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Perfectionism vs. Striving for Excellence

Photo by Alina Vilchenko on

In our society, we praise perfectionism. We think of being perfect as the highest aim: We must have a perfect body, a perfect intelligence. A perfect house, a perfect family and perfect experiences. We long for perfection, although we do not fully understand the forms. What does it mean to be perfect? Who or what defines perfection?

You don´t need to look very far: As soon as you get into social media, you see the effects perfectionism has on people. Everybody wants to show their best image, their perfect side.

At the same time, odd enough, we also accept as humans that perfection doesn´t exist, that it is an unattainable goal. “Nobody is perfect”, is what people tell us. You might agree with me, that the whole idea about perfectionism is confusing. On one side, we venerate perfectionism even if we have no idea what does it really means. But because we don´t understand it, we justify our mediocrity by accepting that perfection does not exist.

When we say: “I am a perfectionist”, what we are really saying is: “I am afraid to fail, therefore I do not want to act right away until I feel safe enough to do so”.

We also tend to associate perfectionism with success. If we do things perfectly, then we should be rewarded, we should be successful in our endeavors. I believe this association is very dangerous to our mental health. First of all, we cannot aim for perfection when we don´t understand what being perfect means. You might have an idea about what it means to you to be perfect, but perfection per se is an impossibility, something unattainable. When you set yourself unattainable goals with no real foundation but a mere abstract belief of perfection, you will most likely crash yourself on the wall.

The thing is, perfectionism is actually an imaginary place coming from the ego. It comes from our intense fear of being judged and our internal insecurity of not feeling good enough. It is an attempt to procrastinate action; it blocks creativity and the possibility to use your intuition.

You might argue that some degree of perfectionism is good; that there is nothing bad in wanting to do the things the best possible way we are able to do it. I fully agree with that, however, we are not talking here about trying to be perfect or do things perfectly; we are saying we want to do them “The best possible way”- This involves your heart, your focus, your effort… your willingness to do what it takes, to perform the best that is possible. There is a difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence.

So, you might wonder, what is the difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence?

According to the Cambridge dictionary, Excellence means excelling at something. It means greatness… to be the very best. It’s possessing high qualities in a high degree. It requires practice, dedication, devotion… it is something that only through intense practice and hard work you can attain. Excellence in my opinion, is connected to Love. It is a quality you develop from the inside.

Perfectionism is not something that comes from you. It comes from the external expectations of other people, of societies or entities, whether you consciously know it or not. It has a set of unrealistic expectations and predetermined definitions. It comes from the need to be accepted and liked, to belong. It fulfills the collective Ego, and not your inner nature. That´s why it is unattainable: It is nearly impossible to please everybody all the time.

If you really want to be successful, then aiming at excellence is the way to go. To become excellent in what you do, in what you want to offer to the society and the world, is something that is aligned with your vision and with your passion. You wouldn´t want to become excellent at something you are not passionate about, do you?

How do we know that we are being a perfectionist instead of aiming for excellence?

In short, an easy way to detect if you are aiming at perfectionism instead of excellence is if:

  1. You feel very anxious about the results;

  2. You are afraid of how other people will judge you and see you;

  3. The idea of perfection comes from an external source: Your family, coworkers, the media, your friends, society;

  4. No matter how much you work, it seems never good enough;

  5. You think more on the final reward than the process of getting there: Money, success, fame, etc;

  6. You feel afraid to act; you always doubt before doing the next steps;

  7. You get very frustrated and angry if things do not go as expected.

Now on the other side, when you are aiming to be excellent in your actions, you will most likely:

  1. Feel energized every time you are doing the activity;

  2. Have an inner motivation to act the best way you possibly can; regardless of the result;

  3. Feel that what you are aiming at is connected with your vision;

  4. Feel like this is a continuous learning process, with no real end;

  5. Have a sense that you are contributing to build something greater than yourself;

  6. Feel that you are learning a lot about yourself- your strengths and weaknesses.

In summary: Perfectionism is not self-improvement. It comes from the primary thought of trying to get approval from external sources. The main question you ask yourself is: What will they think? A healthy action of striving for excellence involves the question: What can I do better, how can I keep improving?

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, Therefore, is not an act, but an habit”- Aristotle

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