The Effects of Perfectionism on Happiness and Success
by Kinga Lewandowska — 5 min read
Perfection is the absence of flaws. Perfection is a myth. Nobody and nothing can ever be truly perfect and yet so many of us fall victim to the pursuit of the impossible every chance we get.
What’s the most common answer to the job interview question about our biggest weakness? You guessed it, perfectionism. Ironically, even though 90% of the time this response is meant to reshape the supposed negativity into an asset, it only manages to expose the truth: perfectionism really is a weakness.
"So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun... The most evil trick about perfectionism, though, is that it disguises itself as a virtue." – Rebecca Solnit
In Their Not-So-Humble Opinion
Trusting the opinions of others is a risky business, especially if the person is not a member of your trusted circle. Evaluating our actions on the basis of somebody else’s reaction is folly. When we care too much about what others think, we hand out our freedom and it becomes increasingly difficult to trust our gut.
Perfectionism regards the tiniest defects as unacceptable. No matter the degree of knowledge, wisdom, or expertise of the critic, only scientific facts and laws of nature are non-negotiable, opinions are always subjective. There is absolutely no possibility of ever being able to please everyone for two reasons:
No person, creation, action, or behavior will ever be truly free of defects.
There will always be at least one person disapproving of said person, creation, action, or behavior.
You will never receive useless criticism from anyone who does more than you do on a daily basis. It will always come from those unwilling to put in the necessary work to live out their dreams. Approach their criticism with caution, tune out all opinions that don’t add value to your life.
An App Is Not A Mirror
Over the past couple of decades, we’ve grown conscious of the dangers of adhering to questionable success and beauty standards. While we seem to have passed the era of models collapsing on runways from malnutrition, heavily edited images still remain somewhat problematic in glossy magazines. And today we face entirely new peril – social media – which projects an inauthentic version of actuality and creates unrealistic expectations.
According to research conducted by Dove Self-Esteem Project, by age 13, 80% of girls distort the way they look online. Why would we do that to ourselves? Because perfectionism makes us hide behind a veil of illusion provided by yet another retouching app. While plastic surgery can be way outside our budget, the apps are dangerously free. Unsurprisingly, all this leads to lower self-esteem as well as anxiety and depression disorders. Rethink your Instagram selfie. No need to post an unflattering picture, yet the courage to be your unapologetic self will create more room for others to follow your lead to a better, more authentic reality.
"We are not meant to be perfect; we are meant to be whole." – Jane Fonda
Behind The Scenes
How we use social media influences countless aspects of our private realities. Scrolling through never-ending feeds and falling down the rabbit whole of stories or reels not only steals our valuable time, but also magnifies our insecurities and makes us feel stuck in our seemingly less impressive lives.
When marveling at the photos of people living their dream lives, we tend to forget that there’s always more to the story than meets the eye. At the very least, they had to work really hard to afford this lifestyle. For example, leaving a stable 9-5 job to become entrepreneurs, digital creators or professional travellers can be risky. Would you venture into such uncertainty? The struggles, challenges, and losses are rarely posted for us to see. Every time you feel envy, remind yourself that a stunning picture is not the whole picture.
Comparison is the killer of joy. It can also make us feel behind in life. Instead of asking ourselves what we really want, we watch others buying cars, houses, marrying the love of their lives, having beautiful and smart kids, getting all sorts of diplomas and titles, becoming CEOs of the biggest companies, being featured in Forbes 30 Under 30, starting their own successful businesses, and investing their money. In the meantime, our Fear Of Missing Out overwhelms us with their success.
Shake it off. We all have our own timelines, our own pace. If you’re willing to use online content to educate yourself, network, seek inspiration instead of frustration, deliver value, spread joy, and share your passion and creativity, you will find your own perfect path when you’re ready. Social media is not real life, it’s only a selected fraction of it. Your only reference point should be you.
In his book The War Of Art, Steven Pressfield writes about a force emanating from work yet to be done. He calls it Resistance and defines it as a cunning inhibitor with the power to rationalize your excuses, project your self-doubt into your routine, and point towards various limitations. It’s a close relative to Seth Godin’s concept of the lizard brain. It can paralyze you and steal every ounce of joy from what you do to keep you from reaching your goals. Resistance is disguised perfectionism.
It feasts on fear. We might feel we’re not good enough, we’re afraid of failure, negative feedback, or being selfish. Fear is your compass, it points towards what you care about most deeply, your North Star. And since the line between ambition and perfectionism can be thin and blurry, instead of gently dipping our toes out of the comfort zone to learn and grow (ambition), we grind until our teeth hit the pavement (perfectionism). There’s only one thing we can do to get off that hamster wheel.
"We don’t have time for perfect. In any event, perfection is unachievable: It’s a myth and a trap and a hamster wheel that will run you to death". – Elizabeth Gilbert
Start Before You’re Ready
Have you ever watched a movie and noticed a cameraman hiding in the corner? Or a plane flying over the head of an actor playing a Spartan? Or maybe the cut between scenes failed to translate seamlessly to the final edit? The biggest Hollywood productions are full of mistakes and errors. Do they make us like our favorite movies less? Not one bit.
Plot holes in novels, typos in presentations, or missing your lucky charm during a very important basketball game are all incarnations of perfectionism. No conditions, efforts, or outcomes will ever be perfect and you may never feel 100% ready to do anything you truly care about. That is not to say that you should launch something you’re not satisfied with. But if you keep overthinking the tiniest details, your work will never see the light of day and you will rob the world of your valuable contribution. Take action, focus on progress, not perfection, and you will feel the right moment to let go.
"Truly perfect is becoming friendly with your imperfections on the way to doing something remarkable." – Seth Godin
Nothing about perfectionism is helpful. If we never allowed ourselves to be bad at something, how would we ever learn to be better? If we kept waiting for the perfect moment, we would be waiting forever and a day. Keep your work ethic on point, show up early and prepared. Bit by bit, day by day, focus on putting one foot in front of the other until the time comes for your gifts to be released into the world. Perfectionism is a form of self-sabotage – done is always better than perfect. Your mess is your message.
"There are two types of pain you will go through in life, the pain of discipline and the pain of regret. Discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons." – Jim Rohn
Perfectionism is the dragon that stands between you and the treasure of joy and a fully lived life. Tame the creature and keep it on a leash. With or without the approval of others, beautiful in your own way, turning resistance into persistence, and allowing your fear to lead the way – vow to trust your imperfections. They do not stand in your way to greatness and success, they are part of it.
Here is a simple set-by-step guide, inspired by the Best Year Journal practice, to help you set achievable, attainable goals in four steps. Change the way you plan your future. Set objectives, aims, and plans you can actually stick to.