal to accept reality, and it is rooted in fear. To the perfectionist, nothing will ever be good enough.
For many people, perfectionism originates in childhood, with parental pressure to achieve. This can be motivated by a lot of things, from parents measuring their own status by the achievements of their children, to an egotistical desire to imprint their child with capabilities they wish they had themselves. Whatever the cause, perfectionism often has an opposite effect from what these parents would hope for their children to develop if they want them to become high achievers. Perfectionists are much less likely to take risks because they are afraid of failing, and the willingness to take risks, along with the adaptability to learn from one’s mistakes, are two essential characteristics of high achievers.
Perfectionists fail to accept that the world, and all of the people in it, are flawed. Understanding that concept is something that can fuel compassion, foster empathy, and help you develop healthy structures for continuously improving your own performance.
It’s fair to say that doing something the wrong way, whether at work or in a relationship, feels bad. By contrast, doing something the right way feels good. This is a core concept underlying the self-regulating systems of internal rewards that drive motivation. With a healthy, growth-oriented mindset, navigating these pathways will help us to increase our capacities in the most important areas of our lives.
In order to put that idea to use, we must be willing to make mistakes along the way. Sometimes we will not do things the right way. Someone who accepts that reality would understand that the mistakes we make are learning opportunities, glean what lessons they can from their experiences, and work on improving. The perfectionist fights reality. They do not want the bad feelings that come along with making mistakes. They drastically overestimate the pain that will be caused by those bad feelings. They become paralyzed. They do not grow.
Perfectionism is an incapacitating force. It stops us from connecting with the real, but it also stops us from connecting with others. The inward perfectionist will never feel good enough to be loved or appreciated, the outward perfectionist will always find the flaws in the details, unable to find redeeming virtues that are plainly visible to the rest of us.
Habits are hard to break, but the mechanics of overcoming perfectionism are easy to put into practice. All you have to do is be willing to make a lot of mistakes. Understand that that’s what we’re all doing all the time, continuously messing up, learning, and doing better.
There is a relevant passage from a book called Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. The scene takes place at a tennis academy. It’s a conversation between two players, one of whom is suffering from debilitating perfectionism:
“Suppose I were to give you a key ring with a hundred keys, and I were to tell you that one of those keys will unlock it, and this door we’re imagining opening in onto all you want to be, as a player. How many of the keys would you be willing to try?”
“Well, I’d try every darn one,” Rader tells Lyle.
“Then you are willing to make mistakes, you see. You are saying you will accept 99% error. The paralyzed perfectionist you say you are would stand there before that door. Jingling the keys. Afraid to try the first key.”