When you suffer from perfectionism based in fear, you become more and more miserable as time goes on. In fact, the more perfect and controlling you are, the more disappointed with life you get. Does it make sense to be perfect? Is it actually more destructive than helpful? Many times yes.
There is a healthy perfectionism and an unhealthy one. The question is: Are you suffering or evolving? How you answer says it all. If you’re a perfectionist and are suffering because of it, continue reading.
Before the internet, do you remember when we had to go to a library to find information?
When you have a message and are trying to convey it to someone who’s from a different culture, who maybe speaks a different language, the message you convey may not always be the message they hear.
How we communicate is usually done in the context of the environment we are in. If you’re in a restaurant in the US, you’d hear something like, “Enjoy your meal!” but in another country, you might hear, “Bon appetit’!” which means something slightly different.
Just imagine the entire breadth of human communication and how we grew up learning what words and phrases meant what. It’s amazing that we can communicate in the first place, let alone through cultural and language barriers.
The message I am conveying to you today may not be the way I want you to interpret it. So when people from other countries and cultures read this article, I wonder what they are taking away from it?
Every word you speak means something different to almost everyone. Have you ever thought about why you can’t communicate with some people? It’s almost as if they are living on a different planet.
For example, the sentence, “I watched you run that program, and it was stellar!” could mean many different things. Did you run a computer program or was it a fundraising project? And what was stellar, the program or you running it?
There are a whole slew of interpretations, so it’s no surprise that some people simply can’t understand what we’re saying half the time. When I think about people in other countries listening to my podcast, I wonder what message they are getting.
This is how the world operates though. We do the best we can in the environment we are in. But since everyone around us will interpret our words and actions a little differently, we can never please everyone.
It’s true, you will never please everyone.
How could you? We all have different wants and needs anyway, but even knowing those wants and needs doesn’t mean you’ll be able to satisfy them. The more people you are around, the more likely someone will look down on you, judge you, ridicule you, or worse.
It’s also true the opposite way:
The more people you are around, the more people will praise you, compliment you, and admire you.
The point is you will never be everything to anyone, and you can never be perfect.
It’s not possible. The main reason for that is that we all have a different definition of perfection. Even if you had to please only one person, and you had only one job to do to please that person, it would still not be perfect because your perception of perfection is different than theirs.
As much as you may like or not like the phrase, “You are perfect just as you are,” your life was perfectly chiseled to fit your circumstances and your environment. You’ve been adapting since you were born and now you are the result of a perfect system of choices and consequences, even if things happened to you that were not your choice.
When you were a toddler, you didn’t have much choice in what happened to you, so you had only the consequences to deal with then, and later on in life. But after you became old enough to make choices and choose different paths for your life, you became the creator of your outcome.
The system worked. Every choice you made led to a series of consequences that brought you to the place you’re at today.
I could blame the mortgage crisis in 2009 for losing my condo and my bankruptcy, but the truth of the matter is, I made choices that left me unprepared for what may happen in the future. Even though a lot of people suffered financially, I am still responsible for the choices that led me to that point.
The mortgage crisis wasn’t the issue. My lack of preparedness was. But maybe losing my job had something to do with it too, right? Well, what if I prepared for that too? We’re always told to have at least 6 months of emergency savings just in case something like that happens, but not everyone can follow that advice.
I didn’t save. I just wasn’t that good at it. I used to spend money when I had it because it felt good to spend it. And I assumed I always would have it. But losing my job wasn’t really a contributor to my bankruptcy. My own choices throughout the years were.
The system is perfect. The “system” is cause and effect. What you do now affects what happens to you in the future. If you have no savings and you lose your job today, think about what you spent your money on in the last 6 months. And think about what choices you made when you were younger that led to where you got to today.
You may come upon some bad luck for sure, but it doesn’t change what you could have done as preventative maintenance to prepare. But, how can you prepare for everything? How can you prepare for every possible scenario that could happen to you?
