Q & A Today: Perfection Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be

Updated: Jan 19

By Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC

Posted on January 16, 2021


Welcome to Q&A Today, a column designed to answer your questions regarding challenges and concerns in everyday life, from family to coping with current events. A popular topic today revolves around the coronavirus. All questions are fair game. Just send me an email with your questions or concerns, and watch for the answer in upcoming editions of the Tasmanian Times. Q&A Today is published on the first and third Sundays of the month. If your question is printed, only your first name will appear in this column.


Q: It’s already the middle of January but I’m still working on my New Year’s Resolutions. The reason I’m late this year is I spent way too much time trying to decide on the most meaningful ones. I’ve looked into the topic of New Year’s resolutions and realize the importance of not having too many and having realistic goals. I’m still researching and thinking and trying to decide, but the days are passing me by and I still don’t have my New Year’s resolutions in order. I believe that to not identify the ideal resolutions would be laziness on my part and ultimately prevent me from having as successful a year as I had hoped.


A good friend made a passing comment that resonated with me. He said, “They don’t have to be perfect. Just write something down.” My gut reaction was, “Yes they do.” Uggggh. How can I disembark from this perfection train? – James


A: Hitting the pause button and taking a few moments to peer behind the curtain to figure out what’s causing your drive to be perfect is a great way to start off the New Year, James.

New Year’s resolutions are annual rituals in which we reflect on the past year and set goals aimed at improving ourselves in the coming year. The process of putting the goals in writing increases the likelihood that we will hold ourselves accountable to following through on our intentions. In general it is good to reflect on the past and plan for the coming year. It is a worthwhile exercise, for sure. But for you, the activity has created anxiety.


Let’s look at what might be causing this angst. We often feel the need to be perfect. In fact, sometimes we pursue the goal of perfection in the belief that it will help us attain our goals. Society provides us with role models of perfection, as witnessed by hard working Olympians being rewarded by winning medals or tirelessly focused scientists making life-changing discoveries. Another motive for seeking perfection is to prevent ourselves from being judged poorly by others. We may believe that if we are perfect, we will then be held in high esteem by others. By appearing perfect we avoid exposing a shortcoming that could cause us to be blamed, shamed, or judged negatively.


In truth, perfectionism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Goals set too high can take a toll on our mental health, creating the anxiety that despite our hard work and good intentions, we’re never quite good enough.


Seeking to engage in activities that bring out the very best in us, such as creating New Year’s resolutions, is a worthy goal. They challenge ourselves to function in a conscientious, hard working and goal driven manner…all good values. But sometimes we step over the line and create an ‘all or nothing’ attitude, meaning if we do not achieve our goal we believe we have less value. This becomes unattainable and psyche wrenching perfectionism.


Social media plays a contributing role. We can experience the trappings of perfection on social media when we compare ourselves to others and perceive that we come up short.

Never mind the fact that postings on other peoples’ social media pages are not always reality driven. Your friend with the amazing job doesn’t post about the most significant life challenges he is facing. Nor does another friend, who writes about her exciting vacation, provide comments about her company’s struggle to remain solvent.

With every click on the computer we run the risk of becoming increasingly competitive; obsessed with comparing our lives against what appears to be the illusion of perfection in others. Throughout all of this we’re ignoring the fact we know in our heart of hearts that their lives aren’t perfect. But our internal self-critic isn’t listening. That overly judgmental and demanding side of ourselves is activated and boom! We’ve hopped onto that runaway train of perfection.


I would like to suggest for your New Year’s Resolutions: allow yourself to be vulnerable. I’ll explain why. Being overly demanding of yourself creates a burden. Instead of viewing mistakes or missed goals as something for which you figuratively beat yourself up, why not view them as opportunities to learn more about yourself, better understand the matter at hand, and what you will do differently in the future? To do so will take courage. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable is the secret sauce to helping you find the courage to step outside of your comfort zone.


Making an error simply means you are human. Allow yourself to abandon your need to always be perfect. Change your perspective and tell yourself that this will be an opportunity to better learn from a situation.


Remind yourself that Thomas Edison had a documented 1,000 tries before he successfully invented the incandescent light bulb. Would he have continued trying if he felt that he had to be the best at everything? I seriously doubt it because it would have created in him an emotional downward spiral of inner turmoil and he’d have abandoned pursuing the challenge. I think he was clearly driven, focused and kept striving to do his best. It appears that instead of allowing himself to become emotionally paralysed by any of his 999 failures, he took what he learned from every mistake, shifted his thinking and applied this knowledge into the exploration of new options. In doing so he eventually found success and changed the world.


James, you too, can change your world. Do not let perfectionism become the enemy of all the good in you. Disembark from the perfection train! I think you’ll find the decision to do so refreshing. It might be difficult at first, but with time you’ll find you are more resilient when you fall short of one of your goals. Instead of unrealistic demands of yourself resulting in a burdensome amount of stress, missteps and errors, allow failures to reveal some positive surprises, including more joy, creativity and acceptance of experiences in life that you cannot control.

Happy (imperfect) New Year!

Eileen

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