A leading automobile manufacturer claims in its advertising that it relentlessly pursues perfection. While this sentiment may help build better cars, it’s a prescription for personal misery when applied to yourself. Relentlessly pursuing perfection is akin to having a monkey on your back that never budges.
Perfectionism is linked to many mental health problems, including anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and lower self-esteem. One of the major tasks in therapy is to challenge perfectionistic thinking that admits to nothing less than a perfect grade, a perfect score, a perfect spouse, a perfect child, and a perfect self. Isn’t it about time to free yourself of the monkey on your back by adopting the good enough standard as good enough?
Coming to terms with our imperfections is a developmental challenge we all face at some point in life. We all eventually have a comeuppance as we face the stark reality of our limitations. Maybe it’s on the tennis court, in the classroom, or checking our investment portfolio. We need to accept the stark reality that we will never be the best, wealthiest, smartest, or most gorgeous (well, maybe in the eyes of a special someone, you are indeed the most gorgeous).
The more you desire something you can’t have, the less happy you’re likely to be, as wanting something that badly only draws attention to the fact that you don’t have it. Wanting to perfect your tennis serve only reinforces how poorly your serve compares to those near-perfect serves you see at Wimbledon. Yet it turns out that the percentage of first serves made by top professional tennis players is far lower than you might expect. Even Roger Federer, arguably the greatest player ever, averaged only 62 percent of first serves made. A 62 percent exam score in the classroom might earn no better than a D grade. Adopting a good enough standard means we strive to be good, not perfect.
The fact that we are not special in any special way underscores our virtual insignificance in the cosmos. But rather than castigate ourselves for our diminished importance in the grand scheme of things, we can simply remind ourselves that we share this ever-so-modest place in the universe with our human brethren. As the late physicist Stephen Hawking so aptly pointed out, “The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.”
To accept being good enough, silence your inner critic.
The mental calculus of thoughts and emotions comes down to this: thoughts trigger emotions. We make ourselves angry by thinking angering thoughts. We make ourselves anxious by thinking anxious thoughts. We bring ourselves down by talking down to ourselves, telling ourselves that we are a failure, a loser, a wart on the face of the universe. We make ourselves worry by rehearsing worrisome thoughts, and we make ourselves feel guilty by telling ourselves just how awful we are for doing something we shouldn’t have done or for not doing something we should have done.
It stands to reason that if thoughts trigger negative emotions, changing how we think can positively affect our emotional well-being. By telling yourself that anything less than perfect is a failure brings the roof down on your head. But telling yourself that you can only do the best you can makes it possible to accept yourself as an imperfect being.
Focus on what you have achieved, not on what you haven’t.
As the Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.” In the Stoic worldview, there is no such thing as a bad event. Events just are. It’s what we make of them that counts. Wanting things beyond our control makes us miserable. Seeking perfection is arguably the most cruel taskmaster of all, as it forever lies beyond our ability to achieve. So why try?
Does this mean setting for less or accepting the status quo? Adopting a good enough standard is not about settling. It is about scaling your expectations in line with your abilities and circumstances. I may be able to improve my tennis game, but I know that Wimbledon will not be calling anytime soon. When the Nobel prize committee makes its annual calls to the year’s recipients, I know my phone will remain silent, save for the occasional telemarketer. But I am gratified that someone may be reading this modest blog post and that, in some small ways, it can make a difference in people’s lives.
Embrace your limitations. The good enough standard bears witness to the human condition by accepting the fact that there will always be people better looking, more athletic, wittier, more charming, and more intelligent than yourself. But accepting the good enough standard doesn’t mean settling for anything less than your best self. It means adjusting your expectations to your ability but working on your craft—your tennis serve, writing skills, or conversation skills—while endeavoring to be the best version of your good enough self.
Lower your expectations and stick to them.
The psychoanalytic theorist Alfred Adler encouraged us to “Have the courage to be imperfect.” More recently, billionaire tech executive and philanthropist Sheryl Sandberg remarked, “Done is better than perfect.” When faced with an impending deadline, apply the “good enough” standard to your work and move away from the keyboard or drop the pen when the time comes to submit your work. Polish it up as best you can and send it on its way with a gentle kiss.
I recall one patient who rationalized procrastination by telling himself that he could never get started with a project because he felt it was pointless to try unless he knew he would succeed. The fact is that apart from professional wrestling, outcomes are never guaranteed.
So, is this blog posting perfect? Certainly not. Is it good enough? You be the judge. It’s time for me to hit the submit button. But before I do, let me point out what Oscar Wilde said, “Don’t shoot the piano player. He’s doing the best he can.”
General Disclaimer: The content here and in other blog posts on the Minute Therapist is intended for informational purposes only, not for diagnosis, evaluation, or treatment of mental health disorders. If you are concerned about your emotional well-being or experiencing any significant mental health problems, I encourage you to consult a licensed mental health professional in your area for a thorough evaluation.
(c) 2023 Jeffrey S. Nevid
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
This content was originally published here.