That’s the concept of this article. There is no perfect method, only a perfect system of cause and effect. And even that has some unusual anomalies now and again.
There is no perfect way to communicate with people either. This is just a fact of life that you will have to accept because we all grew up with different beliefs, values, and meanings to almost everything. Then what we all see, hear, and feel has a different meaning to each of us.
My girlfriend can not figure out the songs I hum. For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out why. It would drive me bonkers in fact because I knew I was humming the song correctly, and I knew it was a popular song. Yet, what I was humming was a mystery to her.
One time I hummed a Metallica song to her. It’s not the type of music I normally listen to, but the song I hummed got a lot of play on the radio so I knew she’d know it.
I hummed it a few times and she gave me a puzzled look. She had no idea. I finally asked her, “It’s ‘Enter Sandman’ by Metallica! How can you not hear that?”
She replied, “What? That’s not how it goes at all. You’re completely wrong.”
Then she hummed it a slightly different way.
I could not believe what I was hearing. I said, “What? That’s not it. You are way off!”
At that point, I had to prove I was right so I pulled up the video on youtube and played it for her. I sat back, smiling, knowing that I would reign supreme in this silly little dispute.
But, she surprised me by saying, “See? I told you, it goes exactly the way I sang it.” She hummed it again, the same way she did before.
I asked her, “That’s what you hear? Are you serious? I don’t hear that at all. Listen to me again.” I hum what I know the song sounds like to me.
Suddenly, she understood what I heard and realized what was happening. It turned out we were both right. I told her, “You’re not right, I am. It’s clear you’re wrong.”
She said, “No, listen closer. I’m singing the harmony, you’re singing the melody.”
I said, “No way,” and listened closer.
Sure enough, she was absolutely right. I was singing the harmony, which is the lead, and she was singing the melody, which are the accompanying notes that are played differently to give a piece of music a richer, fuller sound.
I was speechless for a few seconds. For the first time, I realized that two people can hear the same piece of music but walk away with a completely different memory of it. In fact, our perception of the music could be so divergent that the song would have an entirely different feel and meaning based on the way it is perceived.
I thought, who hums the harmony of a song? That makes no sense. But that’s what she does. And many more people do too, I assume.
No wonder we cannot communicate clearly with some people! It’s no surprise there is so much miscommunication in the world today.
Regardless of our inability to communicate perfectly, the world still spins. We all still get through most situations and make it another day. Of course, we will misinterpret and misunderstand each other on occasion, but that’s just something we have to accept so that we don’t get caught up at every single crossroad of miscommunication.
This is an important concept to grasp because it comes down to the “you can’t please everyone” model of reality. You can’t please everyone. Sometimes, you can’t even please one person! You can only do what you can do and hope the majority of what you did is good enough.
Some of us are perfectionists because we want to impress someone. We want recognition or attention of some sort. Some of us become perfectionists out of fear. Perhaps when you were younger, you got yelled at for doing things “incorrectly.”
And some of us have OCD about being perfect. But that can also be fear-based because of the answer to the question, “What will happen if you’re not perfect?” The person with OCD may say they feel out of control, which is a fear-based response.
Whether it’s attention you desire or fear of what could happen, this article is all about the deception of perfectionism and how you can live a less stressful and more fulfilling life by being okay with your wonderful imperfect self.
Even if you’re not a perfectionist, by the time you reach the end of this article, you might perceive something that could change your perception about everything.
There was a point in my life where I had to be perfect. This perfectionism grew out of the dysfunctional behavior I learned as a child. When you grow up in the home of an alcoholic, you might develop tendencies like super-responsibility and ultra-perfectionism.
The reason you develop these things is that you don’t want to do anything to piss off the alcoholic. Or even if you didn’t live with an alcoholic, you learned to be careful around anyone that was easily triggered.
You know the type… people who get angry at the slightest mention of something they don’t want to talk about. Or, people who are highly judgmental and perfectionists themselves.
