Thoughts on Perfectionism and Ambition

As most of you know, I recently spent a couple of months in a treatment center for eating disorders. Treatment was grueling and being away from my husband and child was very difficult. It’s true that sometimes even the treatment itself can be considered traumatic. My emotions have been a rollercoaster since discharge. I go back and forth from feeling relieved that I am now physically healthy to feeling absolute disbelief that I went through treatment at all. Treatment didn’t necessarily leave me sad but I’m not exactly happy either. This whole experience has forced me to do a lot of “soul searching”. Sometimes it’s hard to describe what I’m feeling. My thoughts and emotions can be complicated right now. I’m safe and working with an outpatient team, but sometimes I don’t know what to do other than write about it. So if my posts seem a little emotional or disconnected lately, that’s why.

A Few Questions

Do you wonder if your best will ever be good enough? Not just to your friends, colleagues, and family, but also to yourself? Like most people with an eating disorder, I struggle with perfectionism, but I don’t always think it’s wrong. I like being picky and my anxiety makes me prompt, well-prepared, and organized in almost every aspect of my life. The problem is that it will never be good enough. Perfection is unattainable. Is it a waste of time to try to make things perfect or should you accept people and things just as they are?

Is it best to always want more or to settle with what you have? I’m ambitious and I can never settle for how things are. I always want more. Is that bad? Maybe sometimes it’s good. I think I would be a happier person if I could settle with what I have, but that seems to go against my very being. I’ve always been this way. I think it’s possible to do bigger and better, so shouldn’t I want that?

Leaning On My Better Half

My husband is a very relaxed person. Although I know he feels deeply, he’s also the most stable person I know. He helps me with these questions and I appreciate his feedback. 

I’ve always been uptight, intense, picky, and ambitious, and while I think I would be happier if I wasn’t, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. I think I just need to learn to turn it back a couple of notches. 


So how do you feel about this? Are you a perfectionist? Are you good enough for your friends, family, and yourself? Do you settle with what you have or do you always want more?


  1. sonofrojblake says

    A useful phrase I’ve found is “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”.

    I’ve had so many creative projects in mind where I’ve messed about and stalled and procrastinated because I don’t feel I’m ready to commit to even starting because I already “know” that the end result won’t be the perfect outcome I want.

    For probably a couple of decades I usually let that stop me from starting. All the while I was looking around at people – successful people – and thinking “crikey, you went with THAT?”. I looked at so, so much creative output of all types, music, paintings, writing, acting, comedy and thought “but this is SHIT!”. I even heard creative people dismissing work from earlier in their own careers as regrettable. It took a long while to realise that while I or even they might not like the thing they produced, it was still out there, a finished thing that they’d done, whereas what did I have? Not much.

    At this point I resolved not to let fear of eventual failure stop me from just bloody starting. And I’ve just bloody started LOTS of things. Some of them I’ve finished and I’m proud of. Some of them I’ve finished and been a bit disappointed with (even if sometimes people tell me they were good). Some of them I’ve abandoned or just never got around to finishing. But the game-changer for me was just bloody starting.

    There’s another bit, which is knowing when to stop. Another saying I came across: art isn’t ever finished, it’s just abandoned. That’s a tricky one. I’m just reaching the point of abandonment on something I’ve been working on for a few months. It’s going to be annoying to stop it, because again, it’s not perfect, not what I’d planned or envisaged, but it’s going to be SOMETHING, a physical thing I could show you, which is more than what it was this time last year, which is just an idea in my head.

    As for “is it going to be good enough for anyone else?” – there’s an element of “fuck everyone else, please yourself”, but I know that’s just my personality type and others care more about others. So I’d offer this: British standup comedian Simon Munnery is, in comedy circles, widely regarded as a genius. He’s not famous, he’s not on the telly, his work is difficult and odd. His attitude, expressed to one of his contemporaries and recounted in that person’s book about comedy, is that he doesn’t NEED to be famous. All he needs is, in a country of about 70 million people, to find about ten thousand of those people who will shell out ten quid or so to him once a year. You can have a very comfortable living on that kind of niche following.

    Now; I’m not suggesting you need to make a living out of whatever it is you want to do. What I am suggesting is that, almost regardless of what it is you practice or produce, creatively, I think I can pretty much guarantee that somewhere out there, an audience numbering in four of five figures exists who would lap up what you make. And here’s the thing – you don’t even need to find them. Just be assured, they’re out there. You might be able to connect with a few of them via the internet. Remember, for every one who actually actively tells you they like your stuff, there are ten or a hundred who do, but just haven’t mentioned it.

    As for settling with what I’ve got – I’ve always got stuff bubbling up in my mind that I want to get done. The key is, especially now I have two small sons, finding the time to get them just bloody started. As I say, I’ve managed to do one this year. I’ve a couple of others in mind for the autumn/winter. My biggest enemy, right now, is the continual stream of really enjoyable TV that is being churned out by Amazon, Netflix, Disney et al all the bloody time. And the biggest help is lists and chunking – breaking down projects I’m aspiring to complete into smaller manageable bits. I haven’t written the sf story I was challenged to produce by a friend, but I have written the outline and first chapter. I haven’t written the thermalling practice app for my phone, but I have written the flowchart, installed the apk, and got the basics of the java app built and installed. I haven’t finished the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy black ship build (and maybe never will – nanotube paint turns out to be REALLY expensive), but I’ve got a good enough version, and I’m waiting on the plaque for the display case.

    All of which is to say – don’t just bloody start one thing. Start a bunch. That way abandoning one isn’t a disaster, it’s giving you time to focus on another, is the way I look at it. And I can always pick up an abandoned project later, if it isn’t a definite no-go (e.g. I got as far as building a functional prototype of the unicycle-pram I designed before concluding it was never going to be viable – never picking that one up again, but it doesn’t matter, there’s always the baby holster… and so on).

  2. K says

    I have been…well, “lucky” is not the right word, but I’ve been surrounded by people for whom nothing will ever be good enough, so I learned early not to aim for perfection.

    I have a friend who went the opposite way, into perfectionism. I’ve asked her what her take is on what you said.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    I’ve long been of the opinion that there are three kinds of targets (this is in a work context, but you can extend it elsewhere).
    1. Set me an easily achievable target, I’ll relax, knowing I can achieve it. I might even leave it for a bit and concentrate on other targets until it starts to bleed into category 2.
    2. Set me a stretching target, and I’ll work hard to achieve it, and take great satisfaction in achieving it and receiving your appreciation. (If I don’t receive your appreciation, how hard I work on your next target will depend on how personally interesting I find it. You might luck out and only set targets that interest me, but if you set one I find boring, don’t hold your breath for a good result.)
    3. Set me an impossible target and phew – I can relax. There is NO stress to being set an impossible target. Get the project finished in three years? I’ll get on it next year. Finish in three months? Gosh, I’ll book the project kickoff for this afternoon, cancelling other things to make room. Finish in three weeks? I’ll book the kickoff meeting for next week, and invite you to it knowing you’re on holiday. Fuck your nonsense.

    This approach has served me well.

  4. robert79 says

    I am not a perfectionist in the sense that I strive for perfection, which is impossible. I am however a perfectionist in the sense that I strive for continual improvement. Every time I do something I try to do it better than the previous time I did it.

    – I don’t worry about whether I am “good enough” for the people around me, I try not to compare myself to the people around me but only to compare myself with myself.
    – Making mistakes is okay, this means there’s room for improvement next time round.

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