How Do You Live With Yourself When You’ll Never Be Perfect?

May 26, 2023

Can we agree on one thing? Perfection, however much we crave it, is impossible to achieve. I’d like my surgeon to be perfect; ditto for the pilot on my plane. What constitutes perfect or even good is open to opinion and the subject of a zillion lawsuits. Especially if you’re a cop.

Why Cops Can’t Be Perfect

Cops can’t be perfect, no matter how hard they try. What constitutes an officer’s best is always under scrutiny, open to debate, the subject of many lawsuits, and the cause of much heartache. In many ways, cops are like doctors. Every time a doctor gives a patient an aspirin, there is a liability and the potential for a bad outcome, though rare. The same thing is true for a police officer. There is risk attached to every interaction.

Police officers often need to choose between terrible options: Chase the speeding drunk driver, and they might plow into a crowd of people on the sidewalk. Don’t chase the speeding drunk driver, and they might plow into a crowd of people on the sidewalk.

Striving for Perfection Is Not a Positive Goal

Some of us believe perfectionism is a positive. In fact, it is the opposite. Striving for perfection doesn’t lead to achievement; it leads to impossible goals, feelings of failure, and a host of psychological and stress-related health problems.

Mistakes are part of life. We often learn more from our mistakes than our achievements. Attempting to avoid mistakes leads to paralysis. Remember the 14th-century French philosopher Buridan’s donkey? (I had to look it up too.) Unable to choose between two bales of hay for fear of choosing the wrong one, he starved to death.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Perfectionism

Some researchers distinguish between “healthy” and “unhealthy” perfectionism. Healthy perfectionism means holding yourself to high standards, being motivated and disciplined. “Unhealthy” perfectionism is a vicious circle of self-condemnation. Nothing you do seems good enough.

Perfection is not about high standards; it’s about unrealistic standards. Cops have plenty of beliefs that motivate them to do the job. (See my post “What Do Cops Believe?“) These beliefs often serve as stand-in standards for performance. They are necessary, yet unrealistic. Leading law enforcement officers (LEOs) to blame themselves for something over which they had no control. Or to exhaust themselves chasing a standard of perfection that is impossible to achieve or maintain. Unrealistic expectations set everyone up for failure, both officers and the community alike. Good cops often get the crook, win the fight, and save the victim. But not always.

Are You a Perfectionist?

Are the following traits familiar to you?

  • Criticism, expressed or implied, sends you into a funk.
  • You are your own worst critic.
  • Perceived or real failure makes you angry at yourself or others.
  • You constantly compare yourself to others and fall short.
  • You respond to failure, even minor ones, with guilt and shame.
  • When things aren’t going well, you give up prematurely rather than risk making more errors.

Measuring perfection isn’t easy. Productivity is often confused with good performance, leading officers to chase statistics for their own sake, sometimes resulting in bad arrests or worse.

If you aren’t sure you are a perfectionist, you can take this test offered by Psychology Today at no cost.

You Can’t Be Perfect, but You Can Be Successful

Success in life and on the job is a matter of practice, persistence, and wrong turns. It involves learning from and correcting past mistakes. It requires the ability to tolerate making errors. The psychologist Anders Ericsson is often quoted as saying it requires 10,000 hours to form a skill. According to some, what he really proposed went way beyond mere repetition. He called for deliberate or purposeful practice that is focused on well-defined, specific goals. He also advised regular feedback, monitoring your progress, and getting out of your comfort zone meaning to achieve success you must be willing to make a mistake and not let it stop you in your tracks.

Perfectionism Essential Reads

Ericsson’s advice applies in many situations: learning to shoot, drive, and become adept at defensive tactics. It also applies to learning to read yourself, to becoming the person you want to be. Want to be kinder, calmer, a better listener, more patient? Try practice, not perfection. Let yourself fail without self-criticism, get feedback from those you trust, keep track of your progress, and take small steps. Use mistakes and failures to learn, then dust yourself off, and do it again.

Remember that old joke about the tourist in New York City who stops someone on the street to ask how to get to Carnegie Hall? The answer he got was “Practice, practice, practice.”


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