When Good Enough Is More Than Enough
How to let go of perfectionism.
by Amy Vigliotti, Ph.D
A healthy perfectionist is a mythical creature, like a mermaid or a unicorn. While perfectionists are often hard workers who act with loyalty and integrity, they are more vulnerable to anger, depression, and burnout as they chase after a moving, unreachable target. They try to ward off anxiety and any accompanying unpleasant feelings (e.g., disappointment, rejection) by ensuring everything is just right.
Despite the emotional burden that accompanies perfectionism, a lot of people don’t want to give up their perfectionism because they confuse it with their ambition and drive. They tend to cling to it despite it being the “100-ton armor they carry around” (Brené Brown). Additionally, if a perfectionist chooses to pursue therapy, they can worry that if they lower their standards too much, they won’t succeed. The desire to be perfect, however, is not the same as the desire to excel.
Since perfection is so rare, though, this unattainable goal paradoxically only serves to increase negativity. According to Amanda Ruggeri, “Perfectionism, after all, is an ultimately self-defeating way to move through the world. It is built on an excruciating irony: making and admitting mistakes is a necessary part of growing and learning and being human.”
You might ask how someone develops perfectionistic tendencies in the first place. There are many paths to perfectionism, with one common cause being the longing for love and approval.
For example, a 30-something female had incredible ambition from a young age. Her narcissistic parents, though, rarely attended to her unless they were commenting on her academic accomplishments. Consequently, this set the stage for this naturally intelligent, high-achieving child to develop perfectionistic tendencies. This perfectionism masked the hope that, if she did everything just right, her parents would spend more time with her. It is this need to be accepted, loved, and cared for that often drives perfectionism.
If any of this sounds familiar to you, ask yourself:
- Do you wish you could just let things be “good enough”?
- Do you find that you think and rethink things to make sure they are just so?
- Do you worry about losing someone’s interest, love, and/or approval if you are less than ideal?
If you find yourself answering yes to any of these questions, it might be time to let go of your perfectionistic tendencies. We all have slights, errors, and even failures that make up our history, our personal narratives, and our sense of ourselves. To be balanced, we must accept our strengths and our weaknesses, as difficult a process as that can be at times.
There are strategies that can help lessen the self-criticism and self-doubt that co-occur with perfectionism. Think about a current situation that stirs up judgment and anxiety for you, and start asking yourself the following questions:
- Is this situation as important as it feels? Would it be inconsequential to someone else?
- Are there other perspectives to consider?
- Do I know for sure that things will turn out negatively?
- Will becoming frustrated and critical result in a better outcome?
- Could my energy be more useful directed elsewhere?
- If I zoom out, how much does this situation impact my overall well-being?
Taking these questions into consideration may help you challenge your perfectionistic tendencies, and you may learn to be OK with letting things be as they are.
Seeing the big picture and letting things be good enough are two important strategies to reduce perfectionism. As you might imagine, letting go of perfectionism is a daily practice, just like yoga or training for a marathon; you will not get to your goal overnight. Once you establish your practice, though, you will be more likely to catch unhelpful tendencies and adopt a new attitude.
Be open to where this practice may take you. You might go as far as to become an anti-perfectionist. Adam Grant, an openly recovering perfectionist, says:
“It’s helpful to be part of a culture that accepts and even celebrates human fallibility. But sometimes that isn’t enough—you need strategies for dealing with perfectionism within yourself. Which is about normalizing your own mistakes and failures. Personally, I’ve found it helpful to adopt anti-perfectionism. I aim to fail a few times a year. Yep, I have a fail quota. What else would you expect a recovering perfectionist to do? I want to get as good as humanly possible—at failing.”
Another effective strategy is thinking about what you notice and admire in others. Picture someone you love who shares your values, doesn’t take themselves too seriously, and accepts the human condition. What is it that draws you to that person? Their charm is not in their flawlessness. Name the qualities and experiences that bring you together. How do you respond and let go of their shortcomings? Then, imagine allowing yourself that same latitude and appreciation.
Accepting our fallibility requires a great deal of self-compassion and humor. You may want to consider developing a daily mindfulness practice.