Note: This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click on one of the product links, I’ll receive a small commission from your purchase.
PERFECTIONISM: The only word that describes a negative personality trait that most people secretly want.
If you pick up a magazine at any time during the year chances are good that you will find a headline on the cover pointing to an article about overcoming perfectionism. We all know that perfectionism is stressful and causes misery for many people. The magazine with the headline, of course, is right next to the (ahem) airbrushed photo of the cover model or cover image that has been edited to look more… perfect.
Not only that, but when you go on a job interview and are asked the typical question by your prospective employer, “Tell me one thing about yourself that is negative,” what is the answer we have all been coached to give?
“Well, I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist.”
Somehow that phrase means to that employer that you are the perfect person for the job because you will never make a mistake, will work long hours to make sure that everything you do is absolutely perfect, and will sacrifice your own sanity and well-being for the sake of their company. The perfectionist is, after all, the perfect employee. So we tell them the line and then work our hardest to live up to it, sacrificing ourselves for an impossible standard. Or we strive for perfection in other areas of our lives if we don’t have a job outside the home. Martha Stewart is the original queen bee of this movement, and Pinterest and other social media continue to promote the standard of domestic perfection. We eat this stuff up like candy.
Why? Because many of us have silently bought into the culturally-accepted idea that we have to strive for perfection and that perfection is attainable. We live in a culture of maximizers, always questioning if our job/relationship/home/body shape/(fill in the blank) is really good enough. What if there is something out there more perfect? And what if we are missing out? We are so less happy in our land of plenty than people in countries with much less than us. What’s the deal?
On top of that, we are fed images and stories of so-called perfect people with perfect lives. There are perfectly airbrushed models on magazine covers, perfect power couples living perfect lives together in perfect homes until they divorce, and even perfect ways to do the most basic tasks, like folding laundry or washing our hair. If there is a something in life, there is a perfect version of that something. The image of perfect is everywhere. We drown in it. We spend our money on it. We sacrifice our well-being for it.
Even more challenging is the fact that our society, in general, rewards people who excel. There is no room for mediocrity. Heaven forbid we do something that is just OKAY. Okay doesn’t get noticed at work for the promotion. Okay isn’t pinnable. Okay doesn’t get you massive website traffic and tons of money. Okay is just… okay.
I am here today to call bullshit on all of this so-called perfection. Here is my belief.
The Imperfect Blanket
The title picture I chose for this post is a picture of a fleece blanket that I made for my daughter. From the minute I started trying to line up the two pieces of fabric so they could be sewn together it has been a problem. I really tried to cut both pieces to match perfectly, but they never lined up. I finally pulled out my sewing machine today and seamed up that bad boy, cursing the entire time about how uneven and puckered it was. I think the end shape defies geometry, and I am still upset about it. Why? Because I can be a perfectionist and am a little more easily irritated than most people these days. Bless my daughter who couldn’t care less about straight seams or perfect corners. She’s just happy to have a new fuzzy blanket.
The Ugly Cake
Exhibit number 2. My daughter wanted a geode cake for her birthday a few weeks back. There are gorgeous pictures on Pinterest of these and even tutorials on YouTube for how to make your own. It looked so simple. Bake a cake, frost it, cut a hunk out and frost the area inside the cutout, then begin layering different shades of rock candy for the geode crystals and paint the edges using edible paint to make it look a little more rock-like. Let me tell you, everything went wrong with that dumb cake except for the taste. It was quite yummy. However, I couldn’t find my two nine inch cake pans so I had one that was nine inches and the other one that was ten inches. I tried to get them to stack up to look like a small tiered cake, but the top layer shifted with the frosting. The frosting also picked up every single crumb on the cake, too. I ended up using edible spray paint in gold to try to hide all the crumb bits in the frosting. Here is a picture…
Once again, my daughter loved it. However, every time I looked at it I cringed. It wasn’t perfect. If Martha Stewart would have arrived at my house that day I think she would have beat me senseless for putting out something as awful-looking as it was and dumped it immediately into the trash can. And I felt terrible about it.
