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 wrote 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 (or you’re not human).
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 among 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.
Mistakes will happen
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. Similarly, at some tasks, you will fail. That is pretty much guaranteed to happen.
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. If that’s the case, you’re probably not going to end up feeling too bad about things.
Of course, perfectionism 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.
Embracing the quirks
Differentness is a lot more interesting than sameness. We all have our quirks, so why not embrace them? They’re the things that make you a unique individual.
I am kind of gross; my guinea pigs eat their own poop, and I quite happily kiss them. I’m also a geek; I like looking stuff up, and I get amused by certain odd words or concepts that latch onto. My feet get cold, so I always wear socks, even in bed (no matter what’s going on in bed—yes, I’m that person). I have a pelvic floor prolapse called a rectocele from injuring my vagina while kayaking (weird but true). I have a crooked smile, which my mom is convinced is because I had a forceps delivery. These quirks aren’t flaws; they’re bits of me, and I’m good with them.
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 and kissing her poopy-faced guinea pigs.
So grab a cushion and a hot chocolate and join the party.
The post What Is… Perfectionism is where you’ll find all things perfectionism-related on Mental Health @ Home.
Embrace Acceptance: A Guided Journal draws on concepts from acceptance and commitment therapy to help you move towards a place of greater acceptance. You can find it on the Resources page.