Imperfect is the New Perfect

Untitled (perfectionist), 2002, chromogenic print, Sarah Hobbs, used with kind permission of the artist.

I don’t think I was a perfectionist at kindergarten, but certainly by my first year or two of primary school I had begun the fear-based behaviours associated with the word.

I was afraid of trying new things in case I couldn’t do them. I never learnt to play elastics or skipping or handstands at lunchtime, something every girl and lots of the boys did, for weeks on end.

I can tell you the one word, hydraulic, that I got wrong on the major annual spelling test in Standard Four. I can tell you that I spelt it hydrolic (possibly a mistake dependent on a New Zild accent).

Associating failure or mistakes with fear and shame persisted to adulthood and made my first few years of university particularly difficult. It turns out an A+ at law school is a jolly difficult thing to get your mitts on.

So when I first saw this video a couple of years ago, you might be able to guess which card flashed for me:

Everyone who commented on this a few weeks ago was struck by something different (and several added their own wise words).

For me it was ‘imperfect is the new perfect.’ Wouldn’t it be great to feel that?

I became conscious of the hold perfectionism had on me at a Carey Baptist College youth work block course, with the wonderful Murray Brown and Merrilyn Withers. Since then I’ve made all sorts of progress in managing it, but there’s still a long way to go.

One of the best things for me was being forced, as a full-time pastor, to prioritise something other than perfectionism. When you are writing a sermon most weeks, you have three choices:

a) write pretty good sermons and also do the rest of your job (spending time with people, organising events and systems, praying, leading the organisation, doing other reading and writing, keeping up with paperwork, etc);
b) write amazing sermons every week and also do the rest of your job, but never sleep; or
c) write amazing sermons every week and sleep, but don’t do the rest of your job.

Luckily my perfectionism is tempered by laziness, so that helped me choose against b) and what wisdom I possess helped me avoid c). But both b) and c) were still pretty tempting, especially as preaching is of course the most public part of the role.

Jump rope, Ameland, The Netherlands

Jump rope, Ameland, The Netherlands (Photo credit: lambertwm)

Some recent twin studies apparently show that the biggest influences on developing it are genetics and interactions outside the home. That resonates with me. I have wonderful parents who never gave me the message that their love or approval depended on meeting standards of excellence. School was a far bigger factor, I reckon.

I think a lot about how to speak and behave with SBJ in ways that will help him be unafraid of experimenting, failing, trying, learning. I’d like your thoughts on that another time. Today let’s start with us.

So if you identify with any of this, I’d love you to tell us:

  • what your experience of perfectionism has been (just if you want to)
  • what has been helpful in growing out of it or learning to live with it
  • what impact being a parent has had on your perfectionism (if applicable and if any)
  • anything else, of course!

This is the first in a series on perfectionism. See the series list here for the full list, and the next two here:

Imperfect is the New Perfect #2: Born Perfect, on how perfectionism shows up in our parenting
Imperfect is the New Perfect #3: Vulnerability, Shame and Courage, featuring the work of Brené Brown


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0 comments on “Imperfect is the New Perfect”

  1. Daina Reply

    Preaching to the choir here Thalia! For me, glandular fever in 7th form helped me to realise that at times it is enough of an achievement to get something completed, even if it is not completed to your usual standard. Perhaps you have found this with PND too? It also helped to discover a whole big world out there that is based on experiences and not just achievements, trying to prioritise “being” over “doing” – especially when it comes to having kids. However I have to admit that the perfectionist urges are still there and probably not a day goes by when I don’t silently berate myself for not doing something well enough, even when others think I have done a great job. And I sometimes don’t get much sleep, either from spending too much time working or from beating myself up about something I didn’t achieve to my own ridiculously-high standards. Still, it’s a hard road being the perfect me. D’oh.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Thanks so much for this, Daina.

      Yes, there’s nothing like enforced lack of capacity to help you confront this stuff. I was pretty sick at university and that’s when the hard work of healing began.

      Can I *cough* recommend that you write us a Brilliant and Amazing post as an aid to a good night’s sleep? 🙂

  2. MommyVerbs Reply

    Ironically, parenting semi-cured my perfectionistic ways. I realized within the first few months–when my newborn wouldn’t nurse, when she needed a pacifier that I had sworn not to use, when she fought sleep, when I couldn’t keep up with the house and the laundry and the clutter, when I missed being at work sometimes, when I went back to work, when we had to find daycare, when…the list goes on and on. But I still fought it everyday. The feeling of giving in of letting go and letting everything just be. I struggled because it wasn’t perfectly ideal everyday. It didn’t look like the magazines. “Trust your instincts” was what resonated for me. Just believing that I am the expert on being a Mommy to my children. Letting go and Letting God.

    Thanks for sharing the video. Love it.

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Great to hear from you, MommyVerbs, and to see your vibrant and action-packed site!

      Agreed, if you think you’re going to be a perfect parent, you’re on a hiding to nothing!

      Very pleased you enjoyed the video.

  3. Alex Reply

    Oh yes, can relate to a lot of this. University (eventually) knocked some of it out of me – it came as quite a shock though to realise that “good enough” is genuinely good enough, especially when that actually comes as the result of your very best efforts. Failing my driving test (twice!) also came as a shock and helped batter down my own expectations. I still struggle, though, with putting the principle that I should still give things a try even if I’m not great at them into practice – the fear of getting it wrong is clearly deeply ingrained (and no, I can’t blame my parents for that either).
    I’ve been trying really hard since becoming a parent to at least keep this part of me hidden, but I fear I’ve not been very successful. My 4 year old now generally refuses to even attempt writing letters or drawing because he gets frustrated when the outcomes don’t look exactly like the letters and pictures mummy produces. He gets quite cross with us when we try to encourage him by praising his efforts – “no, mummy, that’s *not* a good “s” [or whatever], it doesn’t look like yours”. Not entirely sure how to help him through this. I’m trying hard to focus on praising the effort not the output, and to not make drawing/writing a chore. Open to any other suggestions too, though…

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Gosh, it’s amazing how young kids can be when they start being self-critical. Hard stuff.

      I’ve been doing some reading – I guess particularly from the ‘cult of self-esteem’ angle, about the kind of language to use with kids and it seems pretty useful. I need to gather my thoughts.

      A psychotherapist I know said she tended to focus not on the result but the *enjoyment* of the activity: ‘oh, you really like puzzles, don’t you!’ which I’ve found helpful. More soon, and keen to hear everyone else’s wisdom on this.

      Also, remember that you are a Brilliant and Amazing mother, and Little G is going to continue to grow up beautifully.

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