Olympic athletes are almost mythical figures in our culture. We see them as the epitome of perfection when it comes to skill, sportsmanship, and physical fitness. They are the standard by which we all judge ourselves, at least physically. We tell ourselves that unless we achieve the level of physical fitness that they do, we’re not as fit as we could be. But the reality is that most of us don’t have the talent, time, or resources to become Olympic-level athletes. (And maybe you have no desire to.) However, if we keep that ideal of perfection in mind when we’re measuring our personal level of fitness, we’re always going to feel like we fall short. We get discouraged and maybe even stop trying. And that’s not being fair to ourselves.
The quest for perfection impacts other aspects of our lives as well. We want to be perfect in our jobs, in our relationships, and in all our interests. Yet seeking perfection may actually be holding us back from bettering ourselves.
Let me explain. Our society is one where everyone has (or is supposed to have) their specialty. Doctors specialize in treating certain types of illness, therapists seek out additional training to specialize in treating a specific mental health issue. We pick very specialized majors in college and we brand ourselves as experts. The underlying belief is that we need to pick something and appear to be perfect at it. But sometimes, the quest for perfection winds up sabotaging our efforts when it comes to self-improvement.
Self-Improvement vs. Perfection
Continually seeking self-improvement is very different from seeking perfection. Changing anything in our lives takes time but it’s easy to forget that when we’re expecting to achieve perfection on the first try. We expect instant results and we expect to be perfect on our first try. When we measure our progress by either perfection or not, we’ll always be disappointed until we reach perfection. But the trouble with using perfection as a standard is that, if we aren’t perfect at something, we feel like a failure. Feeling like a failure is not very motivating but that’s what we experience about ourselves every time we aren’t perfect. Often we forget that being human means that we are people who make mistakes. We are inherently not perfect. But just because we’re not perfect, doesn’t mean we’re a failure.
So instead of measuring everything you do by the “perfect or total failure”, try taking a more nuanced approach to your personal growth. Focus on becoming a little bit better each day instead of feeling like a failure for not being perfect yet. Let go of the belief that you need to be perfect right now and instead embrace the process of self-improvement. Here are some simple ways to free yourself from the restraints of the quest to perfection so that you can live a more fulfilling life.
Let Go of “All or Nothing” Thinking
When you tell yourself that you’re either perfect or a failure, you’re falling into the trap of “all or nothing” thinking. This way of thinking leaves no room for the process of self-improvement. Instead, it fuels the “I’m a failure” type of thinking. When you recognize that self-improvement is a process that takes time, you let go of the faulty belief that the small amounts of self-improvement you make each day mean nothing because you aren’t perfect yet. When you catch yourself grumbling because you made another mistake and because you still haven’t achieved a state of perfection, remind yourself that those small self-improvement successes mean something. Just because they aren’t perfect doesn’t mean they are worthless.
Focus on Your Small Gains
When perfection is your goal, you become focused on what you’re lacking and not what you’ve achieved so far. For example, let’s say you want to run a 5K and you’ve never run in your life. Because you’ve never run a 5K in your life let alone a half a mile, the reality is that you won’t be able to hop off the couch an effortlessly run 3.1 miles. Instead, you’ve come up with a training plan that will help you build up the strength and endurance to run a 5K. If, while you’re still training, you focus only on the fact that you still haven’t run 3.1 miles, you’re going to feel discouraged. But, if you focus on the fact that last week you couldn’t run a mile and this week you ran your first-ever mile, you’ll feel a lot better about yourself. So focus on your small gains no matter how tiny they may be and you’ll feel much better about your progress.
Simply acknowledging that you will make mistakes can be incredibly freeing (and knowing you aren’t perfect is very different from purposely messing up). When you make a mistake or didn’t make the progress you wanted to, try practicing self-compassion instead of mentally beating yourself up. St. Francis de Sales said about our imperfections,
“Do not let us be disheartened by our imperfections—our very perfection lies in diligently contending against them, and it is impossible so to content without seeing them, or to overcome without meeting them face to face. Our victory does not consist in being insensible to them, but in not consenting to them.”
The reality is, we will make mistakes and we will mess up from time to time. What matters more than making a mistake is how you respond to it. Instead of beating yourself up over a mistake, acknowledge it but don’t let it define you. Pick up the pieces, learn from your misstep, and keep moving forward.