Escaping the Perfection Prison

Why pushing to be perfect is keeping you from achieving your goals.

By Ryan Halvorson


The other day I was at a coffee shop and happened to sit next to a group of people discussing their bodies. I couldn’t help but eavesdrop. Shameful, I know, but I find it useful to listen to people’s self perceptions when they don’t know there’s a fitness professional nearby.

“My thighs touch when I walk,” lamented one.

“I can’t get rid of that jiggly stuff on the underside of my arms,” sighed another.

I refuse to take my shirt off at the beach,” mumbled a third.

My first thought was that this kind of talk was silly. There’s more to life than having a perfect body. These people should be proud of who they are, jiggly arms and all!

However, despite my initial feelings of empowerment, I began to mentally scan all of my imperfections. I remembered back to when I got a job training at a gym and my manager suggested that I might get more clients if I beefed up. “You know, to look the part,” he said. Suddenly countless memories of being told I was too skinny or that I should eat more flooded my mind. I remembered visiting the beach with my friends and, like the person at the table next to me, feeling ashamed to take off my shirt. I was all clavicles and ribs with the pastiest white Irish skin, which only amplified my bony frame. Though I’ve overcome my beanpole status, these insecurities still get the best of me sometimes.

I also thought about my friends and family—female and male—and how it seemed that not a single one would concede to being satisfied with their appearance. Instead, they were highly vocal about things they would change. None of them would be happy until they were perfect.

But what the hell is perfect?

The fitness industry is a difficult place for people who dislike the way they look or feel—that’s why there are so many gyms out there these days. It’s also how many personal trainers stay in business.

Your physical insecurity is my job security.

Personally, I find that I’m held to an even higher standard than average because personal trainers are supposed to be muscle-bound hulks with zero body fat. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to bare my abdomen because people automatically think I have a six-pack. Sometimes I’ll oblige, just to see how they react when expectation meets reality. Thor, I ain’t.

Over the years I’ve wrestled with the concept of perfection. I’ve always sought to be the best at everything—from scholastics to writing to fitness. If I felt that I wouldn’t be perfect at something I wouldn’t pursue it. I’ve always wanted to be a guitar player, but when I first picked one up many years ago and realized I wasn’t a prodigy, I put it down and walked away. “It’s just not my thing,” I remember telling myself. Silly, right?

Many psychologists suggest that individuals who seek perfection will continuously be disappointed because it’s an impossible goal to achieve. This is especially true when people compare themselves to others.

Recently, a study found that readers that viewed cover models as examples of perfection failed to start or maintain a program because it seemed impossible to build similar physiques.

I know a lot of women who groan about their bodies when they see pictures of Gisele Bundchen or Alessandra Ambrosio.

“Why even bother,” some would say. “I’ll never look like that.”

The truth is that my friends will never look like Gisele or Alessandra. It’s the same reason I will never look like Chris Hemsworth. Because, genetics. Let’s not forget the fact that a large aspect of these celebrities’ jobs is to look like they do. They’ve got trainers and chefs to make sure they stay on track. The rest of us don’t really have that luxury.

The truth is there will always be something else that needs improving. There will always be someone out there who is smarter, faster, stronger, leaner, sexier. I will never have the broadest shoulders or strongest legs. Does this mean I give up because it’s impossible to meet this idealized concept of perfection? Hell no. Should you stop working out or eating healthfully because you can’t seem to keep your thighs from touching? Of course not. On a side note, I came across a study a long time ago that stated that women with thicker thighs tended to live longer. So, there you have it.

But here’s the conundrum. How can you be satisfied with yourself yet still feel the impetus to work toward self improvement?

It’s taken me a long time to come to this conclusion—and I will always struggle with it—but I believe it’s time to marry the concepts of self-improvement and self-acceptance. I may sound like an optimist, but I don’t feel the two terms are mutually exclusive. I’m also done with the idea of perfection. How boring it must be to be perfect. When you’re perfect you’ve seen it all, done it all and have nothing more to experience or learn. What’s the point of life, then?

It’s time to look at the body you have now with admiration and satisfaction. After all, isn’t this the body that has helped get you to where you are now? This body has been with you through some pretty amazing moments and also during the tough spots. This isn’t to say that you will never look at yourself in the mirror with dismay. However, my challenge to you is to also look at that body with respect; you wouldn’t be where you are without it. This doesn’t mean this body can’t be stronger, fitter or healthier. It just means that appreciation and gratitude for what we have makes the journey toward the future that much more enjoyable.

One truth about life is that we never really meet a destination. Yes, we make pit stops here and there, but we will always be on a journey until we’re not. When I was young I always wanted to be older and my mom would tell me not to wish my life away. This same advice is also true when we utter phrases like, “when I have a flat tummy I’ll be happy” or “life will be good when I fit into x size.” My mom gives great advice, and she also believes in tough love. So, here’s what she’d say about placing self-satisfaction in an uncertain future: “Be happy now, dammit!”

I won’t say that I no longer wrestle with the demons that tell me I’m not good enough. But I have employed a few techniques that help me kick those demons to the curb and stay in the moment.

Here are seven ways to thrive with your imperfect self:

  • Pull the trigger. Whatever it is you’re looking to achieve, just shoot. It may be messy and might not go as planned, but as the saying goes, most people regret the chances they didn’t take.
  • Set a deadline. The more you think about what you want to do—and the many ways in which you’ll fail—the more you’ll talk yourself out of it. Put it on your schedule and put it out of mind.
  • Shoot your scale. Nobody knows how much you weigh but you. I can’t tell you how many times people (mostly ladies, ahem) come up to me complaining about what the scale told them that day. I usually then ask questions about clothes sizes or general feelings of improvement and the response is almost always favorable. Yet stepping on the scale takes all of that away. Why put yourself through the torment? If you’re feeling fit and happy, who cares how much you weigh?
  • Learn from mistakes. “Failures” are lessons in disguise. What can you take away from the experience that can be applied to the future? How have others overcome similar failures to achieve success?
  • Emphasize performance. Many times people focus on spending a certain amount of time at the gym or on a run. But are you really accomplishing anything? I like to set workout-specific performance goals such as lifting a certain amount of weight or pushing a sled for a number of laps or a specific distance. This prevents me from just going through the motions–and going through the motions usually means lackluster results and progress. The shift toward workout performance goals keeps me focused and has made my workouts far more effective and productive. Your workout needs to challenge you to change you. But note that your workout doesn’t need to be so intense that you feel like puking afterwards.
  • Practice makes progress. The only way to truly excel at something—like fat loss for example—is to practice.
  • Stay the course. The underarm jiggle is not going to disappear overnight. I won’t be playing “All Along the Watchtower” after an hour (or maybe even month) of practice. One of the biggest mistakes people make is to jump ship too soon. The truth is, some people can make improvements almost immediately while it takes others (like me) a while before change is noticeable. Focus on the day-to-day benefits. How did completing your workout make you feel? Were you less stressed and more mentally and emotionally balanced? Were you able to lift more weight or run faster? Small achievements always add up to big ones.

Now, where did I put that guitar?