There is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . . –Romans 3:22-23
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. –Romans 7:15
Sometimes you think that you need to be perfect, that you cannot make mistakes … realize you are a human being – like everyone else capable of reaching great potential but not capable of being perfect. –Susan Polis Schutz
They say that nobody is perfect. Then they tell you practice makes perfect. I wish they’d make up their minds. –Winston Churchill
One of the things I want you to watch out for in life is trying to be perfect. There are very few things that will cause more anxiety, depression, and self-condemnation than trying to be something you can’t be—perfect.
Samuel McChord Crothers wisely observed, “Try as hard as we may for perfection, the net result of our labors is an amazing variety of imperfectness. We are surprised at our own versatility in being able to fail in so many different ways.”
That’s right. Whether you like it or not, your whole life is going to be “an amazing variety of imperfectness” and examples after example of how “to fail in so many different ways.”
I want you to accept how imperfect you are rather than spend your whole life trying to be perfect only to discover that, as author Hugh Prather put it, “perfectionism is slow death.”
Pop has spent the bulk of his life trying to be perfect, and that is why Pop has always been such an anxious, depressed, and shame-based human being (even though he is a psychologist – figure that!)
- When I was a kid, I used to do homework assignments over if I had any erasures.
- When I was a little league baseball player, I was upset once after hitting a home run because it hit the top of the outfield fence before going over (not perfect enough!).
- As someone who plays golf, I put myself under constant pressure to hit every shot perfectly, something that only makes my shots worse and my score grow higher than the national debt.
- Don’t be like Pop, let yourself be the mistake-making machine that you are while trying to improve.
May I offer you an alternative to perfectionism? Excellence. Excellence is a mindset that will actually help you along the way rather than harm you. As psychologist Harriet B. Braker put it, “Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.”
Let me distinguish between perfection and excellence in four different ways. (I stole this from another mental health professional decades ago but can’t remember his name, otherwise I would give him credit for being so wise about having the right mindset in life.)
- Perfectionism is idealistic, excellence is realistic.
- Perfectionists often think about how things “should” be and set goals at an unreachable level. Excellencists (not a real word, but I’m going to use it anyway) think about how things actually are and set goals that challenge them but are within reach.
- Perfectionism is product-minded, excellence is process-minded. Perfectionists are prone to postpone happiness, joy, and a sense of victory until they accomplish what they are working on. Excellencists focus on the process, stay focused on the here-and-now and believe that the joy is in the journey, not arriving at the destination.
- Perfectionism is about being the best, excellence is about being your best. Perfectionists do a lot of “looking right and left” to see how they stack up against the competition and often feel they have to be #1. Excellencists couldn’t care less about being the best and are only trying to be the best version of themselves they can be.
The old Army slogan, “Be all that you can be” makes perfect sense to those who strive to be excellent.
Perfectionism ties worth to performance, but excellence ties worth to being a human being made in the image of God.
Since performance goes up and down, a perfectionist’s sense of worth goes up and down with it. Since excellencists anchor their worth in being made in the image of God, their sense of worth never fluctuates.
G. K Chesterton was right when he said, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” He understood that “To err is human” and that we need to try to do the best we can no matter how badly we mess things up. But we need to balance Chesterton’s statement with Josh Jenkins’ wise notion, “To err is human, but when the eraser wears out ahead of the pencil, you’re overdoing it.”
Somewhere between Chesterton and Jenkins is the sweet spot we need to find in life—knowing that we are going to make a lot of mistakes but striving to do the best we can.
One other thing about perfectionism…
Underneath perfectionism is feelings of shame and insecurity that make us hypersensitive to others being critical. Some of us wrongly think that if we could just be perfect, we would finally be acceptable to others, have nothing to be insecure about and that people wouldn’t criticize us.
It just doesn’t work that way.
Even if you could be perfect, which you can’t, people would criticize and shame you for being perfect.
Plus, it wouldn’t be any fun!
As author Doug Larsen noted, “The only nice thing about being imperfect is the joy it brings to others.”
Some folks take great delight in other people’s “fails” in life. You don’t want to steal their joy by being perfect, do you?
Munchkins, strive to be excellent, not perfect. One is doable, the other is delusion. Don’t let the unhealthy pursuit of perfection drive you into anxiety attacks, depression, despair, self-condemnation, and hopelessness.
Excellence is within reach and doesn’t carry all the toxic emotional baggage of perfectionism along with it.
But, please, be careful not to let your eraser wear out ahead of your pencil.