Dr. Martha Stamper, Psy.D. Licensed Psychologist

Perfect is not perfect
Posted On February - 10 - 2011

In today’s stressful society, we are often pushed to do our best. With the economic uncertainty the country is experiencing, now more than ever, this advice seems like a good way to maximize our chances for success. Following this philosophy, however, does not always lead to better, or even good results if it is taken too far. The fact is: our best is not perfect. We cannot be the best at any given activity, at least for any extended length of time. If perfection becomes the standard, the shame of feeling less than adequate can paralyze effort, freeze initiative, and ruin satisfaction with realistic success. Less than perfect performance does not mean our efforts are meaningless.

The urge for perfection can be driven by anxiety. A sense of control tends to sooth anxious feelings. As anxiety pushes on the strategy of control, perfection can end up being the standard. But not everything can be under our control. No amount of effort, even perfect effort, can make that happen. As a result, rather than having a soothing effect, the goal of perfection can end up increasing the very anxiety it was initially trying to resolve.

The expectation for perfection can be used as an excuse. If only perfection is an acceptable outcome, most human accomplishments would not have been attempted. Why try if the outcome is likely to be a failure? The fact is that progress is meaningful, even if it is rarely perfect. We can learn something in the process of trying, even when we don’t succeed.

The urge for perfection can serve to avoid a meaningful realistic development of identity. A standard of perfection avoids the necessity of incorporating normal human frailties, flaws, and limitations. To truly know ourselves, we need to recognize our limitations, even as we work to minimize their negative effects.

The goal of perfection can interfere with learning important information. If we expect perfection from others, we interfere with learning and accepting who they really are. When we insist on personal perfection, we fail to embrace our own humanity. With a standard of perfection, we can diminish appreciation for the valiant efforts that need to be recognized and nurtured for progress to be supported.

The problem is not trying to do our best, but in not being tolerant of what our best is today. The goal of avoiding making mistakes may not be as useful as the goal of recognizing when mistakes are make. Sometimes our efforts are better spent correcting our errors than trying to avoid them.