Do You Expect Too Much from Yourself?

The perils of perfectionism

Posted Jan 14, 2016

Mary St George/ Flickr
Source: Mary St George/ Flickr

Do you seek perfection? Does everything you do need to be flawless—without possible failure? If so, your pursuit of perfection might be holding you back.

There are times when we need to be perfect or near-perfect, such as when constructing a bridge or performing surgery. Falling short of exacting specifications can spell danger. But for most of us most of the time, there is room for a margin of error. Most major league pitchers have never pitched a perfect game in their entire careers. The best hitters who earn $10 million to $20 million a year fail at least two-thirds of the time!

An attachment to being perfect reflects a lack of self-compassion and wisdom. The failure to embrace our humanity with its joys, sorrows, and imperfections leads to a rigid sense of self that shatters easily when we miss our goals. Emotional health requires gentleness toward ourselves as we embrace inevitable failures. We can find satisfaction in doing our best, but this doesn’t mean that we need to be perfect.

How often have we faced the sorrow of making a bad investment, whether in the stock market, relationships, or when buying a high-priced item? We’re not omnipotent. We can’t see every possible consequence to our actions. We can make decisions based upon the best info we have, but we can’t control life with all of its complexities and unknowns.

Moving toward a fulfilling life requires intelligent risk-taking. Our risks may or may not pan out. An appealing investment may sour. A relationship that seems promising might flounder when mutual imperfections interact. Seeking a perfect partner or thinking we need to be perfect is a recipe for failure.

It takes a sturdy sense of self to be flexible enough to take life in stride. When our self-worth and value are tied to our achievements, we feel deflated or embarrassed when we fall short of our inflated expectations.

Embracing Limitations

Perfectionism means setting our goals too high and having unrealistic expectations. Being allergic to failure is often driven by an underlying sense of shame. If we can achieve some lofty goal and be perfectly successful, then no one can shame us.

Failure is often a prerequisite for success. We become more resilient as we replace the aspiration for perfection with a humble desire to learn and grow from our experience. As psychotherapist Maud Purcell puts it:

“As human beings we err regularly … Unfortunately, we tend to view errors as failures. We overlook the possibility that the seeds of success are planted within our blunders.”

Author Kimon Nicolaides echoes a similar sentiment: “The sooner you make your first five thousand mistakes the sooner you will be able to correct them.”

We can’t avoid making mistakes, but we can learn and grow from them. Rather than view miscues as failures, we can see them as a necessary rite of passage toward future success. A popular comment in 12-step programs is that we should strive for progress, not perfection. 

If we’re working on a book, painting, or home improvement project, when is it good enough? As Leonardo da Vinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” I know from experience the difficulty of saying, “I need to let it go now; it’s good enough!” The perfectionist in me shouts or whispers: “It can be a little bit better.”

So I’ve reached the end of this article. Or have I? My inner perfectionist tells me that it’s getting too long: “If you ramble on, will anyone read it? Can’t you write about this topic in a clearer, more concise, interesting way? Can’t you say it a little bit better?”

I know the answer is a resounding yes! If I pore over it a little longer, I’m sure I can find a more compelling way to make my points. But alas, there are other articles to be written and a life to be lived. I take a deep breath — hoping that whatever I’ve said might help some people be a little kinder to themselves, as I remember to be kinder to myself. I take a deep breath and reassure myself that it’s good enough. A big gulp as I hit the send button.

© John Amodeo

I invite you to view and consider liking my Facebook page and click on “get notifications”(under "Likes") to receive future posts. If you like this article, you might enjoy Dancing with Fire (you can read reviews on Amazon).

John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT is author of the award-winning book about relationships as a spiritual path, DancingwithFire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships. His other books include TheAuthenticHeart and Love&Betrayal. He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for 35 years in the San Francisco Bay area and has lectured and conducted workshops internationally.

flickr image by Mary St George