Why Being 'Perfect' Won't Make You As Happy As You Think (And 6 Things That Actually Will)

Photo: Aris Leoven | Canva 
Perfect, woman, Barbie in pink

Perfectionists: the people who begin a sentence with, “I know nothing’s perfect, but…”

But what? There is no “but”! Nothing is perfect. It's impossible. But what's wrong with striving for perfection? 


Linked with death by suicide, drug abuse, anxiety, anorexia, depression, high blood pressure, and early death, a prominent study suggests that perfectionism is on the rise.

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Why being 'perfect' makes life worse — and six ways to break the habit

1. Trying to find the 'best' of something actually makes you less satisfied.

Always looking for the next best thing, you have trouble choosing an outfit, house, or partner. You imagine doing more research or comparison shopping to unearth the best of whatever you are seeking.

What to do instead: Popularized by psychologist Barry Schwartz, when "satisficers" decide, they choose from a few selections instead of looking in every nook and cranny to find all the possibilities. It may seem difficult at first, but with practice, you will find it takes less time, and you'll be happier with your choice.

Do you know many people who say, “Yeah, my husband’s great, but I think if I kept going out with more guys, I could have done better?” For most things, there is not one “right” choice.

2. Trying to make something perfect often sabotages it in the end.

You think tweaking one more thing will yield perfection, but you know the trap.

Think about plucking your eyebrows or cutting your bangs to perfection and how crazy that can get — you keep going and going until you’re penciling in brows or begging your stylist to do something with the wreck you’ve made of your hair.

What to do instead: Look at your goal — whether in terms of time, quality, or another dimension — and ask yourself whether it’s rational and realistic. Stick with that timeframe and let your project be "good enough".

For example, at some point, I must stop writing this article and send it to my editor. Ironically, it will not be perfect. I have a time I plan to let it go, and that’s it. It’s realistic because I’ve looked at the time I can commit between now and then. I’ve spent a set amount of time reading about the subject, and while I could always read more, I’ll never finish. It feels so good when it’s finally done!

As we say in the coaching biz, the finish is not perfect.

3. Focusing on the perfect outcome prevents you from enjoying the process.

When you do not win first place in the art show, get the perfect job, or run the perfect marathon, you point the finger at yourself for how bad you did and what a bad person you are.

What to do instead: David Burns in Dare to be Average, recommends focusing on the process instead of the outcome. Whether you’re training for a marathon or doing a marathon of job interviews, the key is to focus on what you’re doing and whether you’re sticking to your plan and the process.

Don’t focus on the outcome, such as how fast you ran in the marathon or whether you landed a new job this week. Notice what you’re doing right instead, like the friend you made at mile 18 or sending out four resumes every day.

Relish the parts you enjoy, too! If you feel on top of the world because you ran a marathon or connected with the person who interviewed you, recognize that these are occasions for joy and celebration.

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4. The need to be great at everything you do keeps you from new things.

I cannot tell you how often I’ve heard people say they do not want to try yoga, dance, or exercise because they don’t know how to do that type of yoga, dance, or exercise. Of course, if you’ve never done it, you won't know what you’re doing. How will you ever learn anything new if you don’t try?

What to do instead: Get realistic about the "worst case" scenario.

If your balance isn’t good in your first yoga session, so what? Are people going to laugh at you? Will they think you don’t belong there? If you don’t learn the tango the first time, will the teacher kick you out? Will people refuse to partner with you? Possibly yes to all of these, but probably not.

Don't allow irrational thinking to keep you from growing. What if someone does laugh as you flop instead of flow in your first vinyasa? Is that so terrible? Does it make you a bad person? Of course not! You’re a work in progress like the rest of us.

5. Loving yourself with limits is the furthest thing from unconditional. 

No one relishes talking about the botched date, the miss at work, or their dark and twisty thoughts. Balance this against the fact that no one likes a person who never has problems with the boss, the kids, or the spouse.

What to do instead: You imagine people won’t like you because you aren’t perfect, but you can consciously remind yourself that quirks and eccentricities are what we love about people. We also love people who make mistakes, don’t always get what they want, and who regularly screw things up. It allows us to share our misses.

It’s OK to celebrate successes, but you are more than your wins. Failure makes us human, and talking about failure allows us to get the support we need and increases our empathy toward others.



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6. Your perfectionism harms relationships with others. 

You may say you don’t expect people to be perfect, but ask why the dishwasher wasn’t loaded the “right” way or why the grade is a 98 instead of 100. You likely also complain about not being able to hire someone to do something around the house because they won’t do it the [perfect] way you would. Oh, come on now!

It’s like saying no one else knows what they’re doing, no one tries hard enough, and no one is getting it right. Others can feel your disdain. It’s unpleasant.

What to do instead: Focus on what went right. The dishwasher got loaded, the child's test grade was still great and the child studied hard. 

Once you stop harping about these things, you’ll notice it doesn’t matter how the dishwasher is loaded. Accepting the imperfections in others helps us accept our own, and vice versa.

When you’re attached to perfection, it’s almost impossible to finish anything because it will never be perfect. Making decisions is fraught with difficulties because you never know whether your choice is the “right” one.

Self-criticism and shame go with the territory — you think you’re imperfect, it’s your fault because you’re not good enough, and you’re a bad person. You avoid situations where you might make a mistake or misstep, so you never try anything new. You don’t let anyone know when you make a mistake because it would be too shameful.

Social media may be driving the upswing as we constantly compare ourselves with others. It’s no surprise that, with teens spending so much time on social media and the average daily worldwide social media use increases, we experience a desire for the perfect lifestyle, including all the perfect houses, jobs, and people we see online.

Perfectionism, the relentless striving for flawlessness and excessively high performance sets the high bar by which we consistently judge ourselves and find ourselves wanting. At the same time, the perfectionist worries about how others evaluate them.

I’m anticipating your question, the same one my clients pose: “What’s wrong with trying to be as perfect as possible?”

Reign in your perfectionism by trying some of these strategies. You are almost guaranteed to be happier because you will finish projects, make decisions, praise yourself more, criticize less, try new things, and get more social support when you’re in a jam.

Most important, you may get the love you need when you stop annoying the crap out of the people closest to you by demanding they adhere to your excessive standards of excellence.

As Wabi-Sabi teaches us: Nothing lasts… Nothing is finished… Nothing is perfect. Tell that to your inner perfectionist.

RELATED: You Were Born To Live A Life You Love, Not To Be Perfect

Judith Tutin, Ph.D., ACC, is a licensed psychologist and certified life coach. She shares more work on her website, where she brings more fun and wellness to your life.