In this week’s episode, I want to talk about perfectionism. The short answer is there is no quick fix, but there are patterns we can identify and thought processes we can practice.
If you’ve been listening to me for awhile or you’ve read some of my articles, you may have heard me say that I’m a recovering perfectionist. Yes, I used to be angry that my A- wasn’t good enough. I still occasionally struggle with the appearance of a result not being “good enough” like being ashamed of a race result, even though that was my best for that day and not making excuses. There is a big challenge in asking “but what IS good enough?” We all know what perfectionism is, but where it comes from may vary from individual to individual. For me, it stemmed from wanting to meet the expectations of my parents, coaches, and peers. It came from wanting desperately to fit in and believing that if I could be the best at everything, then people would love and accept me. I talk about these stories in depth in my ebook : Partly Sunny, Cultivating a Resilient Mind. Eventually, external expectations became my own internal expectations.
The Masks of Perfectionism
Perfectionism happens when you hold yourself up to an impossible standard. The reasons you want to be perfect or do things a certain way are fear-based. You’re afraid you won’t be seen in a certain way, or you’re afraid it’ll mean something about you. Perfectionists are driven by the need to prove themselves, not the desire to learn. People with fixed mindsets tend to be perfectionists.
There are three main patterns of perfectionists. They reject failure, they reject painful emotions, and they even reject success. Personally, I’ve been able to overcome the first two, but I still reject success. I have a very hard time celebrating my success and not belittling it. By not celebrating your success, you put off that feeling of accomplishment or fulfillment to the future when you can do something even harder. And when you do that, you still do not feel satisfied.
In the form of rejecting failure or painful emotions, it’s about accepting that failure does not have to feel good- in fact it never does- but also realizing that failure IS part of the path. It isn’t a bad thing. You’re probably not trying hard enough if you always take the safe way out. I say out loud to myself that I love failure. I do not love feeling like I’m not worthy or the hard work I’m putting in doesn’t actually matter. (in the case of being rejected by trying to get a new sponsor). I do not love feeling ashamed or embarrassed. I do not love the feeling of working really hard and having it go nowhere. That is what failure feels like to me Failure even makes me want to give up. When I feel that way, I go for a walk, run, or bike ride. I process those gross feelings. But after I process them, a fire gets lit under me to work even harder, try something different, or maybe even just accept that it’s just not the right time for the thing I failed at to progress.
In Tal Ben Shahar’s book, The Pursuit of Perfect, he describes how to transition from being a perfectionist to an optimalist. It starts with recognition of patterns and then working towards changing the way you think. There is no quick fix, there may not even be a permanent solution. But we are able to recognize perfectionism and have the power to prevent it from holding us back.
He says that the perfectionist fears failure, focuses on their destination rather than their journey, thinks in ‘all or nothing’ terms, is a fault-finder, is overly defensive in response to criticism, inflexible, unwilling to accept and love themselves, is destined never to feel good enough, and is afraid of someone else seeing their mistakes. They are constantly comparing themself to an ideal they think is perfect. Practicing self-compassion is a great place to start. I’ve talked a great deal about how to have more self-compassion on this podcast, but there’s a link in the show notes to give you some actionable practices and help you also develop more confidence.
Perfectionists also tend to exhibit all-or-none thinking. Can you think of areas where you do that? I do it with training and have to continually ask myself if what I’m saying is true to overcome it. If I can’t ride for a certain amount of time or hit a certain number, I’m inclined to want to quit and not do it at all. But then I remind myself that most of the time, you won’t hit the perfect numbers and the important part is showing up and getting started. Of course, this does NOT apply if you truly need a rest day! I also have discovered I do this with writing. If I can’t do a certain amount, then I don’t want to get started. Procrastination is another way all-or-none thinking can manifest itself.
Choose to be an Optimalist and Pursue Excellence Over Perfection
Optimalists are adaptive. Instead of trying to be perfect, they try to be their best and pursue excellence. How is excellence different from perfection? Excellence is the mastery of a task for the sake of the task. It’s enjoying and focusing on effort and flow instead of the outward appearance of achievement or trying to prove to the world that they are good enough.
An optimalist (like someone with a growth mindset) embraces setbacks are a part of reality, accepts them and understands that goals and people are adaptable. They are flexible, willing to experiment, take risks, seek feedback, and see the benefits in criticism. We don’t have to enjoy criticism or think it feels good in the moment, but we can look at criticism is a great opportunity to improve instead of proof we aren’t good at something. Optimalists can call something “good enough” as long as they tried. By approaching challenges this way, it boosts intrinisic motivation and self-determination.
The self-acceptance of being an optimalist is also key. Practicing self-compassion, learning to forgive yourself, and learning to love the ups and downs of the process is what leads to resilience. We punish ourselves if we don’t look perfect in a photo or if we made a typo or if we messed up big time. What can you appreciate about these instances to make you better for next time? If you are beating yourself up, ask why? Why are you trying to make yourself perfect? Go deeper and you’ll probably find a deep-rooted wanting to feel connected, loved, and accepted by others. But that first comes with accepting yourself. I’ve also mentioned in the past that being vulnerable in front of others is scary, but it’s another way to realize that people love you and that includes what you consider your flaws. Vulnerability helps with feeling accepted in many cases.
Optimalists also try to look for opportunities in setbacks – what can they learn, how can they reframe an otherwise “negative situation.” We’ve discussed this in the form of the ABC Model in cognitive psychology. Can you ask if what you believe about a situation is true? Can you challenge that believe and turn it into something productive? Our thoughts create our reality.
Perfectionism creates a barrier to even starting. Examples in my own life: every project I’m working on now- my apparel brand, this podcast, my weekly email newsletters, doing my own graphic design, trying to edit my own websites, writing, my own photography, training, being a new mom, public speaking- if I set out to be perfect at all these things, I’d probably never start. I know that the things I put out into the world have flaws but if I focused on those flaws, I would never start. I start well-knowing I’ll improve over time and it’s okay if something is out there that isn’t perfect. It’s better to get started and get on the path than to be paralyzed by fear of failure or not being perfect and never starting in the first place. Coincidentally, experimenting and stepping outside the box to try things I am not quite sure how to do and even the willingness to fail publicly at it gives me the confidence to do more and more and find what I am capable of.
I think it’s also important to mention that there are areas of your life where you can be a perfectionist and areas where you can be an optimalist. I admit that as a bike racer, I still sometimes struggle with perfectionism and am hard on myself when I make mistakes in a race. But most other places in my life, I’ve grown into an optimalist. What about you?
In the show notes, I uploaded an image from Tal Ben Shahar’s book.
My last point is back to talking about striving for good enough over perfection. Good enough is not an excuse to be lazy or do the minimum and chances are if you’ve made it this far, you’re not the type who is looking for a shortcut or to do the minimum. Good enough is defined differently for everyone, but take your ideal of perfectionism and take like 10% or 15% away from it. What would it look like if you did 10% less, or instead of improving to 100%, what if you opened up to improve by just 10% more?
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