From the time you were a small child, you were given lofty goals and led to believe that failing to reach them was less than ideal. If you’re like most of us, you were taught to aim high and never be satisfied with less than the very best. That 94 you got on the tough math test was quite an accomplishment, but inside you knew it wasn’t as good as a 100. You could jump farther than everyone else on the team, but the coach kept insisting you could do more. Everyone loved the dinner you made Thursday, but you knew it wasn’t as good as when you had it in that fancy restaurant.
It’s important to have goals, and to make those goals challenging, but if we don’t approach expectations realistically, we’ll only set ourselves up for failure and frustration. As a professional who has counseled thousands of people throughout my career, I know the burden of perfection is one of the biggest factors keeping many people from living happy, satisfying lives.
It often starts with our language. We tell ourselves we won’t be happy with anything but the perfect job and don’t want to settle for anyone less than the perfect mate. But the reality is neither of those exist. Even the best job in the world is going to have some unpleasant elements. And no matter how head over heels we fall over someone else, we’re going to discover they snore or leave dirty socks on the floor. So instead of focusing on all the things making the job or the relationship wonderful, we concentrate on the few elements that drive us up the wall, and we become unsatisfied.
We’ll never be perfect because we’re human. God created each of us with tremendous potential, but also with flaws. When we target perfection, we tend to focus on those flaws, because we believe they’re what are keeping us from being perfect. And you know what? They are! Instead, we need to focus on what we do well, and keep striving for what we can do better – not because our goal is perfection, but because we want to grow as people. We need to celebrate our growth and that of those around us.
Another problem with setting expectations of perfection is that it focuses all our energy on those impossible and unattainable goals, so we miss what’s happening around us. We’re in such a hurry to get to our destination that we forget to look around us and notice the interesting and beautiful scenery along the way. We need to appreciate everything (and everyone) around us.
Finally, we need to react in the right ways when we fall short of perfection. Instead of beating ourselves up by focusing on what went wrong, we need to concentrate on our accomplishments. We need to make peace with the outcomes and take pride in what we’ve done. Doing that will strengthen our foundation so we can try even harder for what’s ahead.
If a quest for perfection is stubbornly getting in the way of happiness, you may want to consider meeting with a professional counselor who can help you celebrate the good you do and find constructive ways to address any gaps you sense. That way, perfection can become a motivator instead of a burden – and you’ll breathe a bit more.
Jean Crane is one of Care to Change’s therapists. She has helped women and young adults cope with issues related to depression, anxiety, stress, and trauma.