Judgment can come with the territory of perfectionism. Many times, perfectionists will also be judgmental of others because since they have learned that perfectionism is the way to be, they want others to follow the same path.
Then of course, there are those who want perfection for themselves only, so they stay out of everyone else’s business. Needless to say, there are different types of perfectionists. I’m sure there are many Olympic athletes that are perfectionists because they want to keep micro-tuning their bodies for the highest performance possible.
There’s nothing wrong with perfectionism as long as it is a continuous benefit to you, and doesn’t make you unhappy or miserable.
Let me say that a different way: If you need things to be perfect, that’s okay. But, if perfection makes you unhappy and miserable, then that is not perfection, that is self-sabotage.
Self-sabotage is when you do behavior that causes you to create misery for yourself. And that begs the question: If misery is the result of your perfectionism, why be perfect?
That’s a valid question. Think about what you’ve done in the past where you thought you had to be perfect. Personally, I used to have a problem being a personal development coach.
In 2010, I had a practice in Texas. I would see clients, and they would see changes in their life, and they’d go home a different person, but I would feel terrible leading up to the session and after the session.
I finally quit the practice because I couldn’t figure out why I felt so bad before and after. It turned out that I put so much pressure on myself to be perfect for them that I couldn’t enjoy helping others.
When this happens, you don’t want to help anyone. You just want a job where you can be by yourself and don’t have to talk to people. That’s pretty much what I did too. I found employment that put me in positions that kept me away from people as much as possible.
But after a few years of personal growth, and learning that my high expectations of myself were destructive, I decided that it was okay if I wasn’t perfect for other people. This helped me move back into a coaching role and become the person I am today.
And let me tell you what happened when I dropped my perfectionism…
I became a better coach. I became a better person. I was more efficient and more organized. And quite frankly, I was more perfect than ever.
This is what happens when you drop trying to be perfect:
You improve and become more perfect.
Perfect isn’t the right word, really, but you do improve immensely.
Why would the pursuit of perfection actually cause you to get farther from perfection? Why is it that when you let go of perfectionism completely, you get closer to your goal of perfection?
It’s all about how you respond to life under particular conditions. When someone hands you a ball and tells you to throw it in a hoop for fun, you probably enjoy yourself. You may not get it the first time, but you want it so bad you do it again and again until you get it in.
Some people might consider this behavior “perfectionistic”. But, the truth is, it’s a stress-free, self-rewarding, satisfying behavior that does not fall under the category of perfectionism.
However, if someone hands you a ball and tells you to throw it in the hoop or you’ll lose $100, suddenly the stress level goes up, your physiology changes, you sweat, your heart beats faster, and you become hyper-aware of every movement you are making because you want to guarantee that the ball goes in the hoop.
This is a completely different context than the first scenario portrayed. In the first one, you’re calm and enjoying yourself. There’s no pressure, and no consequences if you miss. In the second scenario, there’s a lot to lose and you start becoming fearful and worried.
What’s really happening is that you start losing control. And losing control is one of the things that perfectionists really can’t handle. If they lose control, they cannot control the situation.
But what if there was a way in situations where you could be more like the person in the first scenario more often than not? What if you could be free of perfectionism and the effect it has on your life?
I could just tell you to meditate, which would work, but many perfectionists won’t take the time to do so. What meditation will do is help you gather your thoughts and be mindful of the present moment.
When you’re going through life and the need to do something perfect arises, the thoughts of everything that could go wrong can come to mind. These thoughts are probably the same types of thoughts that happen time and time again.
Meditation helps you come to terms with those thoughts so that the next time they come up, they won’t be so dominating.
I’m not saying you have to meditate, but the first step in any healing is to be mindful of the thoughts that come up during stressful times.
Think about a time when you believed you had to be perfect. And I’m not talking about those of you who have those high-stress jobs where lives are on the line. If you have one of those jobs where any ounce of imperfection will cause major destruction or death to others, then I applaud you for what you do, because that is a lot to take on.
