ASK EMORY: The Trouble With Perfect

ASK EMORY • BY EMORY LUCE BALDWIN, LCMFT

Dear Emory:

I’m exhausted by how hard it is for me to make a decision. Whether I’m choosing what to order at a restaurant or deciding whether to look for another job, I agonize over making the right choice. I can’t decide, because I’m terrified I’ll make the wrong choice.

What’s the matter with me? And how can I stop feeling so scared about messing up?

Afraid of Being Wrong on Alfred

Dear Afraid of Being Wrong,

I can appreciate how hard you are working to avoid mistakes, and let me assure you—you’ve got lots of company out there. So many people are exhausting themselves trying to make every decision the right one. Nobody likes mistakes, of course. But trying to avoid all mistakes means perfection, which is never a realistic goal. Perfection is an ideal and ideals are, by their very definition, impossible to achieve.

The idea that people should try so conscientiously to avoid making any mistakes is all pervasive, yet it is a relatively modern idea. It has only been recently that we have developed the ability to calibrate what is correct or not correct with such tremendous accuracy. This level of technical precision made it possible to build the computer I’m writing on, and then build a million more identical computers that can do exactly the same thing. Technology is amazing!

But, even with technological advances, people are still people, not machines. Although you and I can now adjust the thermostat to 73 degrees or set our alarm clock to go off at 6 am, we are still the same old, lovably imperfect beings we’ve always been. Judging ourselves, or the choices we make, by the same exacting standards used in technology makes no more sense than faulting our computers because they don’t care about us.

I’ve been trying to imagine what our ancestors would have thought about this modern dread of not doing things right. Would they have laughed at the idea of trying to be perfect, or simply found it incomprehensible? Criticizing yourself for not doing the job perfectly wouldn’t make sense for someone chopping firewood, plowing a field, or growing crops. Too many variables are involved, many of which people had little or no control over: How dry is the wood? How rocky is the soil? Will it rain too much, or not enough? The only useful standard to go by was to do the best you could, given the situation.

What made sense then still holds true today, because real life is still operating by the same principles. No matter how hard someone tries to be responsible, careful, serious, thoughtful, etc., no one can make the right decision every time with machine-like consistency.

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Fortunately, people have abilities that are much more useful than striving for perfection. Human beings excel at adaptability, enabling us to live more successfully than not for about the last 6 million years. Our abilities to live at the arctic or the equator also makes it possible for us to figure out how to deal with lousy food or a great job—and vice versa.

There is no way to avoid every mistake, disappointment, and unexpected thing that happens to us in life, but our adaptability means that we can always deal with misfortune when it occurs and learn from our experiences to make fewer mistakes in the future.

Whenever you have choices to make, Afraid on Alfred, use your experience, your instincts, and everything else you have, to make the best decision you can given the circumstances. Then, however things turn out, you can deal with the outcome. In reality, no one has to be perfect to be able to adapt to the vagaries of life. Were you planning to cook chicken for dinner, but forgot to thaw it? Okay, there are a couple of cans of tuna in the cupboard, let’s use that. Did you arrive at the airport late, and miss the flight? We can get seats on the next flight, and call to let everyone know we’ll be late. That’s life.

People often find that being less concerned about avoiding mistakes leads to fewer mistakes, not more. And when a mistake happens (because, realistically, they surely will sometimes) your ability to adapt will help you learn from your experience, and do better—not perfectly, but better—as you go along.

About the Author

Emory Luce Baldwin
Emory Luce Baldwin is the co-author of "Parenting With Courage and Uncommon Sense." In addition to being a Takoma Park mom for more than 25 years, Emory is also a family therapist in private practice and a parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP). Well over a thousand parents have learned from her how to have healthier, happier, and better functioning families — while enjoying her good humored yet practical approach to the ups and downs of family life. Emory’s family therapy offices are located in Takoma Park and at the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington. You can read more about her at her website: www.emorylucebaldwin.com