A lot of self-help books and web articles set out a great plan of everything you need to do to attain perfection. They paint a picture of glamorous women, living exotic and public lives.
Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill’s did a meta-analysis of rates of perfectionism from 1989 to 2016 in United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. They conclude:
“Cross-temporal meta-analysis revealed that levels of self-oriented perfectionism, socially prescribed perfectionism, and other-oriented perfectionism have linearly increased. These trends remained when controlling for gender and between-country differences in perfectionism scores. Overall, in order of magnitude of the observed increase, the findings indicate that recent generations of young people perceive that others are more demanding of them, are more demanding of others, and are more demanding of themselves”
All of this leads to stress, insecurity and unhappiness.
“Perfectionism is internalized oppression.” – Gloria Steinem
So what the antidote to perfectionism?
I’m not fond of perfection. If we aim for that, we are likely to end up dissatisfied. If we are dissatisfied, it’s easy to let things slip further until we are back where we were.
I try to live what I call a 90/95% life, a life that is good enough.
I eat healthily 95% of the time. A 95% eating plan allows me to eat a whole chocolate cake for lunch if I want. In case you’re unsure, that’s the 5% rubbish part of my diet when I do that! It means I can eat cake at my favourite vegan patisserie without seeing as a treat or breaking my diet. It’s just part of my diet like great salads are. It’s part of the pattern of my eating, so I don’t need to starve myself afterwards or berate myself for the indulgence.
If a 95% healthy diet seems unobtainable right now, start with a 70% or an 80% or a 90%. What can you manage that will allow you to feel good about yourself, and also allow you to make progress.
A 90/95% life allows you to be irritable and bad-tempered some of the time.
I try to be kind to other people most of the time. Sometimes I’m irritable and impatient. I’m a quick thinker, so I can get fed up waiting for people who take longer to process information than I do. In this area of my life, I currently aim for 90% , as it’s something I need to work on much more than eating a healthy diet.
Of course, if I feel I’m consistently hitting the 90%, I’ll start aiming for 95%.
You may be thinking that once I get to 95% consistently, I will go higher aiming for that 100%. But I won’t – that way lies the trap of perfectionism and the dissatisfaction that brings.
Aiming to be perfect doesn’t work. If it did work, what would it be like? Would your friends still want to be around you, their perfect friend? Do you like a lot of people because of or in spite of their imperfections?
Madeleine Ferrari, the lead author of a study on perfectionism found:
“Self-compassion, the practice of self-kindness, consistently reduces the strength of the relationship between maladaptive perfectionism and depression for both adolescents and adults.”
So can you practice self-compassion? If it’s difficult, how about aiming to be self-compassionate 50% of the time to begin with?
I love this in your face quote on perfectionism from Anne Lamott:
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”