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The Curse of the Quest for Perfection

What could be wrong with the quest for perfection? Shoot for the moon and if you miss, you end up among the stars, right? In pretty much any arena of a modern woman’s life - career, childrearing, relationships, self-image - aiming high should be a good thing. Strive to do your best, work hard at your marriage, your parenting, your diet and exercise plan, your spiritual practice, and you can’t do better than your best so things should fall into place.

While you won’t catch me telling you NOT to strive to do your best … well, not exactly, anyway, what I am here to tell you is that all that striving and all those goals and objectives and plans and efforts will not make you happy. Nor will they necessarily make you thin, beautiful, healthy, or beloved by your children and partner. What they will make you is exhausted and resentful - that much is fairly certain. The rest … well, will it matter?

Anna Quindlen writes about the cultural quest for perfection that many modern women fall prey to in her book called Being Perfect. She captures the flavor of this effort to be perfect and locates its origin in our high school years. What she calls “perfection” I would rename “the tyranny of being cool.” Remember how important it was to be cool? Being cool ruled every aspect of your life: what you wore, how you did your hair and your makeup, whom you could be seen with, whom you could have a crush on, what you could eat - heck, for some girls even being seen eating was somehow deemed “uncool.” Hello, eating disorders!

From a Mental Health Point of View

While seeking perfection isn’t a mental illness, some of the intensity and “offshoots” from doing so might be. The rigidity with which perfection is defined is an important place to start. When we think back to high school and the tyranny of cool, lines were drawn in black and white: you knew what was cool and what wasn’t, and if you weren’t sure, your peers would make it very clear to you - especially if you erred on the side of uncool. If you wanted to be cool, you had to follow incredibly strict rules. Quindlen also mentions these rules. She writes, “Being perfect was hard work, and the hell of it all was, the rules kept changing … [E]ventually being perfect became like carrying a backpack full of bricks every single day.” Getting it right in a world filled with pressures - to be thin, pretty, successful, smart, loving, generous, politically savvy, and so on - is a heavy burden.

Anxiety is one such offshoot. Worrying about your progress in this quest is natural. Advertising aimed at women promoted a sense of never being “enough” never good enough, thin enough, unblemished enough, and so on. If you heap that pressure upon yourself as well, rather than insulating yourself from it, anxiety will result.

Depression is another potential offshoot. Perfection, obviously, is unattainable. All we mortals can do is approach and strive and get close. Perfection implies an impossibility that, depending upon how you view it, could become depressing. To spend your waking hours striving to get it right, only to drop into bed exhausted each night having only come close, could be a trigger for mood issues in some women.

Eating disorders, while not necessarily about food or even about body image, come into play with the quest for perfection because, if nothing else, eating disorders are about control. Seeking perfection is a parallel process: it is also all about seeking to control.

Letting it Go

Of course no one is suggesting that we start seeking imperfection, but again, Quindlen says it well: maybe we should stop seeking perfection and start seeking ourselves. Being real, as imperfect as we are, and letting it go at that might be the best way forward for the weary.

For many women, this means delving back into the sense of self you had pre-adolescence. Why pre-adolescence? Mary Pipher wrote a groundbreaking book in the 1990s explaining why: during adolescence (specifically from about the age of 9 to age 13  or so) girls change in yet one more way that boys do not. We lose our sense of self. Our anchor or north star or whatever internal guiding force that helps us navigate the external world is silenced by the tyranny of cool in a way that Pipher documents in depth. The results are chilling: girls lose their “edge” in areas as wide- ranging as math scores and physical fitness standards.

Moving Forward

Try to reconnect, even for a moment, with your 7- or 8-year-old self. What was important to you then? What made you happy? What caught your interest? If you had an afternoon all to yourself, what would you do with it? Being authentic rather than being perfect may start here. Start mining the rich ground of your childhood and you may come up with your own special variety of gems to polish and enjoy in adulthood.

Forgive yourself and others for having embarked upon the quest for perfection. We all get caught up in it. Mourn the time you lost or wasted if you need to, then accept where you are now and let it go.

Remember to balance your efforts for others (your boss, your partner, and your children or parents) may want you to remain questing for perfection - It made you a great employee or soccer mom. You can’t simply “quit” in one day, but you can seek balance and maybe even tip the scales in your favor over time. Take the long view and you’ll discover what is possible.


Posted on June 11th, 2013
Posted in Mental Health

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