It may sound easier than done, but letting things go can relieve more stress than you might think. I grew up trying to be a perfectionist. To this day I still try to be one at times. I’ve spent more time trying to make things exactly right, only to later be giving up in frustration. You can take an hour getting something to 80%, and additional hour getting it to 90% but that elusive 100% can take 5-10 times longer. In most cases 100% just isn’t feasible. If you’re like I was, this will nearly drive you insane.
Developing a sickness
I was an architecture major in college. I was top of my class in the first year, taking all the necessary fundamental courses. One of which was the first entry in modeling and drawing. You had to draw the models in several perspectives. I dug in trying to be sure I did the absolute best. After all, this was the start of a career, why would I want to flounder about. This is when my love affair with perfection came to a head.
Throughout the semester we had about 10 to 12 models that needed to be developed with 1 inch wooden cubes and 3 inch wooden rods. These pieces would be painted white and needed to be, as the professor put it, exact it size. So exact that when the cubes were stacked and glued in place “you should not see the separation.” To save you the long version, the projects were basically to put X number of cubes and rods into an X by X space and show “motion”, or something along those lines.
I took on the challenge and did my absolute best in every possible detail for the first 2 or 3 projects. When I’d get into class the professor would nit-pick the details. “I can see all the seams”, “the white paint is not smooth”, “the line thickness in your drawing is varying.” May not sound bad, but I took it hard. My fellow students kept saying “those were the only flaws that could be found so don’t take it hard”. I went into a tail spin.
The next projects had me buying more and more balsa wood trying to improve. I spent hours upon hours trying to make these issues go away. I was a sanding freak trying to make them smooth as glass, only to realize I sanded them smaller than 1 inch and I had to start over. I went nuts, never sleeping because I needed to get it right… at least right in my eyes. Once I got it “perfect” then the drawing would start. The drawings were done with tracing paper and then vellum. Vellum is expensive. Whenever I started inking the drawing I’d see the line imperfections, brought about from the ink clogging the nib of the pen, and I’d start over. I went through $100’s of vellum. All of this was in search of that ever elusive perfection.
Realizing the problem
There was a point where I snapped. Nearly to the point of a nervous breakdown. I pushed and pushed myself to a point where I didn’t know what I was doing anymore. It got to the point that I didn’t show up for the class out of fear of something else surfacing and pushing me deeper down in that pit of despair. I would complete work, turn it in and leave. I would make it a point to avoid critiques by turning work in late or dragging out other critiques so there was no time for mine.
One afternoon I ran into an old high school friend that was in the program I was in, only he was a few years ahead of me. We talked and I heard him talk about the critiques later in the future classes. I started to panic some, but he just shrugged it off. “How could he do that?” was all I could think. Thats when a realization hit me like a ton of bricks. My view of “perfect” was different from his, and thus, what was “perfect” to my professors was different as well.
It sounds simple and obvious, but I didn’t get it until right then. Perfection doesn’t exist. It’s a state or condition that is unattainable. I was of the belief that I could make it flawless. Later talking to my professor about it she said that she “has to pick on things”. She made it a point to always point out flaws. Not to belittle or hurt someone but to prove a point. To prove that even though you pursue your best possible work, you will still have room for improvements. The goal was to force you to keep your head in it at all times no matter how easy or hard it gets.
The whole premise behind these mental beatings was to exemplify that no matter how much you try to reach that elusive goal, you need to be comfortable with your absolute best. Your absolute best will have flaws. It will leave you wanting more at times. You need to let go in the end. You need to trust in your best and let go the flaws that don’t matter.
I walked away from architecture because it took a while for me to truly believe this. I knew in my heart I was fine where I was at, however I could not get that little voice out of my head that would point out the flaws. I changed over to fine arts the following year. I had reached an understanding in myself where I could say that the artwork I’m doing isn’t “perfect” because I didn’t want it to be. I know… it’s a horrible approach to the problem, but it allowed me to open that door to accepting reality. Over time I relieved myself of the burden.
Once I had managed to resolve my internal struggle I started to realize I was not alone. So many people nitpick at the smallest of things. I’ve watched students stress out because they got an A instead of an A+. I know more and more people with body dysmorphia that leads to a huge number of health and mental disorders. I watched coworkers go back and forth over their way being better than the other because of some small detail. All based upon the same premise I faced.
I’ve learned that reframing and encouragement helps alleviate many issues. Confidence building will often take a person from a severe low to a level where the “perfection rules” hold much less bearing. In some cases, examples go a long way. Show where the flaws are in everything else. As a web developer I swoon at amazing designs throughout the web and strive to attain those higher levels only to look behind the scenes and learn that my ways of doing things are exactly the same, that I’m right there with them.
The illusion of perfection has set solid roots in our society. People continue to go about their daily lives hoping to elevate to that unseen level of knowledge, beauty, performance, etc. only to learn it was all a facade. Don’t give in to the thought of being perfect. Let it go. You’ll be happier in the end.