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.

Just Posted

Kurt Swanson’s dog Kona takes a break from the heat on the Summer Solstice near Cranbrook, B.C. (Kurt Swanson photo)
Very warm temperatures forecast across the Kootenays this weekend

Nelson, Castlegar forecast to hit 39, Cranbrook 37

With high temperatures forecasted for the week and into the next, Interior Health is offering some tips on how to keep yourself safe from heat-related illness. (Pixabay)
Interior Health offers safety tips as temperatures soar

‘Too much heat can be harmful to your health’

The view from the Eager Hill lookout in the Cranbrook Community Forest. (Corey Bullock/Cranbrook Townsman file)
New ‘Padawan’ trail at Eager Hill now open and ready for use

The 5km green flow trail is suitable for all ages

The City of Cranbrook and the Ktunaxa Nation raised the flag of the Ktunaxa Nation at the arches entrance into the city’s downtown core during a ceremony on Monday, June 21. Photo courtesy City of Cranbrook.
Ktunaxa Nation flag raised at downtown arches entrance

The Ktunaxa Nation flag was raised at the Cranbrook arches — the… Continue reading

Kimberley Search and Rescue were able to quickly respond to a call for service and transport an injured mountain biker to East Kootenay Regional Hospital over the weekend. Kimberley SAR file photo.
Kimberley Search and Rescue respond to injured mountain biker on Bootleg Mountain

Kimberley Search and Rescue responded to a call for service this past… Continue reading

Pictured is Mrs. O and her grade 4/5 class at St. Mary’s Catholic School in Cranbrook. Mrs. O challenged her class to read 36,000 pages in May and they far surpassed that goal. The students were then allowed to choose her fate. (Corey Bullock/Cranbrook Townsman file)
WATCH: St. Mary’s Catholic School grade 4/5 class wins reading challenge

Teacher lets students choose fate after reading over 47,000 pages in one month

Robin Sanford and her fiance Simon Park were married in an impromptu ceremony at Abbotsford Regional Hospital on June 16. (Submitted photo)
Mom dies day after witnessing daughter’s hospital wedding in Abbotsford

Nurses help arrange impromptu ceremony in 3 hours for bride and groom

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson with Premier John Horgan after the budget speech Tuesday, April 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. home owner grant won’t be altered, despite expert advice

Tax break for residences worth up to $1.6 million too popular

B.C. conservation officer Sgt. Todd Hunter said a black bear is believed to have killed local livestock. (THE NEWS/files)
Black bear believed to have killed miniature donkey in Maple Ridge

Trap set for predator that has been killing livestock

Penticton mayor John Vassilaki and Minister of Housing David Eby have been battling over the Victory Church shelter and BC Housing projects in the city. (File photos)
Penticton heads to court over homeless shelter as BC Housing audit begins

The city was not satisfied with the response from Minister David Eby regarding the ongoing situation

People enjoy the sun at Woodbine Beach on June 19, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Tijana Martin
BC Hydro assures customers it has ‘more than enough’ power to weather the heatwave

Despite an increase of pressure on the Western grid, blackouts are not expected like in some U.S. states

Air Canada planes sit on the tarmac at Pearson International Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Pilots say no reason to continue quarantines for vaccinated international travellers

Prime minister says Canada still trying to limit number of incoming tourists

Six United Way chapters around the province are merging into United Way B.C. (News Bulletin file photo)
6 United Way chapters merging around B.C.

Money raised in communities will stay in those communities, agency says

Val Litwin is the latest candidate to declare his bid for the B.C. Liberal leadership. (Litwin campaign video)
Political newcomer joins contest for B.C. Liberal leadership

Val Litwin a former B.C. Chamber of Commerce CEO

Most Read