I’m talking about those of you who feel it necessary to be perfect in the less impactful events in life. For instance, I worked with a group of people once who all feared the senior executives of the company we worked for.
When the executives were to arrive for a visit, we had to clean the office and be on our best behavior. My thought back then was, “Why? Aren’t they people just like us?” The answer I got was, “No, they are senior executives!”
I was like, “Oooookay” and just kept doing my job. Then, when the executives arrived, they would get extra special treatment. I’d see people bending over backward to accommodate them and over-explain simple things because they believed the execs needed all the details instead of the big picture.
Sure, maybe one or two of them would want the details, but the rest were fine with the bigger picture of what was going on.
Regardless, after they left, everyone would give a huge sigh of relief, and I was just confused. I wasn’t sure why everyone was so fearful of them. They could have been us and we could have been them, and it wouldn’t have mattered to me.
Actually, I do know why they were fearful now that I think about it: Because they feared what would happen if they didn’t make a good impression.
I’ve felt this way in the past with a previous employer. Before I started honoring my personal boundaries and standing up for myself, I was a true perfectionist. Everything I did had to be perfect because I didn’t want to be judged as anything but.
But, I was drained and exhausted every day because of that.
I couldn’t enjoy work because I was too busy trying to appear perfect. And because of this, I got burnt out over and over again.
I had a four-year burnout point at work because I chose to be someone I wasn’t. I wanted to impress people, so one of the ways I would do that is to be perfect at my job. But, at what cost?
It cost me my job, over and over again. It cost me my happiness, over and over again.
I feared how I’d look if I wasn’t perfect. What that did is actually create even higher expectations from the people I worked with, which set even higher standards for myself.
This isn’t a bad thing if you are enjoying the process and gaining a lot from it. But it’s an awful thing when you are miserable because of it. And that’s where the deception about perfectionism comes into play.
If you believe being perfect is a great way to keep you less fearful and less judged, you are actually creating the opposite by pursuing perfectionism.
You are forcing people to know you as more industrious and responsible than you can handle.
When you pursue perfectionism, you are forcing people to know you as more industrious and responsible than you can handle.
Admit it. You can’t handle everything. And when you try, you overextend and get really, really tired, leading to burnout.
I know someone who, when she throws a party, attends to each and every party goer to make sure they have what they need. She makes sure everyone is fed and everyone is having a good time.
She takes the reigns and it seems she rarely enjoys her own party. No matter what, she wants to make sure everyone is happy and almost everything is perfect.
This is what happens to people who feel the need for everything to be perfect: They miss the important stuff.
The perfectionist may think that the important stuff is the food, the dishes, the entertainment, etc. But without perfectionism, what else would you do in that situation?
Think about it, if you were throwing a party, what would happen if you decided to let go of taking care of everything? What would you do with that free time?
I know what I’d do, I’d just talk to anyone I wanted to talk to and enjoy myself. If there were no chips left in the chip bowl, someone would definitely speak up. If the stereo was too loud, someone would notice, or even I’d notice, and I’d turn it down.
There’s a “pro-actionary” perspective and a reactionary one. When you are proactive, tending to everyone’s needs, you are usually more stressed and not having the amount of fun you could be having.
When you are reactionary, you are laid back and just enjoying yourself dealing with whatever comes up at the time it comes up.
There are pros and cons to both approaches, but what’s most important is which one you choose in the moment. For example, just because it’s important to be proactive when handling an infant doesn’t mean you have to be just as proactive when talking and mingling with fully functional adults.
I think what happens is that perfectionists want to do everything perfectly, not just the things that require a high level of attention. And, many perfectionists consider some things more important than other things, causing them to create havoc in their own lives because they’re too busy trying to get everything just right.
I want to share with you the outcome of perfectionism and what you can do to free yourself of the pressure to perform. Coming up next.
Perfectionists believe that something bad will happen if they aren’t perfect. It’s not only about what they do, it’s also about who they are as well. A perfectionist believes that they need to be perfect, or else.
