I remember the first time someone called me a perfectionist. It was my mom, and I was ten. And it wasn’t in any way intended as a derogatory term — it was more of an observation, and one that seemed harmless at the time. See, back then I considered perfection synonymous with excellence, and I definitely strove for the latter in everything I did, from the pristine curves of my penmanship, to the pursuit of new activities, to the stellar grades I sought in school. It didn’t occur to me then that my obsession with doing things perfectly was anything other than a desire to do them correctly. In my head, perfection was the “right” way, and imperfection the “wrong” way. There was no in-between.
But there is a difference between striving for excellence, which is what I thought I was doing, and being held captive by perfectionism.
The pursuit of excellence is a journey that understands we’ll make some mistakes along the way to reaching our potential, but they’ll propel us to keep building, and learning, and growing. This journey is forgiving of and gentle with our faults and failings.
Perfectionism, on the other hand, holds you prisoner to an unattainable ideal and insists that you’re not worth anything if you don’t reach it. It is a belief system with an insatiable appetite, because the number of things you achieve “perfectly” will only feed the obsession rather than appease it. Perfectionism is the beast whose threatening presence looms in the shadows and keeps you from even trying so you don’t have to risk failure, or keeps you sweating and stressing over minute details, believing the myth that there’s some objectively “perfect” way to do whatever it is you’re doing.
And this is what I often find myself succumbing to.
When the idea for this post first surfaced, I intended to write as what I consider a recovered perfectionist, someone who, though once reduced to tears by the smallest mistake, has learned to accept herself. Has learned that her worth comes not from what she does, but from who she is.
But as I started to write, I realized I’m more of a recovering perfectionist. I’ve become more forgiving of some of my mistakes, but a gremlin still sits on my shoulder, spits accusations like “not good enough” in my ear, and gnaws at my insecurities.
I think, for example, of the community I am writing this for, this beautiful community of women dedicated to recognizing their worth and influence, and I think of the magnitude of the message I wish to impart and the hearts I hope to touch with it.
But I know there are a million ways I could say all this more “perfectly” – with more insight, with carefully crafted metaphors and sparkling prose. There are writers whose voices I wish I could steal for this piece because I believe them to be far more eloquent than I am, and I wonder if you, dear reader, will “get it,” the point of this post I’m pouring my heart into. These are fears that have had me pressing the delete key more times than I’d like to admit, rewriting and second-guessing myself over and over again.
But strangely enough, in this moment, that knowledge – that there are a million ways to do this differently, and maybe even do it perfectly – isn’t suffocating. It’s freeing.
Because perfect is an unattainable ideal. We will never be perfect.
We will never be perfect. And this is nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary, it’s something to celebrate.
We can unshackle ourselves from unrealistic expectations, free to live as messily and imperfectly as we do, dancing and loving and creating with abandon, confident in the certainty that our worth does not stem from anything we accomplish, but from the very essence of who we are. It comes from the heart we pour into our actions, and not the outcome of those actions. It comes from the fact that we are daughters of God. It comes from knowing that we don’t have to do anything special to be somebody special, and that, if there were only one perfect way to do something, we wouldn’t each be blessed with a unique set of gifts and talents.
I will never be perfect, but I will always be perfectly me.
And that is enough.
Sarah Zentner is a freelance writer who specialises in topics concerning 20-something life and the Christian faith. She loves walking with others through this turbulent period of life, and she believes in nursing every young woman’s love for and belief in herself. When she’s not writing, Sarah enjoys singing along to musical soundtracks, savoring a piece of delicious chocolate, or curling up with a cup of tea and a great book.