“Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because there is no such thing as perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal. Additionally, perfectionism is more about perception – we want to be perceived as perfect. Again, this is unattainable – there is no way to control perception, regardless of how much time and energy we spend trying.”Brene Brown
I’ve worn perfectionism like a badge of honor for most of my life. I sincerely believed that obsessing over every little detail was to thank for the significant personal and professional successes in my life.
Wasn’t my inability to relax to thank for earning a graduate degree, working, maintaining a household, continuing to raise 3 kids, and cultivating multiple hobbies simultaneously? And wasn’t my intense fear of failure the thing that kept me on course and committed to goals within my comfort zone? Wasn’t my belief that if something didn’t come easily, then I shouldn’t pursue it acting as a life compass, keeping me on the straight and narrow path of what I was meant to do?
The Lies of Perfectionism
For years, I consistently told people that perfectionism was my fatal flaw. I secretly embraced this entire way of being. And the truth is that my perfectionist tendencies provided the optimal scapegoat for every success and failure in my life. Perfectionism was the thing I could both thank and blame for anything in my life.
My perfectionist tendencies ultimately allowed me to surrender responsibility and take a backseat in my own life. Initially, the focus on doing everything perfectly in my life gave me direction. It gave me an overarching goal. When life got crazy, I clung to my perfectionist tendencies as tightly as Rose clung to that raft after the Titanic sank.
Although perfectionism seemed like a worthy goal in the beginning, there have been negative side effects. Giving in to perfectionism led to anxiety, depression, and the need for ultimate control in all situations.
And it wasn’t until a few weeks ago when I finally realized how much of my discomfort in life actually stemmed from my perfectionist tendencies rather than from life itself.
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Healthy vs. Unhealthy Perfectionist Tendencies
It’s ironic that perfectionism, the mechanism I adopted to shield myself from an uncertain world, became the very thing that closed me off entirely from the world. Perfectionism, rather than living life, took center stage.
And learning how to reverse the devastating effects of perfectionism has been a journey. It continues to be a journey. Choosing a different mindset requires awareness, discipline, and consistency. It also requires vulnerability and a willingness to fail.
Change is never easy. But I knew that the constant self-criticism and rigidly self-imposed boundaries were destroying my self-esteem and confidence. And my obscenely high standards were holding me back from countless new experiences.
Although I finally realized that my current form of perfectionism wasn’t serving me, I was hesitant to abandon ship altogether. A big part of me thought that giving up on perfectionism would mean giving up entirely on achievement. I felt that if I relaxed my rigid, all-or-nothing thinking even the teeniest bit, my world would collapse.
These thoughts are also ironic since they are the picture of black and white thinking characterized by perfectionism. Further proof of just how much perfectionism had permeated my life.
And so I began searching for help and eventually stumbled across an influential book called The Pursuit of Perfect, written by Tal Ben-Shahar.
The Pursuit of Perfect
“The key difference between the Perfectionist and the Optimalist is that the former essentially rejects reality while the latter accepts it.”Tal Ben-Shahar, The Pursuit of Perfect
As I delved further and further into the topic of perfectionism, I began realizing that perfectionism has two sides. Having perfectionist tendencies can mean unrealistic standards and an inability to celebrate success. Perfectionist tendencies also involve a focus on the destination rather than the journey. But it can also mean persistence, a desire to learn, and strong problem-solving skills.
This new information challenged my previous belief that perfectionism, and life in general, had to be all-or-nothing in a negative way. It had never occurred to me that perfectionism could have a positive side.
And in his book, Ben-Shahar takes this idea a step further. He does this by introducing the concept of an Optimalist. An Optimalist is essentially the opposite of a perfectionist. Someone who falls in this category sets realistic standards for themselves. They embrace challenges and accept that failure is a normal part of life.
Although it sounds unbelievable, I had no idea setting realistic standards or accepting failure was an option. My perfectionist tendencies had taken such a hold over my life that it was impossible to see any other way to live.
And it was refreshing to hear that not only is failure ok, but it’s normal in life.
You may also enjoy reading ‘Become Unstoppable by Learning to Believe in Yourself.’
1. Accepting Failure Despite Perfectionist Tendencies
“Aversion to failure motivates us to take necessary precautions and to work harder to achieve success. By contrast, intense fear of failure often handicaps us, making us reject failure so vigorously that we cannot take the risks that are necessary for growth. This fear not only compromises our performance but jeopardizes our overall psychological well-being.”Tal Ben-Shahar, The Pursuit of Perfect
At its core, perfectionism is about control. It’s a subconscious belief that you will obtain the desired outcome if you do things a certain way. And in many cases, it’s all about avoiding failure.
But the truth is that failure is a normal part of life. It’s completely unrealistic to think that one will go through life happy and successful 100% of the time.
There will be times of struggle and loss, no matter what you do. Focusing your energy on avoiding failure is exhausting and defeating. It also acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy in that if you constantly look for failure, you’ll find it.