But, what is that “or else”?
This is what gets people with anxiety too. They think that an “or else” will come even though they haven’t fully thought it through to completion.
Or, they did think it through but they just inserted their own terrible possible outcomes making the future look bleak.
If you are going through this type of scenario where you envision something bad happening, the first thing you want to do is develop a “So what?” attitude. Just do this with the non-essential things in life.
I realize that many perfectionists believe everything is essential, but you have common sense, so use it. Not everything is essential. Being the perfect party host is not essential, but being an operating room surgeon is.
Fetching papers for a boss may not be essential, but flying a commercial airliner is.
They are all important, and none are more or less important in the grand scheme of things. We all have our own circumstances that require our attention. But not everything you do is essential. The airline pilot hosting a party doesn’t need the level of attention to host the party as he or she does flying a plane.
The employee driving a school bus needs a higher level of attention than when they need to fetch papers for their boss.
The point is that there are times when the pursuit of perfection is just some leftover dysfunction from childhood, and there are times when pursuing perfection might be better for all involved because of the magnitude of what would happen if something was missed.
But the pursuit of perfection actually causes you to slow down, get stressed and become unhealthy.
If you stress about washing the dishes because you might get yelled at, you become a perfectionist and take your time with each and every single dish so that it takes you hours to clean the kitchen, you will become unhealthy.
Your body is affected when you do things from a place of fear.
Think of the non-essential things in your life and how you approach them. I think what happens for a lot of people dealing with perfectionism is that they know what they’re doing is non-essential, yet they’re still scared of the consequences of doing them the wrong way.
This is where it’s important to understand what exactly those consequences are, and if they really are the end of the world.
Most unwanted consequences have to do with you or someone you love being hurt in some way. An unwanted consequence of fetching the wrong papers for your boss is that they yell at you, or even fire you.
But, is that really how you live your life? Do you think the worst will happen with the things you do for people? Do you predict you’ll lose your job or your relationship with someone if you don’t do something to perfection?
Saying “So what?” to the non-essentials doesn’t mean you blow people off, it just means you stop worrying about the consequences. The reason you typically worry about consequences is because of old beliefs and weak personal boundaries.
We carry some beliefs around from childhood. When I was a kid, I believed I had to be perfect because if I wasn’t, I’d get hurt by the alcoholic in the house.
When you were a kid, you developed beliefs about how you’d suffer too. What beliefs did you have when you were younger? Did those beliefs follow you into the adult world?
Unfortunately, most of those old beliefs do follow us into adulthood. I used to be afraid of confrontation. After all, if I was confrontational, guess who might get upset in my childhood home?
I took a non-confrontational stance whenever I could as an adult. It certainly helped me avoid a lot of arguments, but it also helped others trample all over me and take advantage of me. I was driven more by the fear of confronting someone than I was by the empowerment of standing up for myself.
This is an important distinction to make. I believe when you are not able to, or unwilling to stand up for yourself and honor your personal boundaries, you are more likely to be walked on and become a perfectionist – along with some other dysfunctional behavior.
Personal boundaries come up over and over again on this show because if you had strong, healthy personal boundaries, you’d probably have less dysfunction and stress in your life.
I know life can be stressful, but it’s so much less so when you are empowered. Empowerment comes from the conviction of honoring what you want and don’t want in your life.
When you honor yourself, you find that others honor you too. They have no choice because they learn that’s who you are.
But, when they learn that you have super high expectations of yourself, some will come to expect that from you too. It’s a setup for failure.
The more they expect of you, the more you expect of yourself because you set that up to begin with. This is a vicious cycle and wears you down to a paper-thin toleration level. On the outside, you appear like you are in control. But on the inside, you can barely keep it together.
In order to maintain that appearance of control, you become “more perfect”. This, in turn, destroys you little by little. You can’t maintain control, it’s impossible.
You can’t be perfect, it’s not only impossible, it’s destructive.
