The Drive for Perfection

The olympics are coming to PyeongChang next month. Like much of the rest of the world, I expect that I’ll spend hours in front of the screen admiring the prowess of these hand-picked athletes and wonder as usual how they manage to accomplish so much. I always enjoy the backstory and learning about what drove them to such greatness to begin with…but eventually I begin to wonder about the other competitors who never quite make it into the limelight – the ones who are a fraction of a second off who aren’t worthy of a medal and all the attention and glory that comes with it. You have to wonder if it’s the result of a narcissistic society that drives people to such lengths, when there’s the very real possibility that they will never be one of the select few who receive such praise. And what’s more amazing is the number of us who hold ourselves to such high expectations in the everyday world, in everyday life.

You might be surprised to learn that the drive for perfection is often an attempt to ward off anxiety. It might seem unlikely, but actually it’s true. Think about it – if you do everything perfect then no one can touch you, right? You won’t be subject to things like criticism which for many of us is something of a source of shame and self-loathing. If you do happen to make it to the top of the pedestal, it’s true you may be “unscathed” but at the same time, it can be a pretty lonely place to be. We already know that true connection comes from a place of vulnerability. So why bother?

It might be worthwhile to pause and think about some of the costs of striving for perfection. Maybe notice that feeling of being kept on a tight rope – one wrong move and you fall – a pretty rigid place to be, no? This can lead to chronic exhaustion, stress and burnout. I think that the need for perfection keeps us from taking necessary risks and learning important lessons in life. And perhaps more importantly, it keeps us from seeing all of our accomplishments, all that we are actually doing right and all that is good in the world. I mean, how many babies would never learn to walk had they been too ashamed to fall? Perfectionism keeps you in a bubble and that can only be so comfortable for so long. On the other hand, think about all that you gain when you allow yourself to be perfectly imperfect. Freedom maybe? An ability to learn and grow stronger in some ways? The flexibility to fully engage and enjoy life without relying on external validation? What if the key to success isn’t about being hard on yourself and beating yourself up, but rather in learning to give yourself some slack?

The truth is, no one is above reproach. Just ask any celebrity. Time and again we see highly talented people rise to the height of stardom only to come crashing down at the hands of their critics. And there are always critics. Do you really want to let society have the last say in your value as a person? Unless you’re a brain surgeon, there probably isn’t such need for absolute precision. So the next time you get a A- or (gasp!) a B on an exam, rest assured that you’re in good company. Like with all those truly amazing athletes who make it to the olympics and don’t happen to win the medal. Maybe it’s just a hunch, but my guess is that the gold medal winners will be right there with you too – I’m pretty sure that all of them can find something else to be happy about. Maybe the secret is in knowing that you are lovable just as you are.

Speaking of critics…some wise women pointed me in the direction of this gem:

And subsequently, this one:

Copyright 2018 ©  Rachel Braun, All rights reserved.

Rachel Braun, ATR-BC  Art Therapist Philadelphia, PA

Specializing in art therapy groups for women who experience depression, anxiety and eating disorders.