Joy, not perfection

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

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.

February 7th, 2021

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    Discussion (9 Comments)

  1. Alina on February 7, 2021

    How can we achieve great science discoveries if we give up on high standards and focus only on joy?

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on February 7, 2021

      This is a false choice. High standards are not the same as perfectionism, and many scientists are highly motivated by the joy of discovery, and take a playful approach to the search for new knowledge. We can have high standards for ourselves while acknowledging that we cannot control every variable, for instance, or that our data will have outliers that we have to account for. The belief that perfectionism is what protects high standards is harmful because it excuses a lot of abusive and self-abusive behavior in the name of “excellence.” But there is nothing to stop us from being joyful and excellent at the same time. It just means that we won’t torture ourselves and others in the process.

      Reply
  2. Ava on February 7, 2021

    This is such a great reminder that I need to hear often—thank you 🙂

    Reply
  3. Stephanie on February 7, 2021

    WOW!!! I cannot begin to tell u how powerful I feel your blog on perfectionism was to me!! Thank you!! You nailed it all and I resonated with it completely. I have been actively working on letting go of so much and it has benefited me enormously. I am a very creative person but unfortunately my perfectionism has eroded that freedom and creativity so much that I don’t think I was human. I was on a 15 year wash/rinse/repeat cycle trying to live up to everyone’s expectations including my need for everything to always be better. The absolute feeling of freedom in stepping of that hamster wheel and finding my passions without attaching an outcome or judgment on it has been the MOST liberating part of my journey thus far.  So thank u Ingrid for nailing this very common thought pattern and helping to resolve it — beginning w “joy not perfection”. I love it!! Thank you!!

    Reply
  4. Tammy Thiele on February 7, 2021

    Thank you. This writing means freedom for a lot of people. I don’t know if we understand the damage we do to ourselves when we decide to look outward rather than inward for joy! When I start to have negative feelings on social media I put it down…knowing I need to focus on myself and what I’m doing. It’s a hard habit to kick!

    Reply
  5. Blake-Arin on February 8, 2021

    I met you at the Training Matters 2020 Expo. I felt so captivated by your message during your “The Joy of Life – and Work” session on 2/25/2020, I decided to purchase your book. I wanted a picture with you just as mentioned above I was so focused on how I would look, that it was hard to be joyful. Of course, I looked awkward in my picture with you 🙂 Every week since, I’ve read your blog and this one hit home especially. Thank you so much for taking the time to write such wonderful blogs.

    Reply
  6. Judith on February 8, 2021

    I want a „joy, not perfection“ coffee mug!

    Reply
  7. Linda Thomas on February 9, 2021

    Good enough,is enough that is what I live by.Loved your blog .Why do we wear ourselves out with constant striving for the often unattainable?We can only do our best .

    Reply
  8. Terri on February 12, 2021

    I heard an example today on the radio about an expedition to Mars where there is a ton of very expensive scientific measuring equipment (including a microphone for a specific purpose), but they went out of their way to add a microphone that they just purchased on the internet because they just wanted to see if they could listen to the ambient noises of Mars. It might not work…. it might not be good enough… but they thought it would be cool to try. If they waited until they could afford the perfect microphone they might scrap their mission, or just not send one, so they’re sending the one they could send. The standards are not damaged at all. Much amazing science… and much joy. And what they learn for better or worse will inform the next time for sure. When I heard it I was telling myself I need to remember this!

    Reply

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