The other day, I said something to an acquaintance that I shouldn’t have said. It wasn’t a huge situation as far as foot-in-mouth goes, but I felt really horrible about it for about 24 hours. I try to be a considerate and thoughtful person, which was highly valued in my family growing up. So these small failings really bother me–including times when I neglected to email someone back right away, and now it’s too late to change things. I’d be lying in bed late at night, suddenly worried about dropping the email ball from weeks ago.
This lets me know that as much as I say to myself, “I’m not perfect, I’m human,” deep inside there is a bit of the perfectionist left in me. The U.S. is particularly fixated on the idea of perfection, at least as far as I can tell from our language. We say “perfect” a lot–even when things are good or just affirmative. (“You can make brunch on Sunday? Perfect–see you there!”) When I started learning French, I discovered that they don’t say perfect (parfait) nearly as much as the Americans do. (Instead: Formidable, super, exquise, sublime, merveilleux, genial…) Interestingly, Koreans don’t say “perfect” very much either, unless they really mean something was 10/10–like a flawless gymnastics routine, or 20-20 eye sight.
All that casual mentioning of “perfect” shapes our thoughts, making us pay attention to what’s perfect and what’s not perfect. Often, it makes us point at ourselves or whatever we have, and say either, “I’m / this isn’t perfect, but that’s okay” or “I’m / this isn’t perfect, and I’m unhappy about it.” Furthermore, we tend to look outside of ourselves and think “they / their ___ are perfect.”
Perfectionism in our society is discussed most often in terms of looks, money, or status. In our culture, there is definitely an emphasis on perfectly toned body and perfectly glowing (probably contoured) skin, as opposed to say, perfect erudition or perfect intellect. We probably all agree that the endless pressure to look a certain way to feel accepted and loved is unhealthy. But perfectionism regarding *anything* can lead to feelings of failure whenever those ideals are not met–even if it’s things like generosity, intellect, consideration for others, integrity, ambition, or diligence. It makes us question our worth when we fail to be perfect.
The key isn’t to stop aiming for higher standards, but to stop measuring progress in terms of perfection. Here are some tips to letting go of perfectionism.
1. Refrain from referring to yourself–or other people–as perfect or not perfect.
Do you catch yourself saying, “well, I’m not perfect,” whenever you skip a workout, press snooze on your alarm, have a fight with your partner, etc? You never have to apologize or defend yourself for being a (pretty great) human. You skipped a workout because you needed the rest; you pressed snooze because you needed more sleep. These everyday things hardly require you to judge your entire person based on some unattainable ideal.
The same applies for other people: instead of judging people as either perfect (“she has the perfect body / perfect job / perfect apartment”) or not perfect, use other ways to describe and understand them. This will help you be more compassionate toward yourself and others.
2. Know that you don’t have to be perfect to be worthy.
While we see ourselves in terms of perfection, we hardly look at people we love as perfect/imperfect. We never look at our children or our pets and think, “well, you’re not perfect, but I love you anyway.” We simply love them without bothering to label them “perfect” or “imperfect.” (I mean, the very idea of looking at my adorable cat and calling him imperfect seems ridiculous.) It’s not because we are blind to the flaws of the ones we love, but because their worth doesn’t hinge on the concept of perfection. Apply that same perspective toward yourself: your innate worth is completely separate from how perfect you are.
3. Strive for excellence, rather than perfection.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.” – Will Durant
Perfection is something that happens for a certain window of time. Even greatest artists and athletes, those who nail a 10/10 routine at every competition, can’t do that for the rest of their lives. For others, perfection happens even more fleetingly, fewer and farther between. It’s not a constant state that can be maintained. But excellence can be maintained throughout your life. It’s your earnestness and courage in living your life that determines your excellence, and that’s the measuring stick that you should apply instead of perfection.
4. Remember things and areas of life that don’t need to be perfect to be excellent:
-Your family life: Do you care about one another? Make each other laugh, give support whenever needed? Then you checked off the main points.
-Your relationship: Relationships can’t be perfect if they are to last longer than 6 months. But they can still be excellent, which more than justifies.
-Your looks / body: Do you really even want a “perfect” body or face? Honestly, I’d be too distracted if I had perfect anything–so thank god, I don’t have this problem.
-Your job, or your enthusiasm for it: No job doesn’t feel like work sometimes, and absolutely everyone feels like not working some of the time. But that doesn’t detract from all your years of hard work. Laziness wasn’t made in a day, either.
-Your social life: You might be serious about being a great friend/ person in general, but no one is immune from social ups and downs including loneliness, social burnout, FOMO, friendship drama, etc. This doesn’t make you not excellent, either.
-Your character: Again, perfection can only be used to describe things within a certain window of time. You might have exhibited perfect character/selfless loving kindness / courage in one instance, and that’s truly great. But somewhere along the way you will have instances when you stumble. That still doesn’t make your character unworthy–unworthiness takes some time, too.
…so that’s every part of your life that you don’t need to be perfect for.
Do you have perfectionist tendencies? What helps you let go?
Related: How to Love Yourself First
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Photo: ABTofficial via Instagram.