by Chay Tanchanco, LMFT
“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it's often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.” -Brene Brown
To some degree, many of us struggle with the concept of perfection. We know logically that it is unattainable, that 'there is no such thing' as 'true' perfection (whatever that looks like). And yet, many of us still find ourselves critical of the moments we don't get it 'quite' right.
For some, it's social situations: we feel paralyzed by conversation, we might avoid parties or gatherings unless we are going with someone we are very comfortable around. For others, it's our day to day tasks or large projects: we push ourselves hard every day to do the highest quality of work, to continuously gain knowledge or physical goals or even emotional strength. For still others, we might seek perfection in our relationships, dating with standards we think are 'too high' and repeatedly turn people down or scrutinizing them--as well as our friends, family, co-workers, and/or children for details without really realizing we are doing it.
Sometimes we experience many of them at once.
Perfection says, "You have to keep pushing; there's always something/someone better. You have to keep outdoing yourself. This isn't good enough."
Anxiety says, "And if you don't, you will be worthless. You will belong nowhere. You will never be happy."
And yet, we have good reasons to strive for perfection.
We were raised to try our best; we will not settle for less than that. We were told that hard work would bring us results. We see examples of top athletes, CEOs, artists, scientists, medical professionals, celebrities, entrepreneurs, etc. who proved it, time and time again. When we were miserable and powerless, lost and confused, perfection gave us direction and purpose. Acknowledging its intention can help us let go of the stress it brings us.
Between COVID-19 and the civil rights movement of Black Lives Matter, there have been many different crucibles for people to feel the increased tension between perfection and anxiety. The relationship between these two is a harmony drenched in toxicity. COVID-19 took many of us out of our usual routine and comfort zone; many of us lost the activities that occupied us and helped us maintain our mental health, whether it was running or going to the gym, socializing at restaurants and bars, participating in organized sports, planning or working at or enjoying events where we danced or soaked in live music. The horrific deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many more Black people and the Black Lives Matter movement that surged across the world reminded us all how much more work there still is to do in terms of civil rights for all.
Perfection said, "It doesn't matter the circumstances; things will always be tough. You have to keep pushing, pandemic or not. You have to try harder."
Anxiety said, "Nothing is certain, and I need to do something to make it certain or ELSE. If I'm not perfect, I'll offend someone, or I'll waste away, or I'll be exposed or 'cancelled'."
Perfection gives us direction, but not empathy. Anxiety is fear with energy; and often, it has a hard time making efficient decisions.
What do we do, then?
I always talk to people about emotions being our indicator lights. They're not evil; they're not here to ruin our lives, even though it seems like they can be at times. Anxiety is what happens when we have ignored or simply haven't seen our more detailed warning lights many times over; it becomes a blanket alarm "SOMETHING IS WRONG", but it's not specific. It's hard for us to have compassion for anxiety because it is so pervasive and persistent and also unclear. It's the annoying, overwhelming feeling we wish away and simultaneously, feed regularly.
Perfection is, fortunately, a fluid concept. We can define it for ourselves; it does not have to be what society or anyone else told us it should be. In fact, it can probably look a lot more like what we see as imperfection. We are in a state of constant becoming; growth requires mistakes and shedding of what has not served us. We must see then that our self-worth is separate from the outcomes or accomplishment piece of our development.
In her book, "The Gifts of Imperfection", Brené Brown writes:
“Here's what is truly at the heart of wholeheartedness:
Worthy now, not if, not when, we're worthy of love and belonging now. Right this minute. As is.”
Step by step, we need to break perfection into more helpful pieces, so we can take out the parts that feed anxiety and keep the parts that glow and keep us motivated to change, challenge ourselves, and grow.
1. First, break down perfection into its purer purpose:
How has perfection helped me?
What is important about perfection to me?
What is its good intention?
If perfection is specific to a certain area of your life, such as your job or your relationship, then answer these questions in that area.
2. Next, ask yourself how perfection prevents you from reaching those goals as well, especially when it pairs with anxiety.
How does perfection stand in my way?
What does it focus on too often or too much?
What seems to compete with the good intention?
Knowing these two sets of answers, you may find that you can re-orient towards 1 while being aware that 2 can creep in. If for example, you have been running competitively and your time trials are of the utmost importance, taking a step back and looking at your progress over time may illuminate some areas where you may still gain strength and ability. It can help reignite the love you have for the sport rather than focusing on the competitions that were canceled and allowing that to dictate how you feel about yourself.
3. Then, find the smallest step you can take to loosen perfection's grip on your life, and take it.
When I say "small", I mean small. If you have a hard time letting go of details, even allowing for something small to be out of place for a few minutes and then putting it back can be a win. This becomes easier with time and reflection. (Emotional work is work, remember?) Practicing it regularly tells your brain, it's not a detriment to my development if I don't meet every high standard that I set for myself.
Will doing this reduce my quality of work?
Am I giving up on being the best I can be?
This is a common question among high achievers, and when we aren't operating in a place of intensity, it can often feel like slacking or downright laziness.
We are not intending to let go of achieving greatness; we are not hoping to lower the standards of society. The world is changing because humans are relentless, ever present to the difficulties and struggles of being alive, and continue to pursue their dreams and grapple with their fears. When anxiety and perfection meet, they hold us in paralysis. When we strive for continuous growth, for lifelong learning, for excellence that includes both outcomes and empathy, we may find that perfection isn't even what we wanted in the first place.