Blog Short #52: Is perfectionism really a bad thing?
Welcome to Monday Blog Shorts – ideas to make even Monday a good day! Every Monday, I share a short article with you about a strategy you can use, or new facts or info that informs you, or a new idea that inspires you. My wish is to give you something to think about in the week ahead. Let’s dig in!
By Gustavo Frazao – Courtesy of Shutterstock
Have you ever asked yourself why perfectionism gets such a bad rap? I have, and that’s because I lean that way. I like to do things well – very well! I’m not too fond of mediocrity. If we don’t push ourselves to accomplish the ideal, aren’t we settling for second-rate?
Those are the arguments that come up when people defend their perfectionistic tendencies.
But what about the original question – “Is perfectionism really a bad thing?”
YES! And here’s why:
Perfectionism isn’t about how well you do something – it’s a measure of your worth.
What does that mean?
Perfectionism is a perpetual mental drum that tells you anything less than perfect isn’t worthy, which translates to “I’m not worthy.” The term “good enough” doesn’t exist in the world of perfection. It’s all or nothing. You’re either perfect or you’re a failure.
The real problem is that you can’t reach “perfect.” The chronic pursuit of it is a black hole that sucks you in and keeps you on the treadmill of reaching but not arriving. It’s painful and relentless.
Brené Brown accurately describes perfectionism as a “defensive move.” It’s an attempt to avoid shame, judgment, or blame. If we do everything perfectly, look perfect, and behave perfectly, then we can stay under the radar of others’ negative scrutiny and disappointment in us.
This burning need to avoid judgment and criticism keeps us in a never-ending cycle of:
Striving to be perfect and not living up to it → feeling unworthy → becoming depressed, anxious, or both → and starting again.
We’re never present, but always focused on our fear of future failure and a relentless effort to ward it off.
That’s perfectionism. It’s a mirage.
“Yeah, so I still want to do things well – really well! What’s wrong with that?”
Striving for Excellence
Nothing’s wrong with that if done with the right mindset.
Striving for excellence is a worthy practice. It honors our desire to do the best we can, succeed, create, perform, and attain mastery.
What it doesn’t define is our worth.
The pleasure in succeeding at something isn’t the result of being perfect.
- Pleasure and satisfaction come from effort, learning, gaining insight, trial and error, and expanding and honing one’s skillset.
- It’s meeting challenges with a sense of excitement and enthusiasm to figure something out, get better at something, and gain intrinsic satisfaction from doing something well.
Life is a work in progress, and there’s no perfect endpoint. We’re never finished, but growth is continual and has its own rewards regardless of outcomes.
Your motivation to do things well is a particularly human drive that keeps us moving forward and evolving. We want to nurture and make use of this drive to feel fulfilled and grow. Here’s what you can do to make sure you’re on that track.
1) Adopt the Right Mindset
To pursue excellence without undermining your sense of self, you have to adopt the right mindset. Carol Dweck spells this idea out in detail in her book Mindset, and if you haven’t read it, I would highly recommend doing so, especially if you’re plagued by perfectionistic thinking.
She describes two mindsets: The Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset. The one you want to adopt is the growth mindset.
The Fixed Mindset
The core belief of the fixed mindset is that you are your performance. Your sense of self, self-esteem, and value rests on what you do and how you perform.
The measures of your worth are your outcomes:
Did you get all As? Were you at the top of the class? Do you have the best track record at your job? Can you do things easily and without much effort because you’re smart? Do you have a high IQ? Are you the one who always knows the answers? Are you successful?
This mindset is a precarious tightrope that gets you up on that pedestal and then creates chronic anxiety to stay there, because when you fall, even a little, you’re a failure.
The Growth Mindset
The growth mindset starts with the belief that you’re intrinsically valuable outside of what you do or how you perform. The goal is to grow, evolve, and actualize, however, it is understood that this is an ongoing process. Your value is always there regardless of where you are on the path.
Emphasis is on effort, process, learning, insight, and challenge. Challenges are approached with enthusiasm because you know that making mistakes or experiencing failures along the way are opportunities to learn and improve. These are acceptable and don’t impact your value. Failures are necessary because they teach us what we need to know.
With the growth mindset, intelligence is not static. It’s something that grows with experience and effort.
What you do is a source of fulfillment rather than a measure of who you are.
2) Ditch the all-or-nothing thinking.
You aren’t either-or, success or failure, good or bad. You’re a person with intrinsic value who’s in the process of experiencing the many shades and variations of life. Explore your interests, use your talents, and hone your skills to expand and improve yourself. It’s a process, not a single point on the horizon.
3) Cultivate living in the present.
Perfectionists live in the future. Every moment is scarfed up with fears and ruminations about future judgment and recrimination.
Live in the present moment and savor your experiences, engagement, and responses to challenges as they come. You can be mindful of where you are while looking forward to where you want to go.
4) View failure as a stepping stone.
Failure is actually the wrong word to use. A better alternative is “setback.” Setbacks are events that signal you need to change your direction or do something different. It might mean going back to the drawing board and rethinking something, or making a pivot in your activities.
Progress is never a straight line. It’s a few steps forward, a few steps backward, re-assessments and recalculations, and steps forward again. Accepting that makes setbacks gifts, not events to lament.
Letting go of perfectionism and replacing it with striving for excellence will allow you much greater success in pursuing your goals.
Redirecting your emotional energy away from self-flagellation toward the enjoyment gained in pursuing things you love is both relieving and energizing.
If you’re a perfectionist and have been plagued by trying to remain on that slippery pedestal, step down, join the human race, and enjoy pursuing your aspirations.
That’s all for today! Have a great week!!!
All my best,
PS: Three books I recommend if you struggle with perfectionism are The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly, both authored by Brené Brown, and Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequist.