How to dump the toxic struggle for perfection

Or at least how I managed to

I can trace my first memories striving for perfection back when I was attending the second grade at primary school. I remember the class being tested in an extremely comprehensive hour-long test. I was feeling prepared and ready to tackle it as per usual. At the end of the day, the teacher asks me to come to her desk to check with me my results. “Well, you could have scored ‘Excellent’, but because you did this spelling error I’m gonna give you a ‘Bravo’. For the future, you should pay attention to every detail before handing in your test”.

To my 7-year-old self, this was so unfair and shameful. It equalled with disappointment. How stupid was I to let that minor mistake ruin my perfect score! So much studying and preparation for a spelling error to prevent me from “Excellent”? I had to change the way I studied. I had to study deeper and revise even more. I wouldn’t allow it to happen ever again. I would never disappoint my teacher, whom I admired so, ever again. I would never provide less than was expected. That’s when I first remember saying: “I wanna be perfect”. Which effectively meant give my absolute concentration and infallible performance.

That, I believe, was a moment that shaped not only the ‘young’ me but also the ‘older’ me. It set the expectations I thereof had for myself and the relationship I consequently built with myself and others too.
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Photo by Rikki Chan

Perfectionism is a single word that to me is synonymous to numerous negative emotions: striving for unrealistic goals, sky-high expectations, fear of failure and not delivering at the expected moment, anxiety, restlessness, procrastination, disappointment over a tiny mishap, exhaustion, harshness and lack of sensitivity towards your own self. The list goes on. Success may come, but is never enough and never in the shape of the planned outcome. In the end, you miss the chance to relish the fruit of your labour.  What an absolute waste of resources!

For me, this philosophy took further dimensions. Relations with people were inevitably affected. When you are hard on your own self and unable to forgive your own lapses, imagine how your expectations are shaped towards other people! Setting high standards is the first step. Being your own harshest critic, it’s easy to believe that other people are just like you. You may not be able to forgive your idea of failure when you see it in other people. What you subconsciously do is expect them to be something bigger and closer to your idea of ‘better’!  So wrong on so many levels.

It took me quite a lot of time, after entering adult life, to understand that chasing perfection is like chasing the unattainable. It’s not there and even if you do everything you believe is necessary, you will still be lacking something at the end. You will never be satisfied. You are essentially setting yourself up for more disappointment, every time you start hunting down every detail in the process. So, instead of trying to be perfect in my every pursuit, I decided it’s healthier to aim at excelling at it.

Excellence, like perfection, is judged by the outcome, but it is also judged by the process. It is valued by your journey and how much you benefit and learn from the good and bad things that happen to you. Surely, not everything goes as planned, but I try to remember that self-handicapping doesn’t work for me anymore. Hard work is, of course, part of the menu, it always is. Yet, in the pursuit of excellence on realizes that we are works in progress, as they say, and we have to afford some mistakes to ourselves. In the end, this is the most comforting emotion: allowing yourself to adopt this mindset and getting real enjoyment out of what you do.

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Photo by Casey Horner

At last, I realized that it all comes down to the motivation behind your actions. If you are trying to live up to the idea that some other people have for you because you don’t want to disprove or let them down, you miss the point and you set an invisible high bar for you. Take a minute right there! And ask yourself why you do what you do.

A.

Header Photo by Aron Van de Pol
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