Mesorah (Jewish stuff)

It’s totally okay not to be perfect. Really.

Hello, my name is Rivki, and I’m a perfectionist.

I think it has something to do with being a classically trained musician.  Either I was already a perfectionist at birth, or it was a result of spending hour upon hour in a practice room, perfecting one measure at a time.  Imagine:

“No!  I’m still missing that one note in measure 72!  I need to practice moooooorre.  I must not make a mistake!”

This really happened to me.  All the time.  There really isn’t room for mistakes if you want to be a professional classical musician.

Rabbi Chalkowski at Neve told us that it’s not okay to be a perfectionist.  Yes, it’s good to have high standards, to want to be the best we can be, but to expect perfection, well, that’s a bit much (’cause only G-d is perfect).  Also, by constantly trying to make things “just so,” we run the risk of straining our relationships with our spouses, children and friends.

Phew!  What a relief to not have to make things perfect.  Of course, it still took me a long time to really internalize this point.  Instead of worrying about that note in measure 72, it was more like this:

“No!  I’m still missing that Rashi on pasuk vav!  I need to review mooooooorre.  I must remember the explanation!”

After I got married, the perfectionism reared its head at unexpected times:

“No!  I’m still missing that moistness in the chicken!  I need to cook mooooooorre.  I must perfect the recipe!”


As a perfectionist, there is a tendency to be overly critical, and not only of myself.  It’s tempting to point out everything which is not “the way it should be.”  Even little things like the couch cushions being put on backwards (you know, when the zipper is facing outwards) is a potential comment.  But it shouldn’t be.  ‘Cause it really doesn’t matter.  That’s right.  It’s okay.  Breathe.  Just flip the cushion around.

This is a lesson that I’ve learned to apply to my piano students over the years.  When I was first starting out, I used to correct every little mistake in each piece, which resulted in the shlepping out of simple lesson pieces, causing both my student and I to be completely fed up and frustrated with a piece by the time it was finished.  Not great.

Recently, as I was listening to one of my very cute students play an assigned piece, I realized that I had gotten to the point where I was okay with not correcting most of the errors.  They were small things, a rhythm here, an articulation there.  But my student had absorbed the main point of the piece, and that was the important part.  All the other technical things could be worked on over time.  Everyone’s happier that way.

Thankfully, it’s not just in giving piano lesson that I’ve relaxed my standards to a level that humans can achieve.  My husband and children are not suffering under the yoke of an impossible perfectionism.  I, however, still need to learn how to be as lenient with myself:

“No!  I’m still not able to clean the house, make dinner, play with Little Man, take care of the baby, teach lessons, practice music, perform publicly, learn with my chavrusa, blog and sleep!  I need to do moooooooorre.  I must continue to try to be superhuman!”

Really.  It’s silly.  I’m working on it.

If you are a perfectionist, how do you manage to minimize the pressure and keep things in perspective? If you live with a perfectionist, how do you manage?


14 thoughts on “It’s totally okay not to be perfect. Really.

  1. I just make sure that I actually end accomplish everything I want perfectly and then it’s not a problem.

    Honestly? I just relax and always strive and work to be better without letting my nerves act up. I’ve realized that a big part of perfection is balance and you can’t manage it if your’e not relaxed.

  2. Interesting post! It seems to me like the problem is not so much perfectionism as having the wrong priorities. So if someone is constantly practicing her baking but allowing relationships to suffer, that clearly a bad choice. But we’re supposed to ask when our deeds will measure up to the deeds of the Avot. Maybe that’s technically not the same as trying to be perfect, since the Avot weren’t perfect either–but the Avot were a lot closer to perfection than I am. If I’m going to try to get to that level, I would have to practice a lot more–a lot like being a perfectionist. And when you meet people who are very knowledgeable about Torah, you can see that they really pushed themselves and were not satisfied with just understanding some of the material. Not that they tried to be God, but they must have felt the need to study more and more until they understood.