Let me give you the practical steps to stepping out of perfectionism. When you find yourself stressing over something because “it has to be perfect”, then follow these steps (remember, this is for non-essential stuff. Common sense will tell you what needs to have more attention and what doesn’t):
- Ask yourself, what will happen if I am not perfect, right now?
Think about that really carefully. Bring it all the way to the worst-case scenario. You know what I mean right? Whatever the worst thing that could possibly happen is, make it even worse in your mind. If the worst-case scenario is that you could get fired from your job, make it worse.
Think about how you’ll lose your home and have no money. Then think about how you’ll be homeless and on the street eating garbage. Then think about how people will walk by ignoring you and telling you to “get a job”.
I know these aren’t pleasant thoughts, but if you’ve done this process with me before, you know why I ask you to do this: Because once you know how bad it could get, then what you were originally thinking would happen doesn’t seem so bad after all.
And, you also start to realize that things won’t really get that bad because you have resources available to you that would stop it from happening. Or, you may not think that. But there are resources. Believe me, just when I thought I was going to be living on the street a few years ago, the resources revealed themselves and I wasn’t as bad off as I thought I would be.
After you go all the way into the worst-case scenario, come back to now and think about what might happen if you are not perfect now. Meaning, what is the direct effect of your actions if you are not perfect? Not the worst-case scenario, but the very next thing that will happen if you are not perfect.
When you do think about how bad it could get, then think about what would really happen instead, it doesn’t seem as bad as it could be, right?
- You’ve gone to the worst possible scenario and came back, now say, “Okay, so what?”
“So what if I get fired. Big deal. Their loss”
“So what if he leaves me. Big deal. His loss”
“So what if I fail this assignment. Big deal! In the grand scheme of things, this is trivial.”
I realize you may not like the consequences, but the idea is to develop an attitude that pops you out of the perfectionist state. You don’t want to get fired, but you definitely want to be less stressed, that’s when you can say, “So what?” in an effort to change your state.
I remember I was on a computer project once where I had to locate the phone lines in a supermarket. I was traveling the country by myself, and I would check in with my boss every now and then just to let him know how things were going.
Well, in this one supermarket, I couldn’t find the phone lines. No one in the store knew where they were and I exhausted every possible location. I should have found a board with all kinds of wires, but it was nowhere.
I called my boss and asked, “What do I do if I can’t find the phone lines?”
His answer was, “You can’t find them?”
I said, “No. No one knows where they are and I’ve looked everywhere I can think of. What happens if I can’t locate them?”
The job consisted of me identifying the location of the phone board so that installers could come in and connect to it. If they didn’t have the location, they couldn’t finish the installation.
He said, “You have to find them.”
I said, “Yeah, but what if I can’t.”
He said, “That’s not an option. You have to find them. Don’t leave until you find them.”
I was like, “Uhh, okay. I’ll keep looking.”
I hung up with him and suddenly I was fearing that I might get fired if I don’t find them. I looked everywhere and they were simply nowhere to be found. I doubled back and searched everywhere again, and I still couldn’t find them.
Now I was stressing. I was starting to sweat. This was no longer fun and easy. Now I was under the gun to find these lines… or else.
But he never said what that “or else” was. I just filled in the blank. This is what happens when you try to be perfect, you fill in what might happen if you aren’t.
I tried to be perfect that day and got more and more stressed because of it. It got to the point where there was simply nothing else I could do. I looked everywhere and could not find the phone board.
So I gave up.
And because I spent every ounce of effort looking, I was simply out of juice. I was at the point of, “So what? I looked and I couldn’t find them. Whatever. I’m done looking and there’s nothing more I can do.”
After I said that, I suddenly felt this weight lift off of me. I was much more clear and free of the stress I had put on myself. And because I “didn’t care” anymore, I was able to think outside the box a little. I no longer cared about being perfect and fulfilling my duties.
