“To be enlightened is to be without anxiety over imperfection.”
This is one of my favorite sayings from the Buddhist tradition. As a recovering perfectionist, I can attest to what a relief it is to make a mistake without berating yourself or another person. Of course you want to do the best you can with a project or a relationship, but expecting yourself or anyone else to achieve perfection is unrealistic and a denial of our human reality. Accepting your human imperfections does not mean you allow yourself to be sloppy or unfocused, but rather that you can set realistic standards for yourself.
Believe it or not, being a dedicated “imperfectionist” can actually be helpful when it comes to changing habits or reaching goals. Whether your goal is to quit smoking, eat smaller portions, exercise five days a week, or write for one hour every day, you may find that accepting imperfection can, paradoxically, help you advance toward your goals.
Here are some of the ways accepting imperfection can give you the advantage when it comes to changing a habit:
1. To change a habit, you have to acknowledge that something needs changing. To recognize that you have a problem with something takes some humility. You have to admit that your life is not perfect. But if your perfectionist ego takes over, it may block out all awareness that anything is wrong.
2. Those who possess “the courage to be imperfect” are more likely to make a specific decision to change. You may want to change a habit but fear that you won’t be able to do it. That fear could keep you from making a resolution to change. Psychoanalyst Alfred Adler termed this attitude “the avoiding attitude,” in which avoiding failure becomes more important than solving a problem successfully. But those who can make a specific resolution to change are 10 times (I repeat, 10 times!) more likely to succeed than the avoiders who want to change but don’t make specific resolutions. (See research below.)
3. Imperfectionists are less likely to fall victim to “all-or-nothing” thinking. Brief quiz: If your goal is to walk for 30 minutes a day and you only have 15 minutes today, would you: a) Decide not to exercise, because you can’t meet your goal; or b) Take a 15 minute walk. By choosing “b,” the imperfectionist will exercise more AND is more likely to develop a habit through daily repetition. Moreover, research shows that even tiny amounts of daily exercise have powerful effects on longevity and health. As political theorist Edmund Burke put it, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”
4. An imperfectionist finds it easier to spring back from slips and relapses. Changing a habit usually does not take place in a splendid “aha moment” but rather evolves in stages over time, according to research on the stages of change. Setbacks, slips, and even relapses are part of the normal process of making a change. If you need to be perfect, it will be harder to forgive yourself when you stray from your new healthy path. An imperfectionist is more likely to regard slips and mistakes as opportunities for learning and self-correction than someone with the “fixed mindset” of “I have to be perfect.” The ability to tolerate misteaks without over-reacting is easier for imperfectionists.
5. Accepting imperfection is likely to give you more willpower. Stress, self-criticism, and temptation are the enemies of willpower, according to Kelly McGonigal, the author of The Willpower Instinct. Imperfectionists can stick to their goals without fussing over whether everything is perfect. This self-compassionate attitude reduces stress and self-criticism and increases the ability to focus on what’s really important—your values and goals.
(Warning: When it comes to addictions, you may have slips along the way to recovery, but perfect abstinence is usually the best destination. If you start telling yourself, "Hey, I'm only human. I think I'll have just one drink," you might have taken the first step on the road to relapse.)
Accepting imprefection is a great stress reliever. Just defending yourself from your critical inner voice by announcing to yourself, “I don’t have to be perfect,” or even, as a friend says, “I don’t have to be perfect to be wonderful,” can lead to great progress. You can set out to make your life better—even though it won’t be perfect. As the old saying goes, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Note: I made two deliberate spelling mistakes in this blog. Did you notice them? Of course there could be more mistakes that I did NOT make deliberately! I’m not perfect, you know…
© Meg Selig, 2014.
“The stages of change” are described in detail in my book, Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). For a short version, see this blog by PT blogger Barb Markway or my blog, “Succeed at Habit Change with This One-Page ‘Book’.'”
“10 times more likely to change.” Norcross, J.C., et al. (2002). Auld lang syne: success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year's resolutions. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58 (4), 397-405.
“The enemies of willpower.” McGonigal, K. The Willpower Instinct. (Penguin, 2012), p. 234.
“The courage to be imperfect.” John, K. “The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler.”