Family health

Price of perfection: Why best isn't always best

Psychotherapist Liza Finlay highlights the problems with perfectionism, and why she tells parents "average is best."

Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

So many of us are conditioned to think we need to be perfect — perfect parents, partners, cooks, employees and so forth. But this isn’t the case: Perfection comes at a cost.

In fact, the price you pay for perfection-seeking is so dear that I tell my clients “average is best.” Yet, our culture has an aversion to average. Our clamorous pursuit of higher and higher heights of “best” has produced a strange paradigm in which branding someone as “average” is tantamount to name-calling.

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Nope, satisfactory is no longer satisfactory. And that’s a tragedy. Why? Well, here are four good reasons…

1. Complete discouragement.
When the bar is set so impossibly high, why bother even trying? What might you — or your child — have attempted and maybe even enjoyed if complete mastery was not the mantra? The price of perfection is the guitar that was never played, the hill that was never skied, the new recipe that was never attempted, the date that was never had. My friend Alyson has a great expression: Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. In other words, life is meant to be lived, not watched from the sidelines for fear of failure.

2. Cheating. Sneaking. Deceiving.
When we tip the scales in favour of placing first, attaining As, being best, we send the not-so-subtle message that efforts aren’t as important as outcomes. So, as parents, we unwittingly incentivize our kids to beat the system — to cheat to get good grades, or to lie about results. The hit movie The Wolves of Wall Street is a classic example of perfection-addled cheating.

3. Perfection addiction
We become hooked on external measures — outcome junkies. And when we do that, we hand over all of our personal power to outside forces. What we think, what we feel don’t matter. All that matters is what the teacher decides, or the admissions officer, or our boss. The price of perfectionism is pleasing, and the price of pleasing seems to be autonomy. Personal growth is, then, sacrificed at the altar of authority; self-worth is obfuscated to earn ordination from some “other.” In other words, perfectionism is a dangerous game that runs the risk of the complete abandonment of self.

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4. Alienation.
It’s lonely at the top. The price you pay for being “above” others is that you are no longer “amongst” others. If it’s true that, as the great thinker Alfred Adler proposed, first we seek to belong, then lack of belonging (being above and not amongst our peers) is a fatal blow to emotional health. As surely as a blocked artery kills a heart, the relentless pursuit of being “better than” breaks a heart.

As parents, perfection breeds competition — “mommy wars.” We’re all inevitably trying to do our best based on our circumstances. But indeed, there’s no perfect way to parent.

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