I used to think of myself as unphotogenic.
I dreaded having my picture taken, because I was sure that any photo I took would reveal my awkward, ugly duckling-ness for all the world to see. If by chance someone did catch a photo of me, I would look at it after, scrutinizing every little flaw. My cheeks were too spotty, my posture too rounded, and in bright sun I always squinted so much you could barely see my eyes. My fine hair flew all over at the slightest breeze. My teeth weren’t white enough, so I tried to smile without exposing them, which only added to the awkwardness of the photo. Between trying to keep my hair down, keeping my eyes wide open into the blazing sun, and my weirdo half-smile, it’s not surprising that I didn’t feel like the camera liked me very much.
Then one day while scrolling through my camera roll, I came across a photo that Albert had taken of me a couple of years before. He had caught me off guard, and I was grinning. It was sunny, so of course I was squinting, but you could see that my eyes were flashing, alight with joy. My hair was all over and I had no makeup on, and at the time, I hadn’t wanted to post it publicly because I didn’t like how I looked. But now, as I looked at the photo, I found that I loved it. The flaws were still there, of course, but what I noticed when I looked at the photo was how happy I looked. “This girl,” I thought to myself, “looks like she’s having a good time.”
I realized in that moment that the photos where I actually looked my best weren’t “perfect.” (What would perfect even mean?) Instead, they were the ones where my joy was evident, where I wasn’t trying so hard to meet some impossible standard, but vulnerable enough to let the camera see my natural self.
Since then, before taking a photo, I began saying to myself, “Joy, not perfection.” If I have to take a photo for a specific purpose, like a photo shoot or a passport, I think about a recent joyful memory and try to put myself back in that moment. And when I look at the photo after, whenever I’m tempted to fixate on the lines on my face or the unflattering angle, instead I look at my expression. If I see genuine joy, then it’s a good one.
This phrase, “Joy, not perfection,” has become a kind of mantra for me in life, helping free me from my perfectionistic impulses and refocus my attention on what really matters. Its power lies in shifting the measure of success for an endeavor, whether a photo or a dinner or an article, away from an arbitrarily defined standard toward our own felt experience. Perfection is rooted in judgment, joy in emotion. When we aim for perfection, we’re often assessing how others might perceive us (and speculating on how they might judge us as having fallen short). But aiming for joy puts us in a generative mindset. Our focus is on maximizing pleasure, for ourselves and others.
Perfectionism is a joy killer, clearly, but it can also be detrimental to our mental health in other ways. In a 2016 meta-analysis of 284 studies, researchers found that perfectionism correlates with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as less serious but still debilitating issues like fatigue, stress, headaches, and insomnia. Even when it’s not pathological, perfectionism creates a kind of relentless pressure and fixation on details that detracts from our enjoyment of the moment.
I didn’t realize until I began researching this post that researchers see perfectionism as having three different types: self-oriented perfectionism, when someone holds themselves to a standard of perfection; other-oriented perfectionism, where a person expects perfection from others (like a boss who loses it if a comma is out of place, or a parent who demands perfection from their children), and socially-prescribed perfectionism, where someone is driven to meet external standards, whether from peers or society at large, to be perfect. This third type seems especially likely to be linked to health problems. And it makes sense, because this kind of perfectionism aims toward a standard we didn’t define, and one that seems to be an ever-shifting target. It feels like an unwinnable game, one that exhausts our every resource with little payoff.
Perfectionism is especially insidious because it’s so socially acceptable. It’s the kind of thing we’re told to claim when asked our weaknesses in a job interview, because it’s the kind of thing that employers might interpret as a strength. We can laugh off perfectionism as a personality quirk and joke about our type A tendencies, all while having our self-worth savaged every time we fail to measure up.
Perfectionism hooks us in by making us feel that the goal of a perfect life is achievable and satisfying. But the truth is that not only is perfection illusory, it’s also boring. With our attention consumed by the goal of not making any mistakes, we have little bandwidth left over for creativity. But when we let go of the need to be perfect, we have energy free to be imaginative, tender, playful, and adventurous. Perfectionism shrinks our lives, squeezing us into a small box of expectations. Joy expands our lives, giving us space to discover something we might never have envisioned.
When I get stuck on something, whether it’s a piece of writing or a room I’m decorating or a gift I’m giving, often on reflection I realize I got stuck because I was trying to be perfect. Either I started to worry what others might think, or I became so paralyzed by the fear of messing it up that I didn’t even start at all. In these moments, I ask myself, what kind of life do I want to live — a perfect one, or a joyful one? I imagine myself, 80 years old, sifting through my memories, and the answer always rings out, clear as a bell. What good will perfection be to me then, if I was so afraid of being imperfect that I never truly lived my life at all?
“Joy, not perfection” is a kind of shorthand for this conversation. In an instant, it helps me let go of the pressure to conform to others’ expectations and creates space to hear my own voice and live my own life.