The Courage to be Imperfect
NOTE: Page numbers enclosed in parentheses are citations from The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler: A systematic presentation in selections from his writings. (H. L. and R. R. Ansbacher, Eds.).© 1964. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. Used by permission of Perseus Books Group.
The psychologist Sophie Lazarsfeld coined this phrase. According to H. L. Ansbacher's biographical note (Ansbacher, 1966, p. 152), Lazarsfeld was a therapist, writer, and Adlerian activist who joined the Vienna Individual Psychology Society after World War I. She first used the phrase in 1925 at the Second International Congress of Individual Psychology in Berlin. She later expanded on the idea, cautioning that "Adler viewed perfection as an ideal which can never really be reached," that there is a difference between "sound striving for perfection and the neurotic wanting to be perfect [italics added]," and that in psychotherapy people "learn to face their own imperfection. . . . They acquire the courage to be imperfect" (Lazarsfeld, 1966, pp. 163-164)
According to Terner and Pew (1978), Dreikurs (having given proper credit to Lazarsfeld) popularized the phrase and it "came to be a leitmotif in his work" (p. 88). Dreikurs was concerned that perfectionism permeated the society and led to everyone's being mistake-centered rather than success-centered, focused on what people did wrong rather than what they did right. He concluded that since schools and enterprises of all kinds emphasize mistakes, the courage of both children and adults is undermined until they lose confidence and hesitate to act.
Terner and Pew (1978) cite as seminal a speech delivered by Dreikurs in 1970 at the University of Oregon in Eugene, excerpted below.
To be human does not mean to be right, does not mean to be perfect. To be human means to be useful, to make contributions — not for oneself, but for others — to take what there is and to make the best of it. . . . We have to realize that we're good enough as we are; we never will be better, regardless of how much more we may know, how much more skill we may acquire, how much status or money or what-have-you. If we can't make peace with ourselves as we are, we never will be able to make peace with ourselves. This requires the courage to be imperfect; requires the realization that "I am no angel, that I am no superhuman, that I make mistakes, that I have faults. But I am pretty good because I don't have to be better than the others" — which is a tremendous relief. . . . If we learn to function — to do our best regardless of what it is — out of the enjoyment of the functioning, we can grow just as well, even better than if we drove ourselves to be perfect (p. 289).
© Griffith, J., & Powers, R. L. (2007). The Lexicon of Adlerian Psychology: 106 terms Associated with the Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler (2nd ed.). Port Townsend, WA: Adlerian Psychology Associates (p. 19).
Definitions of concepts are used by permission of Jane Griffith. A comprehensive list of concepts and definitions can be found in The Lexicon of Adlerian Psychology: 106 Terms Associated with the Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler by Jane Griffith and Robert L. Powers, available for purchase on Amazon.com.
Ansbacher, H. L. (Ed.). (1966). Contributors to this issue. American Journal of Individual Psychology, 22(2), 152.
Lazarfeld, S. (1966). The courage for imperfection. American Journal of Individual Psychology,
Terner, J., & Pew, W. L. (1978). The courage to be imperfect: The life and work of Rudolf
Dreikurs. New York: Hawthorn.