As a school teacher once told me, as I struggled to finish an essay on time: ‘Don’t make the best the enemy of the good.’ It was sound advice. But for some of us, ‘the best’ is the only option.
Most of us will remember being praised for doing ‘a perfect job’ at some stage in our lives, and the warm glow that this can leave us with. But how important is it to us now that what we do is faultless, perfect, the best of our ability? Sometimes the demands we make on ourselves to produce perfection can act like a heavy weight, dragging us down. We all know that perfection is more or less an impossibility. But if we aim to do something in a perfect way, then we are almost guaranteed to be disappointed, which can end up obliterating many of the pleasures that life can hold for us.
Of course, if it were as simple as reading the paragraph above and saying: ‘Oh, OK then, I won’t aim for perfection any more,’ then the problem would be solved. But it’s not, unfortunately, and our perfection can have deep roots way back in the past, linked to the kind of upbringing we had, the family relationships, the culture present at the time, and our parents’ own relationship with performance and perfection: in short, a whole load of complex factors that drive us towards perfectionism even when the rational part of our brain is telling us that it is a really bad idea.
When we ask ourselves why we feel it is so important to do a perfect job, it throws up a whole series of questions beginning with the word ‘Why?’ It could be that we are anxious about our ability to do the job, so must work extra hard at it. And why are we anxious? Because we feel we got hired by mistake? And why is that? Because of where we come from? (See also the article on ‘Imposter syndrome.) And what if the work we produce is not perfect, what then? Because there is a fear of criticism? And why is criticism of our work so uncomfortable? Because they are saying I’m no good? Will they actually say you’re no good? Why do you think they will say that? The questions keep coming. But asking ourselves these ‘why’ questions can reveal a lot about how we tend to think, and open up other possible ways of thinking about a situation.
BOOK SUGGESTION: Overcoming Perfectionism
For perfectionists, the job is never done.