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Wellbeing / Business psychology

Why perfection sucks

The following negative ways of thinking are frequently observed in unhappy people, according to cognitive psychologists. Do any of these sound familiar?

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1. I need other people to like me and approve of me.

2. It doesn’t matter how hard you try, if luck is against you, you won’t succeed.

3. If I have to make a choice, it is important to be sure I make the best choice.

4. It is important to do all things competently. 

I think it’s easy to see how 1 and 2 would lead to dissatisfaction, but 3 and 4 are harder to grasp. They both look quite positive on first glance, but who can possibly know what the ‘best choice’ is prior to making it? Who can do all things competently? 

"Because self acceptance means more to me than self improvement, I don’t really dwell on my limitations."

Striving yet inevitably falling short (thoughts 3 and 4) is a sure fire recipe for unhappiness. Still such thinking seems prevalent within our society, particularly amongst perfectionists. 

I always hated that idea that you should say “Ooh, I’m a perfectionist” when asked what your faults were in a job interview. What an unimaginative, deflective answer. Oh, and it’s a lie. 

It’s not hard for me to mount an argument against perfectionism. I operate under a ‘near enough is good enough’ policy when it comes to work, mothering and tending to my appearance. Just ask my colleagues, kids and John-Paul. 

Want more articles like this? Check out the business psychology section.

Ambition means little to me. I tend to think “I’m glad I’m not…” rather than “I wish I were…” I am really aware of my faults. These include, but are by no means limited to dismissiveness, laziness and an inability to scramble eggs

But because self acceptance means more to me than self improvement, I don’t really dwell on my limitations. 

And I’m not being funny, and I’m sorry if this sounds smug, but I am a really happy person. 

Stephanie Dowrick recounts a tale whereby she was in a room full of people anguishing over their limitations. She went up to each individual and told them “You are enough.” The restorative nature of that simple statement was immediately evident. 

Perfection does not feature in nature, where there are no straight lines. Recently on the radio, I heard Stephen Hawkins eloquently explain how after the big bang, imperfections within the universe meant gravity could take hold and life itself could begin. 

So why strive for perfection? 

The prosecution rests its case. I’ll happily call further witnesses or hear from defendants of perfectionism. 

Special thanks to Peter whose piece on why failure matters inspired this article. Peter doesn’t mind me taking his moderate and thoughtful ideas and running with them to the boundaries of acceptability. It’s kind of a thing we have. 

Sam Leader

is a former director of Flying Solo and the co-author of Flying Solo - How to go it alone in business.

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