Expecting Perfection Will Make You Miserable

Do you every expect perfection? If so, I have one guarantee. You and I will always have problems. Problems persist regardless of money, power, status, or fame. Having money doesn’t remove all of your problems, it just gives you better problems (first world problems, as they say).

In the equation of life, problems are the constant and you are the variable. That’s why it makes little sense to aim for a problem-free existence and a lot of sense to change the way you look at your problems.

In middle school, I had terrible acne. It completely—and I mean completely—covered my chin. In a basketball league, I’ll never forget a kid on the other team telling me I had a nice “beard.” It’s a given that if you have a highly visible flaw, someone out there is going to try to convince you that it should ruin your life. They’re wrong, but it hurts and sometimes we believe them.

Middle school was one of the worst periods of my life because of my acne. I was extremely self conscious and turtled up socially. But was it actually because of my acne, or perhaps my perception of what it meant for my life? I found that answer a few years later.

Fast forward to high school. My acne was gone thanks to treatment. But I was reminded of it when I saw a young man with horrible acne on his chin. His was possibly worse than mine was. And yet, he was confident. Happy. Social. He had the same problem that I had in middle school, but it didn’t seem to stop him. I couldn’t believe it.

I learned something that day I’ll never forget.

No matter how bad your problem seems, know that there is someone out there with the same problem living well despite it. 

That’s comforting in two ways. First, our problems are not unique to us. Though we may feel alone, which can be the worst feeling, we are not alone in our struggles. Second, there is real hope to live well despite our problems. But in order to do that, we must prepare ourselves to handle them.

The Perfectionism Test

Note: I’ve created an actual perfectionism quiz that gives you a 0-100 score. It’s based on the science of perfectionism and my book. Take the quiz here!

If problems aren’t the problem, what is?

Broadly, it’s the way we see them. Specifically, it’s perfectionism.

Expecting perfection is misery in a mindset. It’s the root cause of many mental health problems and unhappiness. But it can be improved with awareness, so the first step is to determine where you land on the perfectionism scale. If you’re aware of your perfectionism, you can catch yourself the next time it happens and adjust. Our beautiful, yet imperfect lives on Earth are ruined when we expect perfection.

Here’s the simple test. Imagine that everything is going according to plan. But then, there’s a problem or inconvenience. Traffic. A health problem. A rude coworker. Relationship trouble. Internet outage. What’s your general reaction to unexpected problems like these?

If you expect perfection…

  1. You will tend to react strongly to even small problems, to the point that your reaction to traffic might be the same as a major health problem. Both are disastrous. This shows your sensitivity to imperfection. A small or large problem alike cross that threshold and break your perfect delusion (the idea that life can ever be flawless).
  2. Perfectionists will cling to all problems longer than others; they’ll let them fester in their mind instead of accepting them and moving on to solutions quickly. A little bit of traffic will still affect your mood even after you get out of the car. Dropping your sandwich on the floor will bother you the rest of the day. Problems will have a negative impact for longer than they deserve.

If you’re an imperfectionist (as I call it)…

  1. Your reaction to problems will be based to their severity. Traffic won’t bother you. Small problems will be nearly imperceptible. Bigger problems will cause initial distress. It will be easy to tell how severe a problem is based off of your initial reaction.
  2. Unlike a perfectionist, even with bigger problems, you will quickly move to a combination of acceptance and problem solving to find a solution. You’ll be quick to drop the emotional baggage of things in your recent past.
  3. Your general belief and acceptance that life will never be perfect will serve as an emotional shield against all negative events. Your response immediately and following a negative event will generally be more muted than a perfectionist because you’re not as sensitive to imperfection.

There is a spectrum between these two extremes and most will fall somewhere in the middle. But which one sounds more like you? More people will be on the perfectionistic side of the spectrum.

I was at Chipotle yesterday and the service in the restaurant was extremely slow because of a large online order they had to fulfill. The lady in front of me couldn’t handle it. She was furious that she had to wait just a few minutes longer than she anticipated and had to let anyone know about. She rolled her eyes. She made several comments to me and others in line. I simply smiled. Seeing her expect perfection in service actually helped me to not react that way, because she reminded me of how miserable that way of thinking is. 

It’s All About Sensitivity

It seems “normal” to get upset, sad, angry, or even depressed about life’s negative happenings, but is it? Is it so shocking that not everything will go smoothly? Should we be surprised at all when life gets tough?

The higher your sensitivity to imperfection, the more miserable you will be. The lower your sensitivity, the happier you’ll be. That’s why some people have it easy and are miserable, while others have very challenging lives and are happy as can be. The former demand perfection and are constantly disappointed. The latter understand the nature of life, which is full of pain and beauty, and they choose to make the most of whatever combination of it they face.

A life with perfect expectations is glass, and the world is full of demolition balls. The demolition balls will always be there; it’s the nature of our imperfect world and you can’t avoid them all. You are the variable. Will you be made of glass or something stronger?

And this is good news. Because we can’t control the outside world. But we can control how we respond to it.

Don’t demand or expect a problem-free life. That will guarantee misery. Expect greatness despite your problems. When trouble comes, smile and say, “I am not surprised, I am prepared for this.”

This has nothing to do with dulling your emotions or pretending problems don’t exist. On the contrary, it means to engage more with life, with a deep understanding of how flawed life is, and how that doesn’t invalidate but actually enhances its beauty and worth. To go deeper into this topic, check out my book, How to Be an Imperfectionist

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