“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people,” wrote Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. “It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and is the main obstacle between you and a [crappy] first draft.”
Today’s culture encourages perfectionistic behavior — as if it’s synonymous with being industrious, hardworking, and diligent. But most of the time perfectionism doesn’t lead to success.
In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, best-selling author and shame expert Brené Brown explains that perfectionism often generates depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis. “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life,” she writes.
1. Distinguish Between Realistic and Unrealistic Goals
Perfectionists have difficulty differentiating goals that are good, appropriate, and within reach from lofty dreams that are going to create lots of angst because there’s a better chance of them not happening than happening.
For example, a friend of my son’s dreamed of playing professional basketball. That was all fine and good until he was placed on the C team of his seventh-grade basketball team and started having behavioral issues. He practiced his shots for hours every day and got obsessive about his technique, but in the games he would freeze up because he was putting way too much pressure on himself.
At certain points in my life, when I feel my expectations creeping up into the inappropriate zone, I’ll sometimes make myself list my goals on a sheet of paper. Then I’ll go back and circle the realistic ones, or take the unrealistic goal and tweak it so that it produces less pressure and I don’t freeze up, just like my son’s friend.
2. Practice Failing
One of the most effective ways to defeat perfectionism is by doing exercises in which you get comfortable failing. That is, learn a new skill that will require lots of falling, frustration, and embarrassment. You’ll see that part of the learning curve demands patience, self-compassion, and a tolerance of failure.
For example, even though I’ve only been on a paddleboard a handful of times, I decided to join up with a racing group the other night — with people who paddle 21 miles in the ocean and do these cool 360 turns on their boards. I was lapped about 10 times and spent a chunk of the evening in the water, not on it, but my comfort level with failing is now higher. I know that being the worst person in a group of athletes is not the end of the world, and I hope I can translate that to other areas of my life where perfectionism causes anxiety and depression.
3. Be Wrong in Front of Others
Try having an opinion that is wrong. Tell a story that is stupid. Wear clothes that don’t match. Turn in a project that you can’t fully explain. People will not think you’re stupid. People will think you spent your time and energy doing something else — something that meant more to you.
Being wrong in front of others comes somewhat naturally for me. I am often sporting a green smoothie mustache — spinach in my teeth — that I discover once I’m home after being out all day. I often say inappropriate things that make me cringe as soon as they’re out of my mouth. What I’ve learned is that people don’t care as much about us as we think they do. They are too busy caring about themselves.
Even when we make a massive mistake, they get over it far more easily than we do … because they’re obsessing about their own mistakes. So if you don’t tend to embarrass yourself regularly without effort, like I do, I think Trunk’s exercise is a good one for resolving your fear of appearing stupid or making blunders.
4. Celebrate Your Mistakes
According to author Alina Tugend, the best way to become an expert in your field is by making mistakes — and lots of them — and to cooperate with the brain on learning from them. In her book Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, she explains the science of making mistakes and why learning from them is vital in a culture of perfectionism. In an interview with me from 2011 (when her book came out), she highlighted the value of leaving your comfort zone and messing up. Says Tugend:
We really do need to keep telling ourselves — and others — that perfection is a myth. It’s not easy in a culture that prizes the concept of effortlessness, success, and results over the process. But we need to constantly remind ourselves that every time we take a risk, move out of our comfort zone and try something new, we’re opening ourselves up to potentially making more mistakes. The greater the risks and challenges we take on, the greater the likelihood that we’ll mess up somewhere along the way — but also the greater the likelihood that we’ll discover something new and get the deep satisfaction that comes from accomplishment.
5. Make Some Rules
When I first started dancing with a competitive dance studio in elementary school, the owner of the ballet company told my mom to keep me out of the advanced classes for a year or two until I caught up to everyone, because she didn’t want me to get discouraged. She could tell I was the perfectionistic type kid who would drop out if I wasn’t doing a dozen fouetté turns in a row en pointe like the other girls.
I have to go back to that rule whenever I start comparing myself to other writers or to other mothers. I simply remove myself from the competition. Lately, that means staying off Facebook, which, for me, can easily generate feelings of inadequacy. When I first started blogging, I stayed off the homepage of the website I wrote for, where they listed the most popular blogs and most emailed posts.
6. Be Yourself
I keep three quotes next to my desk as a reminder to be myself even on days when I’d so love to be someone else:
To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
What is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself. — Anna Quindlen
Be you very well. — Francis de Sales
Ultimately, the best antidote for perfectionism is tapping into the courage to be yourself. Anna Quindlen is right when she writes, “Perfection is static, even boring. Imitations are redundant. Your true unvarnished self is what is wanted.” By exercising a little tolerance toward our quirks and foibles, we grow in courage and resilience. By accepting ourselves as we are and learning how to respond to failures with self-compassion, we free ourselves to do our best and to succeed.
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Photo: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images
Originally published on Sanity Break.