Debunking the Myth of Perfection


Jim is ambitious and wealthy. He shows all the hallmark signs of a perfectionist. He defines himself through his accomplishments; 1st place in athletic competitions in High School, Ivy league undergrad and grad school degrees, early career success in the tech industry and the sale of two companies that he founded by the time he was 30. Now it’s been a few years since he’s reached the same level of success and his recent startup businesses have not done well. He is measuring himself against the high standards of past successes and he’s deeply unhappy. His depression is reinforced by binge drinking, emotional volatility, and vicious negative self-talk. He calls him a “loser” whenever he makes the slightest mistake.  

Are you a Perfectionist?

  • You pursue ideals that are impossible to achieve
  • You are driven by how you perceive other people view you
  • You define yourself by your achievements and appearance
  • Your believe your own achievements always fall short of what your contemporaries are accomplishing 
  • Your feel like a failure when you don’t meet your own high standards 
  • You feel depressed, unhappy, or anxious when you compare yourself to others

Does this strike a chord with you? What makes you inadequate or unworthy? Is it hearing about someone else’s achievements? Were you passed up for a promotion? Or noticing that a friend’s Instagrammed lunch buffet gets triple the amount of likes as the one you posted yesterday?

Attaining likes and promotions will not bring lasting happiness and fulfillment.  Can they ever be enough, or will there be yet another goal that eludes you right around the corner? It’s not about the objects you seek to attain or the image of  a person you seek to become, but rather the process. As Ralph Waldo Emerson famously says, Life is a journey, not a destination.

The Acceptance Paradox

This brings us to what’s known as the “acceptance paradox.” Be compassionate with yourself when you face up to the situations you seek to change. You might ask, what will motivate me to pursue my goal if I “accepted” my circumstances?  Wouldn’t that make me complacent? 

Acceptance is to acknowledge a situation objectively, which requires the observation of your emotional attachment. It’s OK to feel the way you feel.

Using the example of dating, if you have been hurt before and find yourself in a pattern of serial dating that doesn’t lead to ever-lasting commitment, you may think “I need to stop being so anxious and needy before I find true love.” Acknowledging these traits in yourself and examining their origins is necessary for growth.  If you find yourself needy and anxious, it could be due to having been betrayed in the past by an ex, or abandoned by a parent as a child. By continuing to date you are facing your fear of being hurt again. In taking this risk, you can evolve beyond past events that are holding you back. You can be honest with yourself and work to change thought patterns and behaviors that don’t serve you well. Be brave and create new experiences and memories, focus on your path forward and not your past.

Be a Mindful Activist

Being mindful and practicing self-compassion isn’t egocentric. It isn’t self-indulgent. It isn’t hiding. It is a form of activism, not a passive acceptance of the world or the things you feel you can’t change in your life. Mindfulness is the practice of going inward so that you can embrace and feel your emotions and let go of the need to be critical. Mindful people spend less time worrying about the future, ruminating over the past, and more time living in the present moment.  Think of it as cleaning a dirty lens. The dirt is the trappings of our Western lifestyle, the constant competition and the distorted value of personal achievement. When you wipe the lens, you make room for a more meaningful and purpose-driven life.

You Care

Something matters to you greatly, so you behave and think in a way that is consistent with attaining this goal. You reinforce your commitment in how you think, and you build lasting thought patterns that are aligned with these values. 

Let’s look at a few counter-examples. You value health, wellness, and the concept of self-control, so you beat yourself up when you “eat the whole thing.” That action is inconsistent with your values, but is there value in deprecating yourself? You value success; so naturally you are hard on yourself when you fail. The idea to "accept" all the parts of you and to "let go" through mindfulness can be jarring. You might ask, as Jim did, “Am I suppose to just accept that I've been a complete loser for the last 6 months of my life?” Or in the case of a new mother, “you're asking me to just "give in" and accept that a year later, I still haven't lost this baby weight?”  These negative voices are just distractions.

Focus on the moment. Look at the opportunities for improvement without judgment. Ask yourself, “ how does this thought serve me, and help me get closer to my goals?” Cultivate self-control, so that you can better execute on your goals, while simultaneously fully living out your ideals.

 Acceptance is Facing Your Fears

 Keep your ego in check so that it’s not the basis of your actions. Your ego is the most vulnerable part of yourself, shaped from an image you have of yourself from what stories you've told yourself and what you think others think. When you operate from your ego, you act in defense. You defend yourself against what you fear, even when your fear is based on a misperception. Find acceptance by facing your anxieties. Confronting your fears is an act of courage that breaks negative cycles. Acceptance is the truth. That’s you, in the mirror, all parts of you, the good and the bad. You are mindful of whatever circumstance you are in and you do not deny it. You acknowledge it and say, “there you are” and keep moving. You are a flawed, we are all flawed, and that is a shared human experience.

Accomplishment and self-worth are not interdependent. What you do, and what you look like, do not determine your value or your worth. You do not need to be the class valedictorian to live your life the way you want to. Seize the day. Instead of saying, “Once I lose 20 lbs I will be brave enough to sign up for that salsa dancing class.” Sign up today and enjoy the experience. Contrary to what Jenny Craig may want you to believe, having a svelte waistline may not provide you with the drive you need to live a successful life.

You may struggle to realize that what you dislike the most about yourself is also what has helped you get to where you are. You may say, “if only I didn’t have X, then I would be so much further ahead.”  But often, these perceived weaknesses are a part of what fuels our drive and successes. With awareness and acceptance of all of your qualities , you can begin working towards your goals.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series, on the perils of social comparison.  

Kerrie Thompson, LCSW, is a psychotherapist practicing in NYC. To work with her, contact her here