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Woensdregt: What’s so great about perfection?

Perfectionism is a savage god. It demands a physical cost, a social cost, a personal cost

By Yme Woensdregt

Last week, I wrote a column in which I suggested that it’s ok to settle for being good enough, rather than always striving to be excellent. Essentially, I said that good enough is good enough. I got a fair amount of feedback about that column, so I thought I’d follow it up with another.

I learned this lesson the hard way. I’ve written before about being diagnosed with clinical depression over 20 years ago. During my recovery, I learned that one of the root causes of my depression was my perfectionism. Good enough was not good enough for me. I was never satisfied. I would never get it right. I would never do things well enough to satisfy me.

What happened in all of this is that this sense of perfectionism became a savage god for me. It sucked my soul dry until I reached that point where I thought I was worthless. But that wasn’t enough, for this savage god demanded my total allegiance. It drove everything I did and gave me no release. The result was that I ended up making a plan to kill myself because I would never measure up, I would never be good enough.

One of the key things I want to say in this column is to be gentle with yourself. This drive to excel, to be better, to be best, prevents us from the kind of gentleness which we need to thrive.

In the last 20 years, I’ve been learning a healthier way to live. I am learning to accept that good enough is just fine. I no longer worship at the altar of that savage god. I do the best I can these days, and then I let it go. There are still times when that ugly voice whispers in my mind, but I am learning to silence that voice. I am learning to defeat it.

This is part of what it means to grow up, to mature. We learn when it’s the right time to quit striving, when to let something go, when to say, “I’ve done the best I can and that’s good enough.”

I thought of that again when I read a column by religion writer Tom Ehrich. He tells an ordinary story about being unable to go to upstate New York with his family. Instead, he took a long walk along the Hudson River, and then sat beside an open window overlooking the courtyard with a cool breeze blowing lightly.

He writes, “No, it wasn’t the same as a screened porch upstate. But it worked. Why? Because I made it work. I was motivated to step away from my desk and do something different.

“Could I have had a more perfect day? Sure, I suppose so. But I didn’t need perfection. I just needed something different. Yes, I was ‘settling’, as they term it. But that’s part of maturity: knowing that progress matters more than perfection. Sometimes you don’t get exactly what you want and making do can be enough. Tweaking the day can make it a better day.”

It has to do with how we interpret what is happening to us. How do we understand the choices we make? To continue with Ehrich’s story, we could spend the day cursing the reasons why we couldn’t go upstate. We could stew about what prevented us from doing what we wanted to do. Or we could choose to do what we can with the situation in which we find ourselves.

To put it another way, we could waste the day throwing a temper tantrum like a two–year–old, or we could act like an adult and make the best of the situation.

Some people call that settling for something less. But it’s really not. Making the best of a reality we can’t change is a sign of growing up, of recognizing that we are finite and limited human beings. It’s a way of being gentle with ourselves.

Wisdom and maturity say “Do what you can. Sit beside an open window and relax. You can’t control everything. Do what you can, make do, and enjoy it.”

It takes the pressure off when we can come to terms with reality.

Partly that’s common sense. But there is more to it. As I said, perfectionism is a savage god. Trying to worship at the altar of this god will only destroy us. As I mentioned last week, we can’t maintain this kind of neurotic driven–ness that demands constant improvement. It’s impossible. We are not gods with infinite resources. We are finite, limited human beings. That is simply part of our reality. Coming to terms with it is a sign of good mental health.

Athletes who succumb to the siren call and worship at the altar of this savage god pay the price as they are banned from the sport they love. Executives who give up everything to be on top will, in fact, lose everything and end up lonely and abandoned. Ordinary people who are always striving for success will constantly live under the pressure of never quite making it.

Perfectionism is a savage god. It demands a physical cost, a social cost, a personal cost. Perhaps most damning of all, perfectionism corrupts our souls by making an idol of our own limited abilities. Perfectionism prevents us from being gentle with ourselves and with others, and our lives end up being empty and purposeless.

I am learning a healthier way. Good enough is good enough.

And you know, that’s not half–bad.