I’d had enough. He wanted the impossible and I couldn’t provide it. I thought about what would happen when I called him back but even that didn’t scare me. There was simply nothing more I could do and he would just have to deal with it.
But because I was now no longer stressed, my mind became unclouded and free. Giving up actually freed me from the constraints of limited thinking. In other words, I was able to come up with an idea of how to find the phone lines. I decided I’d just go around and ask every single employee if they’d ever seen a board with lots of wires.
Almost all, except one person, said “no”. I was in this one person’s office and he did say “no” at first, but then he said “…unless you’re talking about this?” which is when he reached over to the wall on his right and pulled open a hidden panel that revealed the very phone board I was searching for.
I said, “Yes, that’s it! That’s exactly what I’m looking for.”
And I was able to finish the job.
But after that, I realized that the more stressed I was about something, the less resourceful I was, which leads to number 3:
- Realize that when you pursue perfection, you become more focused on a single path and less aware of possible alternatives
That day at the supermarket, my focus was on me searching everywhere I could to find what turned out to be a hidden wall in some office. And because I was just laser-focused on one method of doing so, I didn’t consider any alternatives.
Doing this made the job harder and caused me to be there hours later than I should have. My boss demanded that I find it, so I thought I had to be perfect. And because of that, I got stressed and my mind got clouded. I got focused on one method of searching which delayed my outcome and closed me off from other possible methods of achieving the same thing.
Attaining perfection will do that to you: You “know” what works, so you keep doing that thing until it does work. Then when it doesn’t work the way you expect, you run out of options and stress.
I say skip to the inevitable outcome. Give up and say “So what?” then you’ll let go of perfection and start considering what you hadn’t in the past.
- Perfectionism can and does lead to depression
This is probably the most important reason to give up being perfect. Depression is a state of apathy. You lose the passion and emotion for life, and getting out of a bed is a chore.
When you can’t attain your goals because of your super high standards, you end up feeling like a failure time and time again. And perfectionism is a condition that is almost impossible to maintain, so you will end up down in the dumps more often than not.
I realize it sounds like I’m saying perfectionism is a choice. For the most part, it is. If you choose to be perfect, you do so because of the outcome you want or don’t want.
Whether you fear the outcome or you want the outcome, it doesn’t matter. You seek perfection to reach a goal. If that goal is to better yourself, and you feel good doing so, then go for it. As long as you’re not judging others if they cannot meet your standards.
But if your goal is to avoid pain by trying to be perfect, you are actually heading in the wrong direction. Think about this carefully, because it is one of the most important things I’ll write in this article:
Perfection is a path to depression. And when you pursue it because of fear of what others might think of you, you are in a no-win situation.
Even if you pursue perfection and attain the thing you were trying to be perfect for, all the pressure and stress it took to get there takes its toll on you. And the next time you think you need to be perfect but you don’t attain your goal, you lose that way too. It’s a lose-lose situation either way you look at it.
The pursuit of perfection out of fear is a no-win scenario. The pursuit of perfection for self-improvement can be highly advantageous and healthy for you, as long as it doesn’t cross the line into fear. Then it becomes destructive.
- Talk to yourself, don’t listen to yourself
Author, Jon Gordon, said he heard the best advice ever from a Dr. James Gills who did 6 double triathlons in his 50s.
Dr. Gills said: “If I listen to myself I hear all the reasons why I should give up. I hear that I’m too tired – too old – too weak to make it. But if I talk to myself I can give myself the encouragement and words I need to hear to keep running and finish the race.”
This is the best advice for anyone experiencing negative self-talk. And since many perfectionists are filled with self-doubt, this is even more important. Self-doubt is basically listening to yourself, isn’t it?
If you didn’t listen to all the negative stuff in your head, you’d probably do a lot more than you do now. In fact, I’m willing to bet if you instead talked to and encouraged yourself instead of listening to that other voice, you might not even care about being perfect.
I know, it sounds easier than it is. But just that tiny distinction can make a huge difference. We hear voices in our head because we have thoughts. Just add another voice in there that will help you get through the tough times.
