Is Perfection Always Best?

A few months ago, I responded to a reader about her compulsion to raise “the perfect child.” Many of your responses centered on the various implications of “Nobody’s perfect”. The most obvious (and truthful) interpretation of that is that we are all capable of making mistakes. But nobody is entitled to say, “I declare it, therefore it’s true.” Ridiculous. Everyone has to be prepared to defend what he or she asserts.

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

When a person says “Nobody’s perfect,” he or she is trying to rationalize something for which there’s no excuse. Better to simply say, “There’s no excuse. I made a mistake.”

This brings us to the subject of “perfectionism.” Most mental health experts define perfectionism as a series of false beliefs which include striving to be the best, to reach the ideal and to never make a mistake. But I have a problem with the negative implication here. There’s nothing unhealthy about striving to be the best. 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.

At the same time, the compulsive need to “never make a mistake” is equally unhealthy. If you look at the lives of successful people, you’ll see that they often distinguish themselves by turning mistakes into victories. Mistakes guarantee new knowledge. identifies an 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 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 maybe even strive to do better next time.

This problem can stem 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 rather than themselves. As a result, there’s this gnawing, resentful feeling that “I’ll never be good enough.” This is why I believe that one of the central purposes of psychotherapy is helping people grow up emotionally. Sometimes we’re stuck in a phase 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 healthy. It’s the way people handle competition that matters. If being “Number One” is the primary purpose, then you really don’t 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 value-added to 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. The most important thing is to be a success at whatever you consider worthwhile.

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 in itself.