“Aim for success, not perfection. Never give up your right to be wrong, because then you will lose the ability to learn new things and move forward with your life. Remember that fear always lurks behind perfection. Confronting your fears and allowing yourself the right to be human can, paradoxically, make yourself a happier and more productive person.” Dr. David M. Burns
In this post I’m going to address perfectionism as another barrier… or shall we say Energy Sucker to motivation, and give you a Liberation Plan to overcome this pernicious oppressor.
When you hear the word “perfectionism” what do you think? There are two different pictures that come to my mind.
One is of people taking their time and doing quality work. Whether it’s writing a novel, cleaning a bathroom, or building a shed, they always do their best.
The other picture is quite different. I see someone agonizing over a homework assignment, staying up all hours of the night fearing they are not doing enough; or a mother tossing and turning in bed, beating herself up for what she wasn’t able to accomplish that day (even though what she did accomplish was superhuman).
What it is perfectionism?
To be blunt, it is an illusion. Nothing can be perfect. Every perfectionist knows there is no limit to improving upon what they’re doing. Frustration always accompanies perfectionism when time runs out and the task isn’t yet up to their standards. They think, If I just had more time, I could make it perfect; but the truth is, perfectionists set standards so high, either they can not be met, or they are met with a very high price. Perfectionists believe anything less than perfection is unacceptable, fearing flaws would expose their unworthiness or weakness.
Have unrealistically high expectations and standards
Believe nothing short of perfection is acceptable
Get the blues when they experience failure and disappointment
Fear failure and disapproval
See mistakes as evidence of weakness
Become overly defensive when criticized
All of these things drain energy and are motivation saboteurs 😦 😦
Perfectionism is Not…
While doing things well provides a sense of healthy accomplishment and self worth, insisting on perfection causes a sense of unworthiness. Every perfectionist believes there is no such thing as enough, so the result is always a feeling of I could’ve done better or more, resulting in a sense of unworthiness and low self-esteem.
Insisting on perfection is not a virtue. It is an immediate set up for manifesting a sense of unworthiness by making demands that are impossible to meet. If you try to impose your perfectionism on others, you will experience disillusionment with humanity, missing out on much of the beauty of our rich but imperfect world. Perfectionism doesn’t sound like a virtue to me. It sounds like an abusive partner making unreasonable demands and then calling you derogatory names when those demands aren’t met. “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life…” Ann Lamott
…Working For You. There is a paradox in perfectionism and it goes like this. The more you try to be perfect, the more imperfect you become. Because the very nature of perfection is not possible, (obtaining it is always 1-10 steps beyond your reach) a sense of not being enough or unworthiness settles in, often paralyzing you from moving forward. It’s confusing when somebody identifies herself as a perfectionist, but has an incredibly messy house. What you are seeing is the dark side of perfectionism in full swing. If the house cannot be cleaned perfectly, it won’t be cleaned at all.
Confession: I’m embarrassed to share this with you but in the interest of helping I’m going to come clean.
A couple of years ago, I applied to teach a summer class at the local university. I was accepted and for the first week I was elated.
After the excitement wore off, reality set in. “Oh my gosh! If I don’t do a perfect job I will be judged as incompetent! Everybody will know I’m not an expert and I will live the rest of my life in disgrace. I’d better do a perfect job and deliver a world-class lesson that people will rave about.”
I began to prepare for the class but with each step I took, I questioned myself and determined I wasn’t good enough. I kept trying, but the anxiety and sense of unworthiness built up to the point that I became paralyzed.
At the time I was caring for my mother who was terminally ill. In the middle of it all she took a drastic turn for the worse, which I felt was sufficient justification for withdrawing my application to teach. Everyone was very kind and supportive and let me off the hook.
I remember feeling like I made the right decision to withdraw, but am haunted to this day with the thought that the real reason I backed out was because of my perfectionism and feelings of unworthiness.
Last week I pulled out my course outline and reviewed it. Here’s the kicker. It was so good I couldn’t believe I wrote it, and I was painfully faced with how destructive perfectionism is.
