Of all the bad habits you can pick up, perfectionism has very little to show for itself on the upside.
Other bad habits at least let you enjoy your life, if briefly. If you’re lazy, you can sleep in. If you’re going for a big drinking fest, you can enjoy the beer or the feeling of escape for awhile.
But perfectionism never gives you a break. It won’t let you rest when you do your best, and even worse, pesters you to give up on your dreams before you’ve even tried.
No matter how well you’ve done, there’s still a reason for a good beating. The perfectionist keeps hounding you to go, go faster, try harder to attain perfection. Like a dog chasing tail, you’re trying to achieve an unattainable goal.
Beating Ourselves Up
The perfectionist critic has a constant supply of new material to hound us with. Because, nobody’s perfect!
Perfectionism finds something to berate in the normal activities of a day. When we make a mistake, forget to make a phone call, or send out an email with an error, we feel stupid, terrible, and are likely to beat ourselves up.
Beating ourselves up…what a strange way to live!
Speaking as you would never dare speak to a friend or, even enemy, the internal rants begin. “You stupid idiot!” “I can’t believe you did that!”…and on and on. Even for the smallest mistakes, the perfectionist critic is blasting away.
But even in areas where you have worked diligently and achieved a level of skill and success, perfectionism can ruin the best of moments.
- Compose a ballad. It could have been better.
- Win an award. Sure, but now you’re going to need to work harder for district competition, then state, then national.
- Anything less than number one is a failure, and even number one is temporary so there’s no time to rest.
Perfectionism is the party pooper we keep inviting. It’s the uncle that farts during the toast at an otherwise-perfect wedding.
Obstacle to a Dream: Demanding Guaranteed Success
But possibly even worse than hounding you for what you have done, perfectionism can convince you to give up on your dreams.
Instead of encouraging you with a “Life is meant to be enjoyed! Go for it! Try it!,” kind of support, perfectionism dumps a bucket of water on the sparks of creativity and passion that might just be connecting you to your purpose for living.
You’re not talented enough, smart enough, rich enough. You’ll never make it. Do you have any idea how unlikely it is that you’d actually be able to do that? You’ll just be wasting time and money. Just give up and take the sure thing.
But dreams come true only for those that take the chance.
Lady Gaga, at age 25, is a familiar and beloved pop musician with fans all over the world. She wrote her first song at age 13, performed singing at open mic shows and with her church, and studied music in college. She released her first album in 2008, at age 22, and the album reached number one on the record charts of six countries. This kind of thing still happens! It’s not all about the politics of the music business. At the core of this story, is a woman who did not cosign on her inner critic or any critic.
If a girl born as Stefani Germanotta, had required guaranteed success before making an album, Lady Gaga would not now be an international household name. She chooses styles and writes and performs songs that others loudly demean, but one thing is sure. She continues to be her own authentic self with no apologies.
Perfectionism asks you to prove that what you want to try will be a success. But the most rewarding things you try, you can’t prove that you will succeed at and might even be worthwhile if you fail.
The High Cost of Perfectionism
Normal striving towards perfection helps you feel better and encourages you to reach your goals.
But perfectionism as the unrelenting taskmaster can have devastating consequences, including depression. You lose that sense of the intrinsic value of a person, and may give up entirely trying to achieve the impossible, ever-expanding to-do-perfectly list. Depression takes the joy out of living and is a dominant cause of suicide.
Depression can be healed. Tools may include medication, but always include some form of cognitive therapy to help retrain a person’s thinking. Helping people get off the path of unrealistic and overly critical thinking is fundamental. This retraining is at the core of relief, allowing the person to enjoy life again.
Everybody makes mistakes.
My meditation instructor once forgot my name when introducing me in a group. Later, he apologized, and said his ego must have been getting overblown. He explained that making a ‘stupid mistake’ has the benefit of quickly humbling him. It’s a quick way of detaching from the headstrong, prideful aspects of character, and instantly becoming more centered.
Perfectionism demands the unattainable and wants us to be superhuman in all endeavors 24/7, as well as instantly great and guaranteed to succeed at anything we try.
The deeper self knows that the level of skill and the admiration earned from doing something well, are not what life’s all about anyway.
So, as we move through life, and trip up here and there, maybe there’s a higher purpose. Maybe this keeps us from attaching our identity to being the great fill-in-the-blank. Being The Great One in any area of life sets us up for feeling self-important, for that manic drive for more success, and often thinking less of others.
So, when we make silly blunders here and there throughout our days, the ego is deflated quickly. We can laugh at our mistakes and not take ourselves so seriously. We can lighten up and enjoy things more.
Because from this vantage point, we can recognize the true perfection of the human condition. Ourselves included.
Write a polite note to the perfectionist critic, and send it packing! Let’s stop inviting the party pooper to the parties!
To err is human.
- Listen to the mental chatter about the big and little mistakes you make. Observe the tone of voice and words used. Would you use the same words to a friend? Would your assessment be so harsh? Is there a way to be honest, yet more gentle and encouraging with yourself?
- Make a list of dreams pushed aside. Have you wanted to read a poem at Open Mic night? Did you want to learn guitar? Dream of having a painting exhibit? Want to learn ballroom dancing?
- Is there a pushed-aside dream you could nudge over to your “To Try List”?
- If your friend was doing the same analysis about her life, what would you encourage her to do? Can you accept that advice for yourself?
- Notice the things you think you’d like to do, but decline with, “No, I can’t.” Is there a more gentle answer that could provide an opening, such as, “I tried it when I was younger, but I was too shy. Maybe I’ll try it again.”
- If you can’t get up the courage to try something for your own enjoyment, can you for someone else? Try playing tennis with your five-year-old niece, even though you haven’t tried to hit a ball for a decade.
“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve:
the fear of failure.”
― Paulo Coelho