Knowing When Your Quest for Perfection is a Problem

By Joanne Chan, Psy.D

Society puts quite a premium on perfection, for good reason. Perfection fascinates and inspires. I am particularly drawn to the symmetry and complexity of buildings, bridges, and visual art, often staring at such creations with awe and wonder at how such perfection was achieved.

“Perfection Fascinates and inspires”

In addition to architecture and art, perfection is expected in vocations where the slightest mistake could be tragic. This is no less true for anyone than it is for surgeons. Surgeons strive for perfection from the moment they make their first incision to the moment they suture the exposed insides of someone’s body. When performing something as invasive as surgery, one can do great harm and when the rare mistake is made, the consequences could be just as great. Part of me feels badly for surgeons because they are, after all, human. The other part of me is comforted to know that they have such high standards because if they didn’t, I may think twice before seeking medical treatment.

All this to say that there is validity in striving for perfection. Surgeons strive for perfection. However, it is best kept contained within the context of their work. Outside of their profession, it would likely be too draining for them to maintain such high standards of living in everything they do.

For the rest of us, it may feel necessary to obtain perfection in our work, relationships, or appearances to achieve a level of fulfillment in life. However, if the pursuit of perfection is excessive within a particular situation and leads you to feel disconnected from yourself or others, it might be time to look at this issue more closely.

“I believe perfectionism is at the root of a variety of problems that people seek help for.”

In my practice, I believe perfectionism is at the root of a variety of problems that people seek help for: work-related stress, marital issues, feeling lonely and isolated, body image issues, and obsessive-compulsive behavior. In order to determine whether the perfection you are striving to obtain negatively impacts your life, try answering the following questions:

  • Have you ever avoided doing a task or activity because you were afraid you wouldn’t meet the expectations you set for yourself?
  • Have other people given you feedback that you have unrealistically high standards for yourself?
  • Do you have trouble letting go of guilt and/regret when you “failed” to meet your own expectations?
  • Are you constantly wondering what people think of you? Do you think your worries about what others think of you are excessive?
  • Does your quest for doing things perfectly or being perfect hinder you in any way?

If your answers to these questions are predominantly ‘yes’, then it is likely that perfectionism is becoming a problem for you. Although the treatment approaches may vary for different issues, a common thread that connects them is the importance of accepting yourself in the moment. Accepting yourself in the moment does not mean that you should stop growing and improving upon yourself. We are all in the process of maturing. It does mean that at each moment of your growth process, you are self-satisfied and content.

If you choose to embark in the process of self-discovery, be aware that perfectionism can hinder you from accepting yourself as you are in the moment. Instead, it can convince you that you will only be happy or fulfilled if you have achieved ___(you fill in the blank)____. Be aware of the false messages and empty promises being perfect sends.
If living your life ‘perfectly’ is the only way you allow yourself to be, the interesting imperfections that make you a complex, unique, individual will not be realized.

If you no longer want to be bound by the need to be perfect, try taking on an open, curious attitude at each moment so that the unique parts of your self will reveal themselves to you. Only then, will it be possible to evolve into the special person you were intended to be.

Contact us to schedule an appointment by calling 650-461-9026