Bringing Clarity, Understanding and Confidence to Your Financial Plan

I’m a recovering perfectionist. Here’s how I embraced the joy of ‘good enough’

Kirk Paulsen profile photo

Kirk Paulsen

President
River Oak Partners, LLC
Office : 8437930398
Schedule a meeting

The pursuit of perfection is a kind of prison. It can drain a person’s world of colour, light and spontaneity.


Perfectionism – a kind of psychological fascism. Composite: Guardian Design / Getty images

When I was planning my wedding, I was absolutely determined not to get caught up in the “perfect day” of it all, and to have a relaxed, informal celebration. I more or less managed, and my husband and I ended up having a lovely time. But I can’t say the same for our honeymoon.

Perfectionism has a weird reputation; the only confessable “weakness” in a job interview, an eccentric character trait and the secret of Steve Jobs’ success.

But I think it’s much darker than that. It’s a kind of psychological fascism that can take over the sufferer’s mind, draining their world of colour and light, spontaneity and joy. Deep down, I think many of us are driven by the unconscious wish that if we could just have the perfect body, the perfect kitchen, the perfect job, the perfect wardrobe, the perfect family – if we could just rid ourselves of every flaw – then we would, finally, be happy. For that reason, it can be one of the most significant obstacles to happiness we encounter in life.

The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote about the importance of the “good enough mother” who meets enough of her infant’s needs in a timely fashion but is not perfect. This can often be understood as meaning that mothers should forgive themselves for falling short of perfection, because good is good enough. But what he was saying is far more radical than that: he was telling us that perfect is harmful.

To be so precisely attuned and knowing, to meet every desire immediately, to pass the toy straight away every time it is demanded stifles a baby’s growth, robbing them of the opportunity to feel frustrated and learn to crawl to get the toy for themselves.

“Good enough” doesn’t mean worse than perfect, and it’s not simply that perfect is unachievable; it’s that perfect is not even desirable. In fact, it can be dangerous.

We can learn from Winnicott that while perfection is not a virtue, tolerance of imperfection is. If we cannot develop the capacity to tolerate imperfection in ourselves and in those around us then we can have no self-confidence, no sustainable relationships, no fulfilling career. We will be endlessly trying on clothes, partners, jobs and sending them back because they’re not quite right. Perfectionism makes for a thin and brittle life, spent mostly waiting for the Evri delivery and in the returns queue at the post office. If you’re always trying to build something called a perfect life, you aren’t really living the one you’re in.

Of course, there are some benefits brought by perfectionism. If Nasa rocket scientists did not have a fastidious approach to their work, for example, I can imagine they would not go far (and nor would their rockets). But the successful aura that surrounds a perfectionist can mask the truth: they are suffering. The praise and admiration their symptoms attract make this way of being all the more seductive and insidious, which is why it can be so hard to break free.

How do I know all this? I am a perfectionist in recovery. I’ve started, with the help of my psychoanalyst, to recognise my intolerance of imperfection – my need for certain things to be exactly as I would like them to be, from the way my husband chops his onions to my terror of being late – and it has made a huge difference to my relationship, to my friendships, to my parenting. How can you be a good partner or friend if you expect everyone else to fit your own narrow expectations of how they ought to be? How can you help your child grow into their own person if they sense, consciously or unconsciously, that they always need to colour precisely inside the lines you’ve drawn out for them? How can you ever experience anything like happiness if the conditions you’ve created for yourself mean it is defined solely by meeting a set of impossible standards?

My perfectionism unleashed itself on our honeymoon. I planned everything so carefully, spending hours searching for the perfect villa with the perfect views. When we arrived, nothing was how I imagined it to be, and instead of appreciating what was in front of me, I could only feel disappointed by what wasn’t. Halfway through, a fire meant we had to evacuate our villa, driving through flames – my idealised honeymoon literally went up in smoke. I saw the damage the fire caused and felt grateful for our lucky escape. I was liberated from perfectionism’s grasp and was finally able to appreciate being on holiday with my husband. (The villa upgrade helped a little, too.)

I think we need to go further than tolerating imperfections. We need to learn to appreciate their humanity, to see their beauty and their grace. Imperfections are why people will pay a calligrapher to hand-write invitations when a computer can produce a flawless version of the same script for less money and in less time. It’s the crooked seam on the hand-knitted baby hat, the wobbly pastry crust on the homemade pie. So, for a more delicious life, and ultimately a better one, I choose imperfectionism.

If only it were that easy.

Moya Sarner is an NHS psychotherapist and author of When I Grow Up (Scribe Publications, £10.99)

Kirk Paulsen profile photo

Kirk Paulsen

President
River Oak Partners, LLC
Office : 8437930398
Schedule a meeting