Deciphering the limits of self-improvement.
Every day, we’re bombarded with images and messages prescribing how we should look, work and act. Success stories saturate the internet and social media, without any mention of the frustration or years spent toiling away to reach that point. We are led to believe that perfection is attainable.
But there are crucial differences between striving for excellence and being shackled by the impossible goals of perfectionism. “When we think of a perfectionist, we think of someone who is lauded for their exemplary achievements. This is not the case,” explains psychologist and author Dr. Tamar Chansky. “Perfectionism is a cognitive distortion—the idea that things can ever be perfect, which they cannot. Holding this mind-set doesn’t lead to productivity or pride. Instead, it’s correlated with depression.”
The quest for perfection can act as a shield to protect against potential failure, suffering, rejection or disappointment. Yet paradoxically, it leads to a perpetual feeling of inadequacy. Fantasies of Doing Something Great can become so paralyzing that it’s difficult to move beyond the first few hiccups or mistakes. Worries about making the right decision in a sea of endless possibilities can lead to continual switching, amounting to nothing. The stress and judgment that stems from perfectionism is exhausting and can negatively impact relationships, especially if you demand the same from friends and loved ones.
We can become so accustomed to the anxiety that comes with aiming for perfection that we stop noticing it, but it’s never too late to counteract these tendencies. First, it’s important to distinguish between excellence and perfection. And then we need to identify and label the unhealthy inner chatter as the catalyst of our perfectionism. Once that’s done, we can generate more realistic and encouraging voices. Think about why you want to accomplish a goal, rather than focusing on the outcome.
Remember, everyone is imperfect. As British philosopher Alan Watts once suggested, you can think of yourself as a cloud. “Did you ever see a cloud that was misshapen? Or a badly designed wave? No, they always do the right thing,” he said. “But if you would treat yourself for a while as a cloud or wave, you’ll realize that you can’t make a mistake whatever you do. Even if you do something that seems to be totally disastrous, it will all come out in the wash somehow or other.”
Photograph:Chris Schoonover and Jonathan Schoonover