Many of us labor mightily to be perfect — or at least to appear perfect to the outside world. I was recently interviewed on this very topic, and I thought it would be helpful to share my views on the quest for perfection. I would love your thoughts and feedback.
Is there such a thing as perfection?
I think the notion that “perfection” exists is a total myth. We have to learn the concept of “good enough.”
Why is perfection so widely touted as the thing to reach for?
We live in a society where other people’s lives are visible to us through both conventional and social media. But it’s not their real lives that we see; it’s just the highlights. So all too often, we compare our behind-the-scenes lives to other people’s highlight reels, which depict the perfect body, the perfect, photoshopped, wrinkle-free face, and the perfect home. So we believe that this is what we should be striving for. But the key is to see the so-called “perfection” for what it is, and understand on both a conscious and unconscious level that it is not real or attainable, nor should it be.
What’s so bad about perfectionism, and why is it so damaging?
Perfectionism is damaging because we are striving for something that doesn’t exist, and then when we don’t have the perfect body, perfect partner, and perfect children, we think there is something wrong with us. We start to feel “less than,” and it is these very feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy that thwart our ability to really “own our space,” accept ourselves, and feel confident about who we are.
Why are women more likely to cling onto perfectionism than men?
In my research and workshops, I have found that women tend to express more self-doubt and feelings inadequacy. This doesn’t mean men don’t experience perfectionism; most men just don’t talk about it as much.
Why is letting go of perfectionism such an important theme in Own Your Space, the book you co-authored with Lori Milner?
In order to truly “own your space,” to come across as confident, competent and charismatic, you have to have a positive sense of self. You can only do this if you accept and like yourself. Flaws and all. That’s why our first chapter is all about Owning Your Head Space. The key, according to renowned psychologist Albert Ellis, is to let go of “irrational beliefs.” Simply put, these are the unconscious beliefs that life will turn out a certain way that either the individual feels is pre-ordained, or that represents what they think they should be striving to attain. Once we release those beliefs and truly internalize the reality that perfection is just an irrational belief, our level of self-acceptance and confidence increases incrementally.
How has perfectionism affected you negatively?
When I first started doing segments for CNN on the weekend, I spent hours agonizing over words I may have stumbled on, and worrying about imperfections with my hair and makeup. I truly tortured myself.
When was the moment you realized you needed to release it? How did you do that? How are things better now that you’ve done so?
I remember watching a particular segment on CNN in which I had been talking about the plight of Yazidi in Iraq. I thought I had stumbled over some words, but when I looked at the playback, I realized my error wasn’t nearly as bad as I had thought. In fact, I had spent hours agonizing for nothing. It was then I was reminded that no one views you with the microscopic lens with which you view yourself.
Since then, I have practiced something called “thought stopping.” When I find I’m obsessing about something, I literally tell myself to STOP. This has made my life much more pleasurable and less agonizing because I am not constantly looking back and experiencing frustration and self-loathing.
How would you coach someone who is severely stuck in “perfection mode?”
The first step in letting go of irrational beliefs is to become very conscious of your thinking, and to question yourself when feeling that you are not good enough. The second step is to learn the technique of thought stopping. This consists of three steps: First, STOP yourself when going down that self-destructive path. Second, QUESTION yourself: Am I striving for something that doesn’t exist? What if this is not “perfect” but good enough? Finally, you can CHOOSE to think about yourself and the situation differently.
How can we teach our children that perfectionism isn’t the be-all and end-all?
Again, the key is to raise our children’s level of consciousness, and to make them aware of the media deluge of so-called “perfection” to which they’re exposed every day. Also, as parents, the biggest influence we can have on our children is as role models, so it’s less a matter of teaching and more a matter of “showing.” For example, how do you as a parent react when something goes wrong? Do you scream and shout and get frustrated? Or do you say, no big deal, things like this happen, let’s make a plan? Do you as a parent obsess about things around you being “perfect,” or do you accept yourself in a relaxed, confident way?
Of course this doesn’t mean that mediocrity is the way to go. We all need to have high standards for how we go about our personal and daily lives, particularly in a competitive professional environment where hard work, creativity, and initiative are valuable commodities. What I am saying is life doesn’t always go smoothly, and the kind of “perfect” lives we are exposed to in mass and social media are often a carefully crafted illusion.
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