The Courage to Be Imperfect

Perfectionism is a curse. It can be loosely defined as “the compulsion to create only the very best, and thus to create nothing at all.”

Look back at your own perfectionist tendencies and tell me it’s not true. You start with a good idea, but you defer implementing it until “just the right time,” “when inspiration strikes,” or “when everything is ready.” Think of how much has been left undone because of this poisonous idea, how much creativity and productivity has been stolen from the world.

Credit: Jolene via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The very fact that I’m writing this blog is amazing to me, because I had to pass through a number of thick, gelatinous membranes of perfectionist compulsion to get here. Enjoy that imagery for a moment. Indeed, this is probably the third or fourth incarnation of my blog, with a graveyard of other blogs with even sillier names left in its wake. I had this strange idea that I needed everything to be right before I started in earnest, so I did a lot of faffing about (which is British for “fucking around”) for a few years. In the end, I was only faffing myself.

Perfectionism as Self-Handicapping

I plan to write more on this in the future, but we humans have this curious habit of self-handicapping. This is where we pursue goals only half-heartedly, so that, should we fail, we can say, “eh, I didn’t really try.” How clever of us! It allows us to fail without the sting of defeat, without the threat to our egos that can sometimes come from our best not being good enough. It also greatly increases the chance of failure, but our unconscious reasoning counts that as an acceptable cost.

Self-handicapping comes in many forms (as a teacher, I hear “I didn’t really study” quite a bit; when you don’t study, the F doesn’t count as failure!), and I consider perfectionism to be one of its more insidious incarnations.

Consider this: You’ve got a project in mind, but you keep putting it off because you’re uninspired, or it’s not “flowing,” or “I always work best under pressure.” Maybe you’re going to start hitting the gym, or write the great American novel, or learn a new language/instrument/martial art/kinky sex technique. Somehow, it keeps not happening.

This isn’t procrastination, mind. No, things just aren’t right. It’s the perfect excuse, because it absolves you of any need to move forward. Once you catch yourself using it as a crutch, you might be surprised how much life it’s keeping you from living.

Beauty in Imperfection

There’s something that I’ve had to learn over the past 20 years (I consider my first 12 years on this Earth to be largely ones of inanimateness, where most of my behaviors were incidental byproducts of digestion), and that’s to be at ease with the prospect of failure. An anxious young lad, everything I did had to be the best or it wasn’t worth doing. I had an amazing, almost supernatural ability to be embarrassed, even when alone or completely unobserved. In my mind, I always had an audience, and it was always this close to turning on me.

I was fine doing the things I was naturally good at, but blundering through learning how to dance, or facing the frustration of learning the piano, or coming to terms with my difficulty with math? My perfectionism kept me from even trying.

So, I know it’s a little early, but New Year’s Resolutions: I’ll give myself permission to screw up. I’ll try to reframe “failure” as “learning,” and resolve to learn like crazy. I’ll try to see things from a 3rd-person perspective (would I judge a friend this harshly?), and to see the beauty in imperfection.

Perfection is attainable in some situations, I guess. This drive to be perfect, however, ignores the law of diminishing returns, the idea that doing something really well usually takes way less time and effort than doing something flawlessly. Give yourself permission to do less than your best, and see if it doesn’t help your productivity skyrocket. I’m going to give it a go, and I’ll let you know what I find out. Expect typos.

4 thoughts on “The Courage to Be Imperfect

  1. My own perfectionism also has its’ long, veiny tendrils rooted deep into my fear of failure. It is the main reason why I haven’t yet pursued any type of career. Most subjects in high school came very naturally to me (except phys. ed., but who likes that anyway). I exceeded where many struggled, with minimal effort on my part. When I graduated, I could have gone to a top state school for pretty much anything I wanted. The problem I‘ve had is a fear of committing to something I could potentially fail at. Did I choose the right career path? Is the economy going to tank by the time I get my fancy, $20-40k piece of paper? What if a tech school wouldn’t be enough? What if I hate it?

    In my mind, I KNOW I am missing out on so many opportunities to better myself or to have a good fucking time. I have an understanding that failure doesn’t necessarily mean something bad. My brain just chooses not to believe it. Learning to fail well is like learning to juggle lubed-up hot dogs. You know what you have to do. It’s just…they’re so SLIPPERY.

    1. This is definitely something that I plan to write about in the future, because it’s been plaguing me since I was a wee lad. The whole “too many options so I’ll just do nothing” phenomenon completely sucked the momentum out of my life.

      I was reading this book on neuroses, and one particular type fixates on freedom at the expense of all else. I don’t want to commit to anything long-term because I’d prefer to be free, I refuse to close off any options because that would reduce my freedom, etc. In the end, the “freedom” concept imprisons me. Not sure what to do about it yet, but I’ll let you know as I figure it out 🙂

      1. Wait, you DON’T have all the answers? Well what the hell am I reading this blog for? VERY kidding, and I am quite interested to hear more on this subject from you. Freedom; it’s what’s for dinner.

  2. I can relate to this so much. My struggle with perfectionism effects all facets of my life, but is the strongest in relation to school. I got accepted into grad school last year, but declined…out of fear. My fear of imperfection and my “freedom” of committing to something that is life-defining. I reapplied an am starting in August. It’s anxiety provoking and scary, but it offers a great opportunity for personal growth.

    So much of my self-esteem is tied into being perfect. If I miss a few questions on a test, I feel devastated, because I always give it everything I have. I do not have any type of work-life balance while in school because I devote every waking moment to perfection and trying to get straight A’s. I obtain that goal, but at the cost of living my life and actually enjoying it. I don’t feel fulfilled by my accomplishment; I see it as the standard that needs to be met.

    This fear of failure (which is extremely black and white) makes me second guess myself and not take risks- socially, academically, and mentally. Risking imperfection is a risk to my perceived self-worth. What if I view myself as strong, smart, capable, and worthy? I take a risk, it doesn’t pan out, and I’m left feeling like a piece of shit. I need to change my perception of failure as a learning experience instead of the mindset that if I fail, I’m a failure as a person.

    I read an amazing book called “The gifts of Imperfection” by Brene Brown (she also has a phenomenal Ted Talk on vulnerability). The take away is that imperfections are not inadequacies. She states “Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame. Healthy striving is self-focused: “How can I improve?” Perfectionism is other-focused: “What will they think?”

    I think in the end, I think it will take a fair amount of time, effort, and patience with ourselves to achieve this change in mindset. In the meantime, we just need the courage to try.

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