Progress not Perfection

Written by Sharon Coulter, MA, PPS, MA LMFT on . Posted in Blog


PERFECTIONISM : a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable (Merriam-Webster)

Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, notions of perfect or imperfect are simply constructs of the mind created by our thoughts. Even so, striving to be perfect is a dangerous dance that can render our lives constricted and lonely, and rob us of all kinds of opportunities.

As I work with clients, I’m repeatedly struck by how harshly we can treat ourselves, and how expectations of perfectionism impose tremendous limitations on our ability to live healthy and happy lives. This is because shame is almost always the sister of perfection. Anxiety, fear of loss of control, procrastination, and depression are close cousins waiting in the wings.  Often the self-imposed demand to “be the best I can be” is a way to compensate for traumatic early life experiences that damaged our self esteem and left us with a sense of being unacceptable for who we are. Thus, pursuit of perfection is most often rooted in feelings of inadequacy that may be coupled with denial of anger, sadness, fear and a desperate need to avoid rejection at all costs. Striving to be perfect can threaten our mental and physical health and even take our life if we become consumed with having the perfect body, being the perfect student, the perfect wife/husband, son/daughter …

Our culture fuels a paradigm of achievement, productivity, and goal attainment and the upshot is that we can easily lose perspective on what it means to live well. We become more absorbed with our children’s grades than by their enthusiasm for learning and immerse ourselves in measuring our looks, our waists, our pocketbooks, our paychecks, our academic and professional accomplishments. Ironically, in the excessive amount of time spent judging ourselves for our perceived shortcomings, we miss the splendor and magic of the moment. We disconnect from living—humans doing as opposed to humans being. And when we’re not present centered, we can’t authentically connect with others.

My mother used to tell me, “If you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all.” While I know she intended well  and was urging me to adopt high standards, I had the good sense to replace that phrase a long time ago and adopt a kinder mantra. “Progress not Perfection” is a saying I learned from working in the recovery community. There’s freedom and encouragement in this approach to living that spurs me on to try new things, set realistic goals, strive with balance, and focus on the experience, not the outcome.

Life is messy and relationships are messy, and that’s okay. The truth is we’re on a fantastic journey that is about exploring, unfolding, and expanding our minds. Our spiritual and psychological growth depends on making mistakes. Frustration and failure are really our friends, not our enemies. They stimulate perseverance, patience, compassion for others, and creativity. To be the best we can be, paradoxically, requires that we choose to relinquish the limitations of self- imposed demands, surrender to the process of life, and fly free.

“What I am is good enough, if I would only be it openly.” ~ Carl Rogers

Recommended reading on perfectionism: When Perfect isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism. Martin Antony, PhD