Anxiety and Perfectionism: Is “Good Enough” the Solution?

Three young white girls stand on a stage at a ballet recital, short wearing bubblegum pink dresses and pink tights. The text on the image reads, Mental Health. Focus, Anxiety and Good Enough.

There’s probably a photo of eight-year-old Lindley in a dictionary somewhere next to the word “competitive.” Or possibly “overachiever.”

Other than athletics, in which I had little interest, if it was a competition I was going to enter it. And win it. And the more competitions, the busier I was, the more intensely I could throw myself into studying or memorizing this or that, the better.

(Something I don’t see talked about much is that those of us who accumulated a huge store of knowledge as children later lose some or all of it. Losing childhood memories is perfectly normal and natural, but losing that stored knowledge can be really frustrating. I am not, in fact, smarter than the fifth-grade Lindley.)

In general, childhood achievements aren’t particularly interesting thirty years later, so I won’t list them. The important part is that three traits stuck around: focus, organization and sheer bull-headed determination.

That combination sounds like a pretty good deal, but in adulthood, it led to a massive case of burnout, anxiety and tendonitis as I tried to run three businesses and do everything myself. Whoops.

Three young white girls stand on a stage at a ballet recital, short wearing bubblegum pink dresses and pink tights.
Dance recital circa 1985. Pretty sure this outfit was the beginning of my lifelong preference for sparkles.

Perfectionism in the Age of Social Media

I think particularly in this age of social media, there’s a lot of pressure to do everything perfectly or at the highest level of Doing the Thing. You don’t just go out with friends — you have to go to the nicest-looking place and take the best-lit group selfie of eating the most attractive dishes, and post it to eight different social networks right away. Or at least that’s the impression it’s easy to get from other people’s posts on each of those social networks.

When you run a business, it’s even worse. Not only do you feel expected to post to every single social network in existence multiple times per day, you also feel pressured to do Facebook live. And Instagram stories. And Instagram TV. And Twitter live chats. And email newsletters at least once a week. And do it all reliably and consistently and at the highest quality. On and on, ad nauseam. The expectations are more than any sole human could possibly meet.

Practicing Good Enough

Doing all the things all the time, at a constant level of perfection, is obviously unsustainable. But what do we replace perfectionism with, and how do we feel okay about what feels like half-assedness?

Two weeks ago, I started working on my Christmas boundary-setting post and was preparing to list the 40 or so resources I’d collected. It occurred to me that creating nice image quotes for each resource would both look pretty on the page and give me lots of images to share on social media, so without even thinking about it I sat down and started creating 40 separate image quotes.

Each image only took three or four minutes to create, but 40 of them would have taken hours and hours and been murder on my hands. And it was completely unnecessary! A few images would be plenty to share and would only take 20 minutes to create. 40 was overkill.

An adolescent white girl stands on a green lawn in front of a college building on a sunny day. She's wearing a white dress and glasses and is holding a certificate.
At an awards ceremony for an SAT-related program circa 1993.

Thankfully I caught myself before spending the entire day creating images, and asked myself: “What would ‘good enough’ look like in this scenario?” Good enough looked like three or four images, not 40, so I created just a few.

And it was fine. No one died. Nothing caught on fire. Nothing sank into the swamp. And I was free to do other things.

Other things that have not caught on fire when done to a “good enough” state in the last few weeks:

  • Sending a few Christmas presents out after Christmas (rather than frantically trying to get them done in time)
  • Just putting my nephew’s large, hard-to-wrap plushy presents in the shipping box (rather than trying to find a way to wrap them that wouldn’t get messed up in transit)
  • Not accepting every single holiday invitation, as much as I’d have liked to, so that I could have some quiet time
  • Using a text expander program to save wear and tear on my hands, sacrificing a slight amount of authenticity and personalization (rather than writing the same things over and over with minor variations)
  • Skimming a book I wasn’t all that interested in, but had committed to read for the Body Liberation Book Club
Twelve small rocks painted red to look like strawberries, to help ward off crows from berry crops, sit on a sheet of newspaper to dry.
Painted “strawberries” that are good enough.

And finally, I painted some rocks to look vaguely like strawberries to help keep my berries safe from the crows next year, and I only painted the fronts, didn’t seal them, and didn’t try to make them look exactly like berries with perfect little black dots. I did paint some little leaves on each one, but only because I already had green paint, and I didn’t go back to the store for more supplies.

They’re not all that attractive, but that wasn’t the point. They’ll serve their purpose nicely, and I didn’t spend days stressing over making them perfect. It’s good enough.

A certificate of achievement from an elementary school speech content in 1992.
Memorization! Being on stage! What could be better?

“Good Enough” is a Skill

Don’t get me wrong — switching from a perfectionist mindset to a good-enough mindset isn’t easy. It’s a skill, and in some ways it’s learning to set boundaries with yourself. It’s a skill that’s going to require practice. I feel a little guilty every time I choose “good enough” over “perfect.”

And sometimes good enough isn’t a good choice. Sometimes things need to be done really, really well. But everything, all the time? Nah.

Is it Literally Going to Catch on Fire?

As I move through my day, I’m now trying to pause every so often and ask these questions:

  • What does “good enough” look like for this activity?
  • Is anything going to literally catch on fire if it doesn’t get done perfectly, or done at all?
  • Am I performing this action because I didn’t properly set a boundary and now I feel stuck? If so, how can I adjust that boundary?
  • How does good enough make me feel in this situation? Is there an underlying need or anxiety to be addressed?
  • Seriously, is it going to catch on fire? Because if not, it. is. okay. to do just well enough.
A group of children and adults stand in front of a fire engine.
At an awards ceremony for an essay contest on fire prevention circa 1991. I wasn’t kidding when I said I’d compete at anything and everything.

Perfectionism and Boundaries

Perfectionism can also be a boundary issue and sometimes it looks like this:

  • Am I trying to eat “perfectly” because I know that my parents will scold me for eating “unhealthy” food?
  • Am I working myself into the ground because I’m unwilling to try to set boundaries with my boss?
  • Am I trying to maintain a perfectly clean home when I don’t reasonably have the time or resources to do so?
  • Am I eating entire meals that are incorrect or that I hate at restaurants because I’m afraid of confrontation?
  • Am I trying to be perfect at activities I don’t even like, just because someone else expects my participation?

Captain Awkward has some fantastic advice on setting boundaries for folks who don’t (yet!) have that particular skillset, including some great ways to step away from commitments you don’t want at all, nonetheless feel compelled to do perfectly.

…..

This coming year, I’ll continue testing “good enough” as a sanity-saving state of being. If you have perfectionist tendencies, is this a way you’ve addressed them? What advice do you have?