Is it healthy to strive for perfection?

I love it when I hit a nerve. A few weeks ago, I responded to a reader about her compulsion to raise ‘the perfect child.’ The great majority of you who contacted me asked about the various implications of expressions like ‘Nobody’s perfect.’

Though it sounds innocent, the saying actually implies both a truth and a falsehood. The most obvious (and truthful) interpretation is that we are all capable of making mistakes. Nobody is entitled to say, “I declare it, therefore it’s true. That’s all the reason you need.” Ridiculous. Everyone has to be prepared to prove and defend what he or she asserts.

At the same time, the saying wrongly suggests that it’s not possible, or even desirable, to hold oneself up to a high—or even realistic—standard. By that rule, one is free to rationalize that, for example, it’s just not possible to keep one’s word, or to possess integrity, or to perform a task with excellence (and, yes, maybe even perfection). Ahh! Excuse-making and denial at it’s finest!

So, in that context, when a person says ‘Nobody’s perfect,’ he or she is trying to rationalize away something for which there’s no excuse. It would be a lot healthier if they simply admitted, ‘There’s no excuse. I made a mistake and I accept the consequences.’

Of course, most mistakes are forgivable. Indeed, we have to forgive ourselves for our own mistakes, otherwise, how could we go on without feeling hopeless? But the attitude of ‘Nobody’s perfect’ makes me nervous. When someone says it, I wonder if they really care that they made a mistake. It’s like they’re excusing it away with a cavalier ‘So what? I don’t care.’

This brings us to the subject of ‘perfectionism.’ Most mental health experts define perfectionism as a series of false beliefs, which include (according to, ‘Striving to be the best, to reach the ideal and to never make a mistake.’ I have a problem with the negative implication here. There’s nothing unhealthy about striving to be the best. People accomplish great things and feel proud of it. That’s good for self-esteem. But the negative implication is that NOT trying is actually a good thing. Sounds like a convenient way to let yourself off the hook, doesn’t it?

At the same time, the compulsive need to ‘never make a mistake’ is equally unhealthy. It’s impossible to go through life without making mistakes and, if you look at the lives of successful people, you’ll see that they often distinguish themselves by turning mistakes into victories. Mistakes are never desirable, but at least they guarantee new knowledge. (That reminds me of the amusingly rueful but true statement that ”Experience’ is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.’) identifies another aspect of perfectionism as ‘The belief that no matter what you attempt, it is never ‘good enough’ to meet your own or others’ expectations.’ A lot of people struggle with this, and it’s an unhealthy way to think. In my experience, perfectionists are afraid to ever consider anything ‘good enough.’ They feel that patting themselves on the back for a job well done is equivalent to declaring an end to all progress. That’s silly. If you did your best, then you’re free to judge something you’ve done as good enough—or more than good enough—and then maybe even strive to do better next time.

This problem often stems from childhood. Though it’s natural for a child to want to please his or her parents, the failure to grow up emotionally will lead the adult to subconsciously keep trying to please mommy or daddy, instead of themselves. As a result, there’s this gnawing, resentful feeling that ‘I’ll never be good enough.’ But as long as you’re pleasing yourself, and living up to your own standards, what’s the problem? This is why I believe that one of the central purposes of psychotherapy and the like is helping people grow up emotionally. Sometimes we’re stuck in a phase of life where we don’t belong, and we don’t even know it.

Another false belief that contributes to perfectionism is, ‘Unless I am ‘Number One’ there is no sense in trying. Winning is the only acceptable goal.’ Competition, in and of itself, is not unhealthy. It’s the way people handle competition that matters. If being ‘Number One’ is the primary purpose, then you don’t really stand for anything, because all that matters is beating the other guy. If your objective is to do well, and, in the process, you happen to win, then it’s fine. Victory becomes a fortunate side-benefit of your efforts.

People who compete in an unhealthy way rely on others to set the standard: ‘He accomplished this much; I have to accomplish more.’ Those who compete in a healthy way strive to beat their own best standard. In other words, they’re driven internally, rather than externally. The most important thing is to accomplish, to the best of your ability, whatever you consider worthwhile in life.

Don’t expect to be infallible. Yet, at the same time, always aim as high as you can. The boost to your happiness and self-esteem will be a victory all by itself.