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Want to Be Great? Leave Perfectionism at the Door

When I think of perfection, I can’t help but consider art. Through the centuries, human beings have created incredible things with their brushes, oils, pencils, and clay. So many of the best works have endured for hundreds of years, enjoyed by countless generations.

Almost everyone has looked at a work of art and said, “I could do that.” Yet, if you actually tried to replicate the piece (and many of us have) you wouldn’t be able to. Why? The desire to do it perfectly holds you back.

You aren’t alone. Claude Monet, a formidable impressionist painter, is as renowned for his perfectionism as his art. In fact, just before a new exhibition, he once destroyed 15 paintings he had spent three years creating during a fit of rage against his own ineptitude.

He famously remarked: “I know well enough in advance that you’ll find my paintings perfect. I know that if they are exhibited, they’ll be a great success, but I couldn’t be more indifferent to it since I know they are bad, I’m certain of it.”

Clearly, something was wrong. Monet’s perfectionism prevented him from sharing his gift with the world. Wanting to be perfect is natural, but the urge to live without flaws has a dark side.

Creating a mental health meltdown

When you constantly strive for perfection, you cultivate a harsh inner dialogue. This narrative is profoundly self-critical and, frankly, exhausting. And over time, this kind of negative self-talk can give rise to some significant mental health problems.

Psychologists have conducted a considerable amount of research on how perfectionism affects the human mind. And what they’ve discovered is nothing short of shocking. Here are just a few of the mental and behavioral health conditions linked to perfectionism:

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Self-mutilation

  • Social anxiety disorder

  • Agoraphobia

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

  • Binge eating

  • Anorexia

  • Bulimia

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

  • Chronic fatigue syndrome

  • Insomnia

  • Hoarding

  • Dyspepsia

  • Chronic headaches

  • Bipolar disorder

Sarah Egan, a senior research fellow specializing in perfectionism at Curtin University, put it this way: “It’s something that cuts across everything, in terms of psychological problems. There aren’t that many other things that do that.”

She argues that the more you pursue perfection, the more likely you’ll suffer from something on this list. The consequences of perfection are so dire that many researchers consider perfectionism to be a form of self-abuse.

What’s even worse—these effects only scratch the surface of perfectionism’s perils. Half of the people who lose their life to suicide are posthumously described by friends and family as perfectionists. This rate is even higher among young adults. A National Institutes of Health study found that 70% of young people who died by suicide were known to set exceedingly high expectations for themselves.

Destroying us from the inside out

Everyone handles the stress of perfectionism differently. And although it impedes many aspects of mental and emotional health, the drive to be perfect can also put your physical health at risk.

Our bodies weren’t designed to handle the pressure of perfection. So it should be no surprise that perfectionism is associated with high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

Beyond your heart health, perfectionism decreases your body’s ability to cope with chronic health conditions like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and diabetes. Perfectionism is also a known predictor of early death among patients with diabetes.

Professor Gordon Flett, who wrote The Price of Perfection, pointed out, “[A] link between perfectionism and serious illness is not surprising given that unrelenting perfectionism can be a recipe for chronic stress.”

I don’t have to remind you of how taxing stress is on the body. And constantly pursuing perfection is hard on the mind and body.

Realistically, a healthy, wholesome life and perfectionism cannot coexist. So you have to make a decision. Will you try to be perfect while slowly killing yourself? Or will you recognize when something is good enough so you can have space to thrive?

Finding space to thrive

Putting perfection in purgatory is no small feat. The longer you’ve been living in a pattern of perfection, the more difficult it is to give up. Believe me—the effort is worth the outcome.

Madeleine Ferrari, a researcher from Australian Catholic University, recently studied how perfectionists can recover from their need to be flawless. She suggested a mindset of self-compassion to protect against perfection.

Ferrari said self-compassion is “the practice of self-kindness [that] consistently reduces the strength of the relationship between maladaptive perfectionism and depression for both adolescents and adults.”

Put simply, being kind to yourself is the key to reducing the adverse effects of perfection. Tune out and turn off your negative narrative and acknowledge the inherent difficulty of your goals before trying to execute them flawlessly.

Many times, what we’re trying to accomplish is challenging and doesn't come easy. The more you recognize this, the more slack you’ll give yourself when chasing your dreams.

We don’t need perfection to accomplish our goals. What’s required of us is motivation, hard work, and, perhaps most of all, grace.


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