And the irony of it all is that if you’re unable to accept failure, you’re equally unable to accept success. In many cases, failing to celebrate success occurs because you’re laser-focused on all the tiny errors inevitable in life. Success is often accompanied by mental chatter telling you that this or that could have gone better. There is no feeling of completion in a job well done.
The Myth of Easy
Equally devastating is the belief that if something doesn’t come easily to you right away, then it’s not “meant to be.” As someone with perfectionist tendencies, it can be tempting to give up when things get tough. Giving up seems preferable to making mistakes and possible failure.
But the truth is that NOTHING in life is easy. No one achieves instant success. There are no overnight millionaires.
Authentic achievement in life requires unyielding and repetitive persistence. It requires a commitment to failing because this is where you learn the most significant lessons.
Perfectionism is a lie that keeps you from accomplishment by telling you to avoid failure at all costs. But in reality, failure is the most direct path to success.
And although I’m not going to pretend that embracing failure as a perfectionist has been easy, it does bring a sense of release. Knowing that failure is typical and expected has allowed me to let go of some need to control. I’m starting to understand that life is messy, and there’s no sense in trying to fight that tidal wave.
Embracing failure has additionally improved my self-confidence by providing opportunities to troubleshoot unexpected situations. I can feel myself expanding outside my comfort zone with every challenge conquered. And I’m starting to realize just how much my perfectionist tendencies were holding me back.
You may also enjoy reading ‘What to Do When Your Emotional Energy is Drained.’
2. Good Enough
A second concept introduced in The Pursuit of Perfect, which has been life-changing to me, is that of “good enough.” This concept has been pivotal because it inspired me to challenge my perfectionist thoughts with a healthy dose of realism.
The “good enough” concept involves writing down your ideal standards and then following up with what is realistic given the constraints of life.
This concept helped me realize just how vague my expectations for myself had become.
For example, I would ideally love to practice piano for 2 hours a day, 7 days a week. But I work full-time, have 3 kids (4 if you count the family Goldendoodle), a house to maintain, and a host of other passions.
Before doing this exercise, I tended to feel guilty for missing daily practice sessions. But after taking the time to list out my subconscious expectations, I realized how genuinely unrealistic they were. I realized that I need to accept reality if I want to lead an abundant and passion-filled life.
And reality means that there will be days when I don’t play a note on the keyboard. But those are the days when I enjoy a long run or a dressage lesson. Or maybe those are the days when I cheer my kids on at the soccer park.
Again, perfectionism lies to you by telling you life is black and white. Everything must be achieved in each 24 hour period. There is no give and take.
But the truth is, you can have it all. You can work, spend time with your kids, and have hobbies. The only caveat is that you have to be realistic and accept “good enough” instead of “perfect.”
3. The Fallout of Comparison
“There can only be one Beatles. That doesn’t mean other people shouldn’t make music.”Toni Bernhard
As a perfectionist, it’s easy to look around and make comparisons to other people. And thanks to social media, comparing is easier than ever.
At any given moment, you can click open an app and be flooded with 5,000 reasons to feel inferior. As someone with perfectionist tendencies, I’ve learned that social media is a massive trigger for negative thought patterns. And as a result, I’ve realized how much I need to limit its influence in my life.
Perfectionism is a tendency to set subconscious and often highly unrealistic standards for oneself. It can also be a focus on the end result instead of the journey itself. It’s then easy to see why scrolling through everyone else’s highlight reel can trigger negativity, procrastination, and anxiety.
And it’s easy to forget that for every success shared, there are 327 failures.
Social media, therefore, endorses the myth that everyone is happy all the time, there is no such thing as failure, and life is easy. It feeds right into the myths perfectionism is already feeding you.
Forge Your Path Despite Perfectionist Tendencies
But you can find your way out of the tangle of comparison. Awareness is the first step.
And the second is putting distance between yourself and social media. Delete the apps and start finding joy in your unique journey. Work on detaching from outcomes and instead fall in love with the process. Challenge negative thoughts by putting them through the “good enough” filter. Stop feeding into the lie that perfectionism is the reason for every success you’ve had in your life.
Unfortunately, perfectionism can also carry with it a higher risk of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
If you’re struggling with perfectionism, find help. Click here for resources on suicide prevention. Whether the support comes from your primary care provider or a mental health professional, you can find relief from fear of making mistakes and a preoccupation with control. Life is hard and comes with no easy answers. But you are valuable and deserve to live a fulfilling and passion-filled life surrounded by people you love.
Reversing perfectionist tendencies is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight, and there will be some easier to overcome barriers than others. But with awareness, persistence, and the desire for a better way, you can challenge perfectionism. Here are a few key points to remember:
- Perfectionism is a myth keeping you rooted in fear and negativity.
- Failure is the most direct path to success.
- Accepting and embracing failure pushes you lightyears from your comfort zone.
- Challenge “perfect” with “good enough.”
- Comparing yourself to others waters the seeds of perfectionism.
- Find joy in the journey and detach yourself from the result.
- You are valuable and deserve to live a fulfilling and passion-filled life surrounding by people you love.
Don’t forget to order your copy of The Pursuit of Perfect here. And until next time, keep learning, growing, and living a life you love!