Do you feel like you’re always judging/critiquing/ evaluating yourself? Are you afraid to do something you may not be good at? Are you afraid to take risks? Congratulations! You’re probably a perfectionist.
The good news: perfectionists are made, not born. It is a learned set of behaviors and can be unlearned. The bad news: it’s not so easy to unlearn it. In this column, I’ll talk about how we become perfectionists and how we can change.
For some of us, our parents set us up. They put a lot of pressure on us to achieve and succeed. We came to believe that if we weren’t “superstars” in every thing we did, that we were “nothing”.
Some of us had laid-back parents; it was we who made an unconscious choice to be perfect. Maybe we wanted attention and only got it by being a star. We wanted to make mommy and daddy happy. Maybe – since we knew we were LGBT and felt like “there’s something wrong with me” – we felt that we had to try harder and be better than all those hetero kids.
Perfectionism is an endless report card. We never really “graduate” and get to a place where we can relax and stop critiquing ourselves. We always have to be the “A” student: at work, with friends, in sports, with hobbies. Getting a “B” is never enough. Our lives become a continual pressure cooker to be better-and-better…at everything.
No fun or playfulness there, and it’s a set-up for high blood pressure, strokes, anxiety, panic attacks and constant worry. But, fear not, there is a way out. Here are some steps you can take to ease up on your perfectionism:
- Be willing to redefine “success” and “failure”: failure is not the end of the world: it’s merely useful information. Instead of saying, “Oh, I’m such a loser.” when something you do doesn’t go perfectly, you could say, “Hmmm, that strategy didn’t work so well, what can I do differently next time?” See how that approach has a completely different emotional tone?
- When you don’t get an “A”, ask yourself: “Do people think less of me? Do they think I’m a loser?” Perfectionists are often insufferable because they have to do everything better than everyone else. They’re not easy to love. It’s easier to love people who make mistakes – just like us. Try telling yourself: “It’s human to not win every time. It actually makes me more lovable. We all get our turn to win; this time wasn’t my turn.” (and don’t be surprised when other people start to like you more).
- Stand in front of a mirror and tell yourself: “I am lovable exactly as I am” or “I am always good enough no matter what I do.” You could also ask yourself questions like: “How can I be kinder to you today?” and “What would make you feel better right now?” Kindness and compassion are great enemies of perfectionism: over time, they’ll dissolve it little-by-little.
- Participate in an activity that doesn’t trigger your perfectionism, like watching a movie or walking along the beach. Notice how much pleasure you get from it and that it’s not a competition.
Reading this, you may have wonder: “Why should I lower my standards? Perfection leads to high achievements, more money and prestige. I want that.”
Fair enough, but consider this: an obsession with perfectionism does not, in the long run, lead to success in life. Success in life isn’t about doing everything right (which is impossible), it’s about what you do when things go wrong (which is inevitable).
Perfectionism leaves no room for creativity, passion and perseverance: no one could have created Apple, Facebook or Uber without these three. Pushing yourself to be perfect doesn’t make you powerful or successful, it makes you rigid, narrow-minded and not open to experimentation.
Real success in life comes from being resourceful, hard-working and good at problem-solving. Lots of money and the corner office may sound good, but if you can’t enjoy them, what’s the point? Being able to relax and enjoy your life, trying new things and seeing what happens, being spontaneous and playful…this is where the joy of life comes from.
You deserve this.