Perfection vs. Progress

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Written by Emily Phan, LMFT

For some, the push for progress versus perfection is the ultimate goal; the continued momentum and bettering of oneself is the desired outcome. For many others, the thought of progress without perfection is failure. No matter how many things have gone right, it is not good enough because it could have been better or because the next thing requires all attention to detail to ensure that this project or idea will be perfect.

Society often values hard work and sees perfection as the reward for dedication; however, for the person struggling with the pursuit of perfection, the dedication is exhausting and the reward is short-lived as it contributes to continued anxiety concerning the next task. Anxiety can increase with rigidity; when one struggles with the concept of perfectionism, they can get stuck in the plan that they have created for themselves. If another opportunity arises or if there is a wrench that gets thrown into their plan, the anxiety that comes along with that can be utterly overwhelming.

In order to change your stressful pursuit of perfection, it is important to first understand it and what it says about you as a person in the different roles that you occupy in your life. For some, perfectionism stems from the drive to succeed, for others it is due to the fear of failure, inadequacy or disappointment. It can become a problem for individuals when it begins to interfere with happiness, time with loved ones or self-care and rest. Striving for perfection usually means that the individual cares deeply about their success and how other people experience them. The motivations for perfectionism often come from a good place within that individual, but it can also create obstacles by blocking the ability to enjoy moments with loved ones or celebrate success because you are constantly looking for failure or making a plan to tackle the next hurdle. Learning how to turn down the dial of perfectionism versus turning it off completely can help you feel more in control and foster celebration of your success according to David Burns, the author of Feeling Great: The Revolutionary New Treatment for Depression and Anxiety.

Within the concept of perfectionism, different cognitive distortions or negative thoughts can exist. I have talked with individuals who recognize that they can get trapped in an all-or-nothing mindset which contributes to depression surrounding perfectionism. In efforts to fulfill the need to be perfect, this individual will at times give up all together because if it seems impossible to approach the challenge perfectly, then it is better to not even try. This can become clear with attempts to create new healthy habits. For example, when someone who struggles with perfectionism has decided to start a new exercise routine but begins to feel overwhelmed by the drive to go from “couch potato” to working out twice a day for an hour each time, then they may give up before even starting. The challenge here is to create balance and to remember that something is better than nothing and that something, no matter how much, is more than what was done before. There is still a health benefit to moving your body when you were used to being on the couch. Progress not perfection.

Two other cognitive distortions can be discounting the positive and focusing on the negative. For someone who struggles with perfectionism, they can quickly dismiss the positives and the success that they have experienced. The same person may also find themselves focusing on any negative aspect within their experience. No matter how great your grades are on a consistent basis you may have a hard time moving past the fact that you missed one question on an exam. I have found that it is helpful to think about a friend or someone who you admire and what you would say to that person if they were struggling with the same experience as you. What standard do you have for this person? What advice do you have for them? My guess is that you would encourage them and remind them of all of their accomplishments and provide them with the grace to make a mistake. You would likely reassure this person that they are successful and that 100% perfection is impossible.

I encourage you to focus on where you want your dial to be. The desire for perfection is not inherently wrong or bad, it usually means that you care about things in your life. Therefore, you may not want to completely turn off that drive, but rather change the focus of your goal. Strive for progress and balance versus perfection. Focus on the experiences and shared memories that you are creating with others. Evaluate the evidence in front of you when you worry about someone else’s experience with you. Have they ever given you reason to believe that they are unhappy with you or that they are not enjoying themselves? Have they given you evidence to the contrary, for example, do they still seek spending time with you? If so then believe that evidence. If they have given you evidence that they expect perfection and nothing else with suffice, then ask yourself if that is a relationship that is worth maintaining.

Change your language to what you want to accomplish versus what you need to accomplish. When you change your language, you are able to change your perspective and your approach. Instead of punishing yourself for mistakes or for not getting to everything on your list, celebrate your progress and your accomplishments. Prioritize your self-care; sometimes taking a moment for yourself is necessary to help you center and focus. Self-care does not have to be viewed as selfish or as earned, but rather as necessary for maintaining momentum and not crashing or burning out. Creating flexibility in your plan instead of getting stuck in rigidity may provide you with more opportunities and experiences. Flexibility can become a goal. Above all else, show yourself grace, the same grace you would show someone you love.