Perfecting Imperfection

Strategies to manage perfectionism and pursue your goals.

Posted Jun 30, 2020

The pandemic, the protests, and calls to care for the environment can all weigh heavy on one’s mind. Trying to devise the “best” way to approach any of these causes could lead one down a Google wormhole. For many, that wormhole often leads to “analysis paralysis,” in which one consumes an exorbitant amount of information and is ultimately unable to distill it all to make a decision. Sound familiar? You might be a victim of perfectionism.

Perfectionism takes on many forms. It could be having one’s home perfectly organized, it could be an intricate system to support task completion, or it could be achieving a “just right” feeling to decrease distress or promote a sense of resolve. In cognitive-behavioral therapy, it is not suggested that perfectionism is inherently bad or good; instead, we examine the impact of perfectionism on one’s life.

Perfectionism goes hand-in-hand with polarized thoughts. Polarized thoughts are those that are all-or-nothing in nature. Something could be amazing or terrible, perfectly perfect or worthless, the best or the worst. This way of thinking, common in depression and anxiety, doesn’t allow for much flexibility. Without flexibility, perfectionism may promote anxiety, frustration, negative self-talk, and ultimately inaction.

To challenge perfectionistic, polarized thoughts, it may be helpful to ask oneself, “Is doing something better than nothing in this situation?” or “Can something be imperfect but still achieve the goal?” “Is it possible to be perfectly imperfect?” These questions may challenge polarized thinking, increase flexibility, and support action.

When doing something is better than nothing

As an example, thinking about “going green.” One could research all the ways in which one could reduce a carbon footprint, reduce waste, the best way to compost…the list goes on. Although well-intentioned, this research could understandably become overwhelming. This may be a time to ask oneself, “Is doing something better than nothing?” 

Focusing on small changes to support one’s goal of “going green,” such as focusing on sorting recyclables in one’s home, may serve to 1) promote action 2) increase engagement in value-oriented behaviors, and/or 3) improve one’s mood through increased activity and engagement in value-oriented behaviors. 

Selectively applying perfectionism

Perfectionism is a tricky thing. At times, it can be seen as a highly desirable quality, and at other times a quality to be mocked. The pursuit of perfectionism can be painful, but its achievement can promote euphoria. These factors highlight the complexity of managing perfectionism. 

In reality, it might be best to selectively apply perfectionism to certain situations that are highly valued or reinforcing, support one’s goal, and have a low likelihood of promoting negative emotions or interpersonal conflict.

In our “going green” example, perfectionism may support the creation of an amazing recyclable sorting system that is easy, efficient, and effective. If this is a fun, value-oriented mental exercise, way to go! Indulge the perfectionism! If, however, perfectionism promotes a multi-hour search on Amazon for the best buckets to use in the system, it may be time to challenge the perfectionism. Spare yourself the dizzying frustration and one-click your way to “going green.”

Perfectionism is not perfect. It can be both awesome and horrible at once. Focus on your goals, and consider an attempt at perfecting imperfection.