Mental health

The Problem with Perfect

The problem with perfect is that it doesn't exist

Being perfect is an ideal that some people may strive for or feel that they are required to attain, but how realistic is the notion of perfection?

One of the biggest problems with perfect is that a lot of things in this world are subjective.  When it comes to things that are subjective, everyone has their own idea of what perfect is to them, so there is no such thing as a one true perfect.

So what happens if we want to be perfect but there is no perfect?  We make assumptions about what other people’s standard of perfection is.  And like the saying goes, to assume makes an ass out of u and me.  That assumed standard of perfection that you might feel compelled to meet is most likely far higher than the standard that you would expect of someone else, but why should your standard count in comparison to the assumed standards of hypothetical others?

Alexander Pope said in his Essay on Criticism that “to err is human; to forgive, divine.”  In 1999, the U.S. National Institute of Medicine report To Err is Human exposed the number of deaths that resulted from medical errors.  People make mistakes.  That’s what we do.  All of us.  On a regular basis.  If you don’t make any mistakes, I suspect you don’t exist.

Even high-performance Olympic athletes make mistakes.  People train for years with a support team that addresses every element of the athlete’s performance. Yet in the top 10 Olympic figure skaters in any given event there will be multiple people who fall.  They’re the best of the best, and they’re landing on their butts.

So rather than expecting perfection, wouldn’t it be more rational to expect some mistakes?  If you can catch them all before they’re outwardly visible, great, but know that a few will probably get through.

In a variety of contexts, our reaction has less to do with the situation itself than with the discrepancy between reality and our expectations.  If you go in expecting perfection, 99 times out of 100 you’re going to be disappointed, and judge yourself negatively as a result.  Does this help you be more perfect next time?  Probably not; the more likely scenario is that you’ll feel even greater pressure to be perfect, which will make you all the more likely to be human and make mistakes.

If you go into a situation expecting that a few errors will slip through, and then, being human, you do have the odd error that slips through, the discrepancy between actual performance and expectations isn’t very big, so probably you end up feeling not too bad about things.

Of course, perfection isn’t the only thing we might get hooked on.  There are comparisons to others, and also comparisons to self at previous points in time (which tends to be my own biggest hangup).  Regardless, though, there are some things that we can control, and others that we can’t.  What we always have control over (although it may sometimes take a fair bit of mental wrestling) is our expectations.

Expect too high (e.g. perfection) and you’ll always be disappointed.  Expect too low, and you may not do as much as you’re capable of.  Somewhere in the middle is Goldilocks, sitting on her butt at the Olympic ice rink, sipping some yummy hot chocolate.

So grab a cushion and a hot chocolate and join the party.

You may also be interested in Embracing Imperfection and What is… Perfectionism.

Embrace Acceptance guided journal from Mental Health @ Home

This free guided journal to help you Embrace Acceptance is based on acceptance and commitment therapy.  It’s available on the MH@H Store.

37 thoughts on “The Problem with Perfect”

  1. The middle way seems to be the most appropriate way. This post felt like a small kick on the butt. I will be happy to sit in the middle and sip some hot coco.

  2. Great post! I have to remind myself constantly that it is okay to make mistakes and that perfection is unrealistic. I also struggle with comparing myself to others. A quote that helps me is “don’t compare your outsides to someone else’s insides.”

  3. My dad calls the ice-skating falls “rump flumps”. As in, “And… she’s down! Another rump flump!” 😀

    For me, I don’t think I’m much of a perfectionist, but sometimes I internalize and blame myself for stuff that really isn’t my fault. Like if a friend flakes out on me, or if a friend seems to lose interest in me, I see it as a personal failing. I know that’s irrational because it has nothing to do with me and everything to do with their view of me. (None of this includes any angry exchanges, just a feeling like I’m not good enough or normal enough for them, and that sort of thing.) I have to keep reminding myself that good friends would accept me as I am and not pull away from me for no good reason.

    1. The kind of people you want in your life are the kind of people that want to be there too. If they don’t want to be there, they don’t deserve a ticket to the Meg show.

  4. I’m drinking my hot cocoa through a straw with my teeth whitening trays in bwahaha! This is a great post, I have struggle for years, it’s becoming less of a struggle as my journey continues. But I do have my whitening trays in, as I’m busy packing and organizing I came across them and thought eh what the hell. I’ll have sparkly teeth for all the woodland creatures I’m moving in with. Maybe they’ll blind the grizzly bears as I’m screaming for my life……..

  5. We tried to not like the post and wound up feeling that healthy, helpful normalization. Thank you.

    We are perfectionist and it causes much suffering, as you point out. If we are cooking and put a dirty fork in the sink and then need another fork while cooking, we feel like a failure. It’s just a fork!

    1. I’m a bit (or perhaps a lot) on the gross side, and if I dropped a fork on the floor, I’d pick it up and use it again. Being gross and perfectionism don’t like to hang out together much. 😉

  6. I love this quote: The closest to perfection a person ever comes is when he fills out a job application form — Stanley J. Randall. It’s been hanging around my “office space” for years lol.

  7. What a great post! Perfectionism and expectations trip so many of us up so often – I have a mantra for the young people I work with that mistakes are how we learn so it’s good to make them! 😃

  8. I bookmarked this post. Why? Because I sometimes struggle with perfection myself, and when I do struggle with that, re-reading this post is exactly what I’ll need.

  9. seeing both ends is so helpful- not setting the bar too low or too high! This makes me feel better as I embark on a challenging journey, and knowing that it’s okay to make mistakes, but not sitting there without expectations of myself! I loved the ending line of this post!!

  10. I love how you hit so many important points.

    This was well written, balance is vital.

    I recently did a post on how perfect is subjective and proveably impossible, due to the nature of individualism. You complement that post well.

    Nature doesn’t optimize for the individual, it optimizes for the whole. It’s a glitch of consciousness, our desire to feel special, that we think the world revolves around us to the degree that we even consider the idea of perfection at an individual level.
    Misses the bigger picture entirely.
    🤔🤔

    It’s very much a mental game.

    Thank you for sharing! 😄

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