Difficulty living up to your own expectations
Feelings of frustration, depression, anxiety, and anger while trying to meet your standards
Difficulty trusting others
Avoiding anything spontaneous for fear of doing it wrong
Constantly trying to improve things by redoing them
Agonizing over minutia
Making exhaustive to-do lists
Avoiding trying new things
Can you see how much energy this all takes and how it impacts motivation?
My Friend, if you give up the illusion of perfectionism and it’s evil twin unworthiness, room for motivation will open up.
Consider how much space you are allowing perfectionism to take up in your head. There was a time when my mind housed a penthouse apartment occupied by perfectionism.
Now think about how much space would open up if you evicted perfectionism.
You would be free to create without judgment
You would be more fun to be around because your sense of unworthiness would not be bleeding out of your pours
You would accomplish more because you would work without fear of being or doing wrong
Anger and frustration would leave because you wouldn’t be constantly attacking your sense of self worth
You would trust others more because you would abandon your fears of being judged and not see them as potential hostile criticizers
You would be a better friend and parent by not expecting perfection in others
Suffering is Optional; there is a better way.
Identify what’s most important to you and clear the deck by eliminating or downsizing everything else.
2. Set Realistic Expectations
Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Part of perfectionism is wanting to do it all. Don’t be greedy by taking on more than you can handle, even if what you want to do is good. We all have 24 hours in a day and at least 8 of those should be spent sleeping.
3. Stop Making Comparisons
Comparing yourself to others is one of the most discouraging things you can do. We often look at people from a one- dimensional perspective, not taking into consideration what is happening in the rest of their lives. Visiting someone’s home that is spotless and well decorated may create a feeling of despair when you go back to your own home. What you don’t know is what their upstairs looks like. We often put others on pedestals thinking they are so much better or smarter then ourselves. We are all people and no one is better than another. We all have our strengths and weaknesses.
4. Understand the Real Source of Self Worth
While its nice to receive compliments for excellent work, our individual worth should not be dependent on them. After all, basing our self worth on others is “other worth” not self worth. Self worth should be dependent on the state of our own hearts, how much we love and show compassion, and if we are doing our best, which is not an unobtainable idealized goal.
5. Cultivate Healthy Striving
It’s good to work hard and do a good job. It is also good to continually push yourself to a reasonable degree beyond your limits. Healthy striving as opposed to perfectionism is always working to improve, but stopping short of expecting perfection. At night you should be able to identify what you have accomplished, and be content knowing tomorrow is another day.
6. Be Mindful and Take Things One Step at a Time
Being mindful means staying in the here and now. It is remaining non-judgmental and focused on whatever it is you’re doing. Slow down, take a breath, and do one thing at a time. If you are doing the dishes, do the dishes. If you are writing a paper, write the paper, if you are playing with your children, play with your children. Don’t pay attention to the chatter going on in your head telling you, you should be working faster and doing more. When the chatter breaks through your attention, gently return your mind to the task at hand.
7. Cultivate an Appreciation for Wabi Sabi (My favorite :-))
“Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend” Anne Lamott
A work of Wabi Sabi art that hangs beautifully in it’s imperfection in my office
Wabi Sabi is the Japanese art of impermanence and imperfection. It values flaws as an expression of humanity and is as a result, beautiful.
Maven Momma writes: http://madamemaven.blogspot.com/2009/03/design-wabi-sabi-mommi.html
…Then I remembered the Japanese philosophy I love most of all: Wabi Sabi. I am too much a Westerner to explain the concept accurately, but I will sum it up like this: Its roots in Zen Buddhism, wabi sabi is about the perfection of impermanence and imperfection.
…The moment I started to remember wabi sabi, I began to love the beautiful chaos of motherhood.
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering.
There’s a hole in everything,
That’s how the light comes thru.
Leonard Cohen (“Ring the Bells That Still Can Ring”)
So my friend, using at least one of the 7 tips from my Liberation Plan, I challenge you to
Free Yourself From the Tyranny of Perfectionism and Unlock the Oppressive Chains Cramping Your Motivation
Share with our community of reader challenges you have had with perfectionism and the tips you use to get un-stuck. We’re all in this together. Until next time, have a great week.
Shine on 🙂
P.S. Don’t forget to vote yes or no on Pioneers of Peace: Red Cup post. Next week I will fill you in.