    I have a hard time relating to the hashkafic emphasis on not trying to be perfect and not doing too much hishtadlut. I tend to appreciate it more when speakers/writers encourage people to try to perfect themselves slowly and to do it in a way that still respectful of other people. I think this is one reason I’m more drawn to Modern Orthodox than Yeshivish hashkafot. Not a criticism of your post, just some thoughts on the subject. Thanks for the (as always) thought-provoking post.

    1. Wonderful comment, Sarah, thank you! I think you hit the nail on the head re: perfectionism v. priorities. I’m sure my family wouldn’t complain if I were striving to be perfect in my care of them! I also like the idea of striving toward perfection in a low, responsible and respectful way. Is it more of an MO outlook? I really am not as familiar with MO hashkafa. Sounds like an interesting conversation we should have sometime. :)

      1. Thanks, Rivki! Maybe I shouldn’t have made this sound like a clear MO/Yeshivish distinction. I don’t know if that’s always the case. It’s mostly that the people I’ve heard speak more favorably about hishtadlut happened to be MO, so that’s what I associate it with. In contrast, everything I’ve read/heard on hishtadlut from Yeshivish people has taken the same approach about avoiding perfectionism.

        1. It’s probably not always the case, but perhaps since the Yeshivish world tends to deal with things in a more black and white way (haha, no pun intended at all!), that’s why the approach toward perfectionism comes across the way it does. However, I don’t think that avoiding perfectionism has to mean settling for mediocrity. There are many people in Yeshivish circles who excel in learning, chesed, hachnoses orchim, among other things, so there’s definitely examples of people who are doing their hishtadlus. Perhaps it’s more of a personality thing than a hashkafic thing?

          1. Absolutely, I don’t think that people who take that approach sit around doing nothing! Someone could think that perfectionism is bad, and still work hard. But, I do think there is a real hashkafic issue about how necessary hishtadlut is for success; I just don’t know if it falls straight down MO/Yeshivish lines.

          2. For example, I read something by Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz in which he said that the only hishtadlut you need to do is to work on your bitachon. Definitely, not everyone takes that approach. And I think someone who places less emphasis on hishtadlut as a condition for success is going to be more likely to warn against perfectionism, because “trying too hard” can be seen as a lack of faith from that point of view. Whereas, if someone thinks hishtadlut is really really necessary, he’s not going to be so concerned with people trying too hard to be perfect–from that perspective, they’re more likely not trying hard enough.
            Sorry for going on and on in the comments–thanks again for the interesting discussion!

          3. No apology necessary! I’m enjoying it. What was the context for R’Shmuelevitz’s quote? Was he talking about hishtadlus for spiritual or physical success? This comment reminds me of the whole working v. learning culture. I don’t think it falls neatly down MO/Yeshivish lines, but there are definitely distinctions with some blurriness in the middle. And, if it’s how much hishtadlus should be done for parnossa, then I agree that there is a real hashkafic issue. I have some shidduchim stories about that . . .

            When Rabbi Chalkowski said his bit about perfectionism to us at Neve, I took it as a caution to not let perfectionism get in the way improving ourselves, i.e., not to let normal limitations of growth become reasons for discouragement. Or maybe even not to try to take on too much too quickly, as can be the case with BTs. Like, don’t try to become perfect this year, because it’s not going to happen.

            Speaking of things that won’t happen without hishtadlus, I need to go make some Shabbos food! Have a great Shabbos!

  3. We women are always harder on ourselves, aren’t we? I guess for me, learning to laugh (at myself) about my shortcomings or mess-ups has been most helpful. It feels better than taking myself too seriously. I know nobody else does. And if they do, oh well. Just the way it is :) Good post!

  4. B”h I’m chilled out about these things. That’s the way I was made – it’s so much easier to be relaxed about all that. :-)
    For example, it’s okay if the house isn’t perfectly clean – we’ll get it to be the way we want it to be by the time Shabbos comes around. (Thank goodness for that once a week cleanup job!)

    And I *love* that – Only G-d is perfect, SO true!!

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