Why Perfection is Not Possible
Striving to achieve a sense of perfection has been a misguided belief in my life, often leading me down the wrong path. It has made me, at times, place value on the wrong things. It has made me not listen to my true self for fear that I would somehow fail in another’s eyes. I was curious as to how the idea of perfection has become so pervasive in our society, how it begins, how it hurts us and perhaps, even, if it carries a certain benefit.
The idea of “being perfect” is something that plagues many of us in our society, causing a lot of stress and feelings of inadequacy. Where does this idea that we need to be perfect come from? How can we come to terms with (and find the beauty in) imperfection?
Most people in our culture, at some point or another, have experienced moments, if not days or even years, when they consciously or unconsciously hoped they were embodying perfection, or at least crossing their fingers that they were inches from it. Perfectionism, as a personality disposition, however, is characterized by aiming for flawlessness. Research has found that those armed with a mission of daily perfection can suffer greatly—be it from depression, anxiety, or body image dissatisfaction. Traits of perfectionism on the maladaptive side can often include overly critical self-evaluation, setting excessively high achievement standards, and feeling like a failure if certain levels of success are not attained. Accompanying these personality traits is the belief that you can always be doing a “better” job at nearly everything you juggle.
“Research has found that those armed with a mission of daily perfection can suffer greatly—be it from depression, anxiety, or body image dissatisfaction.”
Here’s the thing: Perfection is not possible. Perfection is an age-old myth that creates more pain than joy, more confusion than calm, more angst than creative productivity. Being perfect is a farcical fantasy that distracts us from being present. Constantly driving toward perfection creates a sort of black and white, all or nothing perspective that invariably leaves us colorblind. We are forced to forget the beauty that lies between failure and perfection if we think in such binary terms, if we uphold one way of being as the gold standard… a myopic worldview bound to disappoint.
“Perfection is not possible.”
What I have seen first hand as a clinician is an increase in the wish to create more in the world—to “be” something, while hoping that the feelings of smallness that exist inside will diminish as a direct result. The ethos of perfectionism is tucked deeply in the fabric of myriad messages strewn throughout our competitive culture. We’re tempted to think that if we do more, we will feel less insecure, less afraid, and less anxious and depressed. It’s the fuel that catapults people into despair when they realize that perfection is not possible 100% of the time.
“We’re tempted to think that if we do more, we will feel less insecure, less afraid, and less anxious and depressed.”
There’s also the indelible imprint parents make on their children that imbues them with a sense of self—an identity that forms on a continuum from perfectionistic insecurity riddled with inadequacy to robust comfortability in one’s skin. If, for example, parents are exceedingly critical or insatiably judgmental of their offspring, patterns of incessantly attempting to please the parental figure can get ingrained in the dynamic. Children want to experience unconditional care and long to be loved despite their level of achievement. When we learn from a tender age that our parents’ delight in us is solely contingent upon our accolades, we can lose our way. We inevitably feel untethered without an internal compass if our parents focus more on what we do than on who we are.
“When we strive for excellence while acknowledging our humanity we are less likely to plummet into a dark depression if things don’t turn out as we originally planned.”
A parent-child dynamic riddled in conditionality essentially sets up an insecure framework—creating a dizzying situation where the child looks outside of themselves for approval, confidence, and adoration. The evolving child begins to unconsciously fantasize that if/when perfection is achieved ongoing love and affection will be secured. When we learn over and over again that our achievements bring us the attention we long for, we push ourselves that much harder to attain a specialness that we hope will make us feel at ease. This quest can throw us off course in terms of authentically understanding and embodying our own passions, our unique attributes, and our overall sense of self.
Striving, in and of itself, can be chock-full of rewarding jubilant health. It’s when we chase perfection with tunnel vision as if it’s the only option that we drain our life force. When we strive for excellence while acknowledging our humanity we are less likely to plummet into a dark depression if things don’t turn out as we originally planned. It is maladaptive perfectionism that sets the stage for inevitable failure whereas adaptive standards for high achievement can result in productivity and a measured response when ideals are not attained.
Finding the beauty in not being perfect, or in imperfection, means we are taking an active role in changing the polarizing zeitgeist. The roots of perfectionistic characteristics begin to loosen as we explore basic aspects of identity, such as self-esteem, groundedness, and what it means to be imperfect. We dare to step into our own humanity and experiment with what it feels like to walk away from self-doubt and loathing. Striving toward understanding who we are and why we are who we are might reveal pockets of enlivening imperfection—a textured humanness that is refreshingly real and surprisingly interesting. It is a revolutionary act to embrace who we are, just as we are.
Dr. Jessica Zucker is a clinical psychologist specializing in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health. She has a Los Angeles based practice and is a prolific writer and speaker in the areas of women’s health. Dr. Zucker traveled the world doing international public health work prior to pursuing her Ph.D. She is currently writing her first book on mother-daughter relationships and issues surrounding the body. Follow her on Twitter.