So why have I continued to strive so hard for perfection if it makes me so miserable? Because there have been many times where perfectionism has paid off for me in spades. I have been able to earn a doctoral degree. I have made many beautiful crafts. I have excelled in my work from time to time and have been rewarded for it by my clients and a local advocacy group. That felt really good at a time when I didn’t feel so good about myself inside.
I have also held onto perfectionism because it has been very upsetting when I have made mistakes that have been noticed by other perfectionists. It goes against my belief in always doing my best, and it is very embarrassing to be called out for making mistakes. Nobody likes to feel shamed.
What About Excellence?
Right about now I can hear many of you starting to chant the “anti-perfectionism” phrase- strive for excellence, not perfection. Believe me, I have tried this and found it to be just as toxic as perfectionism. Why? Well, for one thing, where is the difference between excellence and perfection? I mean really- what is the allowed number of mistakes you can make and still fall in the category of excellent? Also, what about the natural inconsistency of life? People have good days and bad days. On the bad days, is your performance no longer excellent even if it is your best? At least with perfectionism there is a clear line- it is either perfect or it isn’t. The line of excellence is more blurry, leaving room for shame to creep in if you don’t feel like you are living up to your poorly-defined standard of excellence.
So where do we go now? With a stronger sense of self intact and a shift in my priorities, I am moving toward the idea that we need to make a radical shift in our perspective. Not excellence. Not even anti-perfectionism. Imperfectionism.
The Case for Imperfectionism
What do I mean by this concept- imperfectionism? I mean letting go of the shame of being imperfect, the shame of making mistakes, and the notion that even a consistent level of excellence is possible to strive for. I still strongly believe that we all want to do our best. Even on our worst days, we still try to do what we feel we are capable of doing. Let’s ditch the shame of being human and making mistakes. Let’s allow our mediocrity out of the closet. Let’s stop letting impossible and confusing standards define how we should be feeling. When we openly acknowledge our shame, it fades away. Brene’ Brown, a shame psychologist, has studied this for many years and has found it to be completely true. You can check out her work on YouTube or through books on Amazon.com.
The Japanese have a name for allowing imperfection without fighting it or hiding in shame from it. They call it Wabi-Sabi. It is the acceptance that nothing in life is permanent or perfect- EVER. People who practice this belief deliberately allow mistakes into their work. They make beautiful sand mazes outside knowing that the wind and rain will destroy them. They have dropped the shame of being human and the frustration of striving for the impossible.So what you are seeing here, dear reader, is my first step into a life of imperfectionism. I will not hide my ugly blanket in shame. I will paste my ridiculous-looking cake on this blog for potentially millions of people to see. I will continue to create a less-than-awesome bullet journal that is at least functional. I will accept where I am at right now. Imperfect. Tired of trying too hard to achieve the impossible and ready to out myself as an imperfect human in all of my relationships and activities.
In this, I am throwing out a challenge to all of you to try a little imperfectionism. It’s time to change our unrealistic and toxic cultural standards, and that will not happen if we keep mindlessly buying into them. The next time you see something that looks amazing on social media or in a magazine, think about the airbrush artist or gifted photographer who worked to make it look that way. And when you come across a person who seems to be perfect and high-achieving, be happy for them but don’t compare. We all have gifts to share, but these gifts need room to grow and for every shining moment there are a million “oopsies” that led up to it. It’s called learning. It’s wabi-sabi.
Finally, openly share your imperfect moments with others. Don’t hide in shame from them. Know that your best is going to change from day to day, or even moment to moment. It’s okay to be human. Imperfect. Just… OKAY.
Well, I am off to make an imperfect chicken salad for dinner. Edible and satisfying, but not gourmet. Sorry, Martha, you’re no longer welcome here. Have an (imperfect) PrettyJoyful day!