We live in a world that idolizes perfectionism. From a very young age, parents, coaches and teachers push us to be high achievers, but they fail to teach us balance. We live our lives with an ingrained desire to give our all in pursuit of lofty goals, but we don’t know when to pull back. We don’t know when enough actually is enough.
Most people lean hard into their perfectionism -- they extol it as a virtue to the point that it becomes a vice. Doing so is troubling because separate studies from the University of British Columbia and the University of Tehran show that perfectionism is linked to depression, anxiety and a slew of mental health issues.
To defeat perfectionism, you have to learn to spot when it’s holding you back. This task is difficult because perfectionistic tendencies like to hide under the guise of hard work and zeal.
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Tal Ben-Shahar suggests that you shift your mentality from that of a perfectionist to that of an optimalist. Optimalists strive just as hard for success, but they’re more flexible, resilient and adaptive in the pursuit of their goals.
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Shifting your approach from perfectionism to optimalism is bound to make you happier and more productive. First, you need to recognize the signs of perfectionism that’s holding you back. What follows are the hallmarks of perfectionism that has gotten out of control.
1. You recognize that your perfectionism is a problem, but you think that’s what it takes to be successful. Sometimes, you really need to push yourself hard to be successful. When your perfectionism gets out of control, using hard work as the justification for the unnecessary pain and suffering you endure is easy. Make no mistake about it, perfectionism does create unnecessary struggle and strife. When you get your perfectionism under control, you can work less and get more done.
2. You get defensive when receiving feedback. Perfectionists care deeply about what other people think of them, and this can make feedback hard to take. Even well-presented, useful feedback feels like a needle to the eye. You likely catch yourself acting defensively before you even realize that you take issue with the feedback. It’s a knee-jerk reaction. As a perfectionist, you naturally have an intense desire to succeed. Take comfort in the fact that feedback (even brutal feedback) is ultimately helping you improve your work. Take it in stride, and feedback will actually help you get closer to perfection.
3. However, you’re critical of others. Considering their inability to receive criticism, perfectionists sure can dish it out. Perfectionists can’t help but measure themselves against other people, so taking someone down a notch, especially if that person is a threat, feels good. Though, this isn’t always the reason. Perfectionists are also critical of others because they compare them to the same unobtainable standard to which they compare themselves.
4. You procrastinate all the time. Perfectionism and fear of failure go hand in hand. This combination leads to procrastination because even mundane tasks are intimidating when they must be completed perfectly. Most writers spend countless hours brainstorming characters and plot, and they even write page after page that they know they’ll never include in the book. They do this because they know that ideas need time to develop. We tend to freeze up when it’s time to get started because we know that our ideas aren’t perfect and what we produce might not be any good. However, how can you ever produce something great if you don’t get started and give your ideas time to evolve? Author Jodi Picoult summarized the importance of avoiding perfectionism perfectly: “You can edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank page.”
5. You have a guilty conscience. Perfectionists have a steady stream of guilty thoughts running through their minds, because they’re always feeling like they’re coming up short. This guilt elevates stress, and it can easily spiral into depression and anxiety. Guilt is fueled by your self-talk. The more you ruminate on negative thoughts, the more power you give them. Most of our negative thoughts are just that -- thoughts, not facts. When you find yourself believing the negative and pessimistic things your inner voice says, it’s time to stop and write them down. Literally stop what you’re doing and write down what you’re thinking. Once you’ve taken a moment to slow down the negative momentum of your thoughts, you’ll be more rational and clear-headed in evaluating their veracity.
6. You take mistakes personally. Perfectionists take their work so seriously that they tend to overestimate the impact of their mistakes. Minor events can cause them to experience bitter disappointment. This issue is significant because it makes you less resilient, and the ability to bounce back from failure is critical to success. Perfectionists must learn that failure is not a confirmation that they aren’t good enough.
7. You take pleasure in other people’s failures. This little known secret of perfectionists is not as evil as it sounds. Misery loves company, and perfectionists can’t help but find satisfaction in knowing that other people experience the same frustrations as they do. These moments of relief are short lived, and they make perfectionists feel bad for being so competitive.
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8. You’re afraid to take risks. With the fear of failure comes the fear of taking risks. Perfectionists’ hard work, research and attention to detail produce novel ideas. Unfortunately, their great ideas are often placed on the back burner because of their fear of risk. The only way to get comfortable with taking risks is to take risks. Starting the process is never easy, but by actively leaning into the very things that make us uncomfortable, we build confidence and realize that it’s never as bad as we build it up in our minds to be.
9. You live in fear of rejection. Perfectionists need the approval of others to feel successful. This mentality leads to a crippling fear of rejection. Perfectionists dread things, such as asking for a raise or pursuing their passions in lieu of something that will win approval from others. Living in fear of rejection feels terrible, stifles creativity and slows down your progression as a person. Whenever you find yourself overly concerned with what other people think of you, remember Dr. Seuss’s take on authenticity: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”
Bringing It All Together
To beat perfectionism, you need to be the most authentic version of yourself you can be. This means pursuing the things you love, trusting that hard work will pay off, learning from your mistakes, and deriving satisfaction from within.