Perfectionism: Causes, casualties and five tips to move beyond the perfect.
In college, I remember being told the best answer to an interview question of “What is one weakness?” is: “I’m a perfectionist!”
It’s humorous to think of how I boasted that my “big flaw” was trying to be perfect – as if that were something to brag about. Truth is, perfectionism can be a crippling condition that, as Tal Ben-Shar states in his book, Pursuit of Perfect, results in:
- Paralyzing procrastination
- Low-self esteem
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- People pleasing tendencies
- Serious difficulties in relationships
When perfectionists manage to get over their procrastination, they often fail to excel to their own standards because they hold unrealistic expectations. This is followed by severe self-criticism and undue importance placed on other’s opinions, which often leads to depression.
“Perfect is the absolute lowest standard to have for yourself, because it is IMPOSSIBLE.” – Tony Robbins
Perfectionism’s Evil Brother: The Fixed Mindset
While I struggled with perfectionism, a key causes of it was hiding in the wings.
Ever have one those epiphany moments where the core of life’s struggles are suddenly illuminated? Just this sort of self-awareness moment came when I read Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset.
In her book, Dweck explains the difference between the Fixed Mindset and the Growth Mindset.
The Fixed Mindset is when I believe my qualities are carved in stone, creating the urgency to prove myself over and over. Every situation in life becomes a test of how much inherent talent I have. Which means living with a lot of fear of not measuring up, being “found out” as not as talented, together, mature… and a debilitating belief that effort is a sign of failure because success should come naturally.
The Growth Mindset is when I believe my talents are starting points for development. I can cultivate my qualities, change and grow. Effort is an opportunity to refine and excel. With a growth mindset, failure is a setback that leads to improvement. Whereas with a fixed mindset, failure is a setback that creates low self-worth.
So there I was with a Fixed Mindset and Perfectionistic tendencies. It’s no wonder was always stressing and anxious!
“In the fixed mindset it’s not enough just to succeed. It’s not enough just to look smart and talented. You have to be pretty much flawless. And you have to be flawless right away.” Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D.
Causalities of Perfectionism
The first casualty of perfectionism is one’s self-worth. Trying to measure up to the impossible and holding oneself accountable to other people’s standards leads to no good. I didn’t realize I was holding down my self-worth in the midst of my pursuit of perfect.
This led right into challenges with relationships. A solid sense of self-worth is a pre-requisite for a healthy relationship. And just to compound my struggle, while my own self-worth was being measured by others standards, I went on a search for perfection in a mate, which, well, is a recipe for disaster!
Five Tips to Release Perfectionism
Letting go of the urge for perfection is a moment by moment task. A few things that helped me shift to a growth mindset and allowance of the imperfect:
- Re-evaluate your goals. Ask if they are realistic and calibrate them to “achievable”.
- Fail Often! Research shows failing desensitizes us to failure, and as Ben-Shahar states, “people who fail frequently are often the ones challenging themselves frequently, and growing faster as we learn more from our failures.”
- Take Small Steps. Defeat procrastination by making small advancements. Ask, “What is the smallest next step I can take?”… and take it.
- Show your imperfections. Like I’m doing with this article, revealing one’s human imperfections is liberating and surprisingly, people aren’t disgusted, they actually relate more to you.
- Go technicolor! Perfectionist tend to see things in black and white. Begin looking for the variances in what defines success all around you and notice how “acceptable” these are in addition to the crisp black and white prints.
Perfect Dwelling Spaces
Perfectionists gravitate towards obsessive-compulsive disorder, and their homes and offices reflect this: everything hyper-neat and in its place.
This was my story for years – my roommates even called me neurotic! Feng Shui, by focusing on harmony, helped me realize the power of working with the natural flow of energy and allowing a bit of chaos.
Balance is the key. Feng Shui is about flow and resistance. We get to “control” the flow to shape and create the life we want. Perfectionist ten to restrict the natural flow to a strangle hold, and end up missing a lot of the random awesomeness of life.
If you find yourself trying to keep everything in its place, the quickest solution is to bring in more plants and nature. Plants exemplify the natural flow and chaos of life and add a bit organic growth to your environment and life.
Here’s to living a perfectly imperfect human existence!