Perfectionism is a Disease

Perfectionism is, in fact, a disease.

There, I said it. And I feel a lot better for it.

Striving to be perfect is surely a noble ideal. However, it is just that. An ideal. The problem comes when we value  perfection over progress, however incremental. Such an approach can be costly, to say the least.

A girl and her father walk through an old train tunnel

Perfectionism can give us tunnel vision

the cost of perfection

No doubt about it. There is a cost to perfection.

Have you ever balked at taking the plunge? Into a relationship, a career path, a competition, a business venture, an artistic endeavor, whatever? You stopped short of going all in because you were afraid to fail?

Of course you have. But how did I know?

Well, its true for me, too. And true for most folks I’ve met.

If an unrealistic, and potentially unhealthy, relationship to the idea of being perfect isn’t universal to human experience, it certainly is widespread. But does that make it right?

Is it fair to yourself, or to those you might serve, to hold back? To filter and edit? To not engage, or to stay out of the ring, entirely, because you’re afraid of not being perfect?

Is it realistic to imagine that you could perform close to perfection? That somehow you shouldn’t have flaws? Or that you should be better (or better conditioned) than you actually are?

Let me ask it another way. Does it make sense for you to wait until all the traffic lights are green at once in order to drive across town?

Of course, not. It sounds ridiculous even to consider it. Imagine! Every condition – yourself included – must be ideal in order for you to make an effort? Ha!

And yet, both you and I have foregone opportunities for this very reason. We’ve played small in the name of perfection.

A family stares up at giant redwood trees in the rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula, Washington

Staring up at giants in the rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula, Washington

we’re only as sick as our secrets

Wanna know a secret? I’m not perfect, either. But you knew that, didn’t you?

Both as a husband, and as a father, I still have a lot to learn. This is likely the most profound and humbling truth I’ve encountered (and continue to encounter) as we travel the world with our children.

Sometimes (thankfully, the exception, not the rule) I find myself being short with my kids when they make mistakes.

Intellectually, I understand that this is (very) far from helpful to their development. And yet, my own emotional capacity (or lack thereof) can manifest as impatience and criticism far too quickly when “mistakes” occur.

Because they’re kids, they’re constantly being exposed to new experiences and emotions. How would they already know how to do (or cope with) something they’ve never done (or experienced) before?

Naturally, they’re going to make mistakes. They are going to fail.

A young boy practices with his slingshot along the Pacific coast as his father looks on

Slingshot practice

imperfection is a natural state

There is very little at which we can be perfect. In fact, it has often been said that they only thing humans are perfect at, is being imperfect. Where, then, does perfectionism come from?

Well, I’m no expert, so please don’t confuse me with the facts. But my experience has been that perfectionism is born in environments where authority figures – parents, teachers, bosses –  don’t demonstrate a healthy acceptance of imperfection.

A boy swings on a rope swing near a waterfall along the Pacific coastline.

Rope swings and waterfalls along the Pacific coastline.

parents do the best they can

I believe that most parents do the best they can. Of course, there are exceptions. Some people are just ill-intentioned, and having kids won’t change that fact.

But I suppose the large majority of parents do the best they can given the emotional capacity they (the parents) have.

When parents lack emotional intelligence, they risk diminishing their children’s prospects of long term success.

Its an irony of grand scale that intolerance of our children’s failures may create conditions for their (our children’s) success-avoidance later in life.

For it is through mistakes that we learn. It is through failure that we eventually succeed.

A family admires and exhibit in Ucluelet Aquarium in Ucluelet, Vancouver Island, BC

Ucluelet Aquarium in Ucluelet, Vancouver Island, BC

the lesson I’m learning to teach

The lesson I’d most like my children to learn – the one I’d feel most accomplished for having gotten across to them – is that imperfection and mistakes are our constant companions.

I want nothing more than for them to embrace imperfection. To understand they likely won’t be perfect on their first attempt at any endeavor. That they may not be perfect on the hundredth, or even the thousandth attempt. That perfection (and certainly immediate perfection) isn’t a realistic ideal.

That most often, the best we can aspire to is continuous improvement. For success occurs in the presence of failure and mistakes, not in their absence.

A family views glaciers on Mount Rainier from the Paradise section of the national park

Glaciers in Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park

intellectual vs emotional acceptance

This is the intellectual case for tolerating failure. The challenge is, the lesson can be taught, intellectually, for only so long. Very quickly, the lesson must be demonstrated.

When mistakes are made, or failures occur, if our children are to learn the lesson, then we as parents should respond in a way that reinforces the inevitability of failure on the road to success.

You may ask, “Isn’t this an everyone-is-a-winner, participation-trophy mentality?” To the contrary,  its a clear acknowledgment that success is a process, not an event. A journey not a destination.

A girl hikes down from Beacon Rock in Beacon Rock State Park in the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

Beacon Rock State Park in the Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

the paradox of perfection

When parents overreact to – I.e., criticize, berate, judge, make-wrong – our children’s failures, we reinforce by our own actions that failure is unacceptable. That to be a success, we must be perfect.

By so doing, we potentially foster a subconscious will in the child to avoid failure. To avoid risk. And, thereby, to avoid growth and eventual, if incremental, success.

In my estimation, there isn’t a bigger disservice we can do to our children, and to humanity as a whole.

When we go this route – however unintentional – we foster perfectionism, which, by any other name, is a disease.

A family looks at koi fish in a koi pond in Portland Oregon

Koi pond in Portland Oregon

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  1. I love this. You touch on some tremendous points, and I completely agree. Learning through exposure, emotional engagement and commended failures provides a solid foundation for kids. Being able to confidently try (and fail) at things crushes perception barriers and sets an entirely different foundation for success. Thanks for sharing this!

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