The Joy of Imperfection

Perfectionism and anxiety disorders often go hand in hand. Here are some examples:

  • Social Phobia—I must make a flawless impression and certainly must be perfectly accepted by other people. I must never make a mistake and everyone, without exception, must like everything about me.
  • OCD—I must have things perfectly clean. I must have perfect certainty that my behavior did not or will not endanger myself or others.
  • Panic Disorder—I must be perfectly free of panic or panic-like sensations. I must be perfectly certain that my mental or physical health is ok.
  • Phobias—Flying should be perfectly safe, 100% risk free, before I get on a plane. My home must be 100% spider-free at all times.

Here’s the problem. There is no perfection or 100% certainty of anything in life…too bad.

With this knowledge we have a couple of choices:

  1. We could spend our lives engaging in what eminent psychologist, Jonathan Grayson, Ph.D. calls “The Wishing Ritual”. This is where we spend our time and energy trying to fight against something that is impossible to defeat…reality. I could spend hours, weeks, or years trying to make this tiny article perfectly appealing to all readers. However, the reality is that some may like it and some may not. I’m fairly certain some will disagree with the premise of my writing and condemn it as pop-psychology quackery. This will happen no matter what I do and how much I edit and re-edit. This will happen no matter how much advice and reassurance I get from my colleagues. The Wishing Ritual is a recipe for frustration and disappointment as time after time perfection remains an elusive goal.
  2. We can strive to embrace the reality of imperfection! Believe it or not, it is ok to be imperfect. In fact, since we are ALL imperfect, imperfection is normal. Nothing is ever 100% clean. No one is 100% appealing (or unappealing for that matter). Our bodies (especially as we age) are seldom or ever 100% free of unpleasant physical sensations. Since we are all imperfect, why not accept it! Do you ever agonize over making a decision, trying to be certain you are making the perfect one? Why not accept that sometimes you will make a decision that is less good than another decision…just so that you can make decisions, period. An imperfect decision does not mean catastrophe necessarily, but could simply be that another decision would have been almost equal or slightly better than another. Imagine the freedom of just being able to make decisions.

It is certainly ok to strive for excellence, though I wouldn’t recommend it across the board. You can strive to find a mate or career that is a great (but not perfect) match for you, but must you apply the same rigor to your choice of breakfast cereal? Instead of being a slave to the hope for perfection you can embrace the notion that we can simply be “good enough” (and horror of horrors…we can fail at things from time to time!).

In order to decrease perfectionism, it is important to identify which ways you are chasing perfection. Look at the pros and cons of striving for perfection in particular areas of your life. If the cons outweigh the pros then set a concrete Imperfection Goal. For example, send five e-mails or texts without checking, reviewing, or editing (better yet, intentionally throw in some spelling and grammar errors). After acting on your goal, evaluate the outcome. Was it catastrophic or was it good enough?

Welcome to the wonderful world of imperfection. Enjoy the freedom, but heed this warning: Do not attempt to become perfectly imperfect.

Eric Goodman, Ph.D.