Trying to be perfect is Sisyphus-like turmoil. Face it: No matter how hard you try, you’re going to mess up sometimes. You can certainly do something very well, even near perfect, like not breaking the yolk when you flip an egg or launching your dirty socks in the laundry basket on the first try, but at some point in your day, week, month, or year, you’re going to make a mistake. That’s the beauty of being human: You can screw up, dust yourself off, and try again – and again and again and again if you need to.
The problem with perfectionism is that as hard as you try to attain it, it’s always going to be out of your reach. This leads to disappointment, harsh self-criticism, and in severe cases, depression. Here’s how:
- You’re only happy with an accomplishment if it’s done perfectly.
Nadia Comaneci may have been the first gymnast to get a perfect 10.0 score, but she did a lot of falling down before she got there. Da Vinci’s invention of the parachute and ball bearing was sheer brilliance, but his “water shoes” were kind of meh. The point is, while you should certainly celebrate your successes, you have to accept that you will fail along the way – it’s all part of the process. If you did everything perfect all the time, every time, on the first try, there’s a good chance you’ll get bored and yearn for a challenge. Waiting to be happy until you’ve done something perfectly is like waiting until you retire to enjoy yourself: It’s just going to make you miserable.
- You’re only happy with an accomplishment if it receives praise from others.
Jimi Hendrix – the greatest guitarist of all time, in my humble opinion – hated being complimented. He felt it would detract him, make him lazy. And while he was a perfectionist in the sense of always striving to find a better sound or get a message out in his lyrics, he would likely have been the first one to admit that he wasn’t perfect. He was a pioneer. He was unorthodox. And he certainly wasn’t on everyone’s favorite’s list – nor did he care to be. He produced the kind of music that spoke to him, whether others liked it or not.
It doesn’t matter whether others like you, or like what you do. If you live for other people’s praise, you’ll have a hard time being happy because people are fickle, and won’t always see things the way you do. Take pride in your accomplishments, because none of them would have come to pass without your effort, dedication, and willingness to try.
- You believe that being perfect will protect you from rejection.
When my friend frustratingly called me because he had to break up with yet another girl in a long string of girlfriends, he lamented for a good half hour about how difficult it was for him to find the perfect girl.
“Well there’s the root of your problem,” I explained. “You’re searching for something that you’re never going to find. There is no perfect person. The perfect person is the person whose imperfections you can live with.”
No matter how hard you try to live up to other people’s expectations, it’s almost always a losing battle. You may knock yourself out attempting to be the perfect parent, partner, child, employee, friend, etc., but trying to make everyone happy (without making yourself miserable) is impossible. Live your life the best way you know how, and leave room for error. The only person whose happiness you need to concern yourself about is your own. If someone doesn’t like you for who you are, that’s not really your problem.
- You expect other people to live up to your expectations of them. It’s the never-ending tug-of-war: You want your partner to be the princess/knight in shining armor that you imagined they would/should be; you want your child to not make the same mistakes you did; you want that task you delegated to be done exactly the same way you do it. Will it happen? Maybe. Will it happen consistently in exactly the way you prefer? Not likely. Much like trying to live up to other people’s expectations, setting the bar too high for the people around you is going to result in disappointment. And the more stringent those expectations, the harder it will be to overcome that disappointment, potentially leading to depression. Life isn’t always going to go the way you want it to. Accept that people are not always going to behave the way you hope they will. It’s the only way you’ll be able to adapt, sidestep disappointment, and avoid the trappings of depression.