The tough times are typically what you make up in your head. You can actually make up what may or may not happen, but we usually end up believing the bad that might happen instead of one of many possibilities.
However, talk to yourself in a way that you will listen, if that makes sense.
Try this out: Think of someone who gives you good advice or perhaps is just always nice to you. When you’re in a stressful situation, put that person in your head and listen to what he or she has to say to you.
When I think about this process, I imagine a friend and coworker I worked with in the 90s. He was always nice to me and gave me great advice. He was usually calm and I looked up to him.
I think about something I say to myself that is not empowering, like, “You’re not good enough to make a lot of money” or something similar. I then have this friend’s voice come into my head and say, “You’re incredible at what you do. I’ve never worked with someone so on top of things. I really enjoy having you here.”
This feels good when I hear this voice. This works for me, and if you really admire or have admired someone in your life, it will work for you too. You can imagine them saying anything you want to lift your spirits.
If you’re ever doubtful of something you’re doing, think of someone that you can put in your head to help you through that moment. And if you can’t think of anyone, just use a voice that you’re familiar with. Someone that always encourages you and knows your potential.
Someone who can remind you that when you are in doubt, that’s okay, because you’re not supposed to know everything. You’re not supposed to be perfect.
In fact, you are brilliant in more ways than you can imagine. You’ve made it this far in life and you have so many more years to go. Always remember that when you think about pursuing perfection, you are really just setting yourself up for disappointment after disappointment.
That’s no fun. What you really want is to enjoy at least some of what life has to offer. And one of the ways to do that is to realize that you already have the resources you need to create the life you want and that you are fully capable of achieving things some might think you can’t.
If you’re ever in doubt, just remember a voice that believes in you and knows that no matter what happens, you’ll be fine. You always pull through and in the future, you’ll pull through again.
During those challenging times, you don’t have to stress so much because things are what they are. What if they don’t pan out? If that happens, there was probably nothing you could do anyway.
No matter what you hear in your head, this other voice is there to let you know that you will make it through and that you’ve been through worse.
You are more than you need to get what you want and deserve in life.
You are enough.
If you read this article and you’re not the type of perfectionist I described, maybe you tend to get a little overly critical of yourself every now and then? Believe me, this is going to happen throughout life. Saying things like, “Darn, I should have done this!” or “I can’t believe I did that!” can be self-criticizing and lead to a pessimistic viewpoint of many aspects of life.
Most of us have this critical voice inside of us saying that we aren’t good enough or clever enough to figure something out. It’s so strange to think we get put down by our own brain!
That’s why I like the idea of talking to myself. I can say, “That was stupid. Why did I do that?” then I can step in on that inner dialogue and use a voice I admire, (sounding like a positive, healthy role model) “Paul, I’ve known you to make mistakes but you always make up for them. And since you’re so good at making things right, you always get a positive outcome. It works out either way.”
Does this self-talk always work? It depends on how attached I am to my misery. When we don’t want to feel better, we can tend to stay attached to our anger or sadness. The reason is that if we start to feel better, we may not feel vindicated.
For example, have you ever felt this way?:
“That person made me so angry. If I let go of that anger, that person wins!”
The reality is that as soon as you are able to release the anger, the person you were angry with no longer controls you. In fact, doesn’t it make you wonder that when you are upset with anyone, including yourself, that being angry at them might be how you are being controlled by something outside yourself? As you know, being controlled is not a happy place.
I realize it’s cliche, but your imperfections are what make you likable. Nicolas Cage once said, “I think what makes people fascinating is conflict, it’s drama, it’s the human condition. Nobody wants to watch perfection.”
I totally appreciate this. I wouldn’t want everything to be perfect all the time. I think I’d get tired of it pretty quick. Life would be predictably miserably, or miserably predictable
The imperfections in life are what make us whole. It’s when we try to maintain that perfection that causes us to fall apart.