Forty-two year old Margaret is a board certified family physician who works at a state-supported teaching hospital. In addition to her instructional administrative duties, she sees patients in the clinic every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, attending to the sick while simultaneously educating interns and residents who accompany her into the examination rooms.
Margaret has an important job. She is blessed with the opportunity to impact the lives of untold numbers of people, both the patients she actually doctors, as well as those her students will treat for years to come.
Yet, she suffered from unhappiness and a crippling anxiety that destroyed her peace of mind. Like a child about school, she spent her Sundays dreading clinic the next day. She walked from one patient to another with a knot of tension in her stomach. Her only relief came when she buried herself in her administrative duties. But this only partially distracted her; the next clinic loomed in the back of her mind.
When Margaret walked into my office, I immediately saw that this woman enjoyed little happiness. I asked her to tell me details of her symptoms. Then, we had the following exchange.
Dr. G: Think for minute, Margaret. You're home alone on Sunday with anxiety gnawing at you. What goes through your mind the second before you begin to feel that way?
Margaret: I've got to do clinic tomorrow.
Dr. G: I know, but what do you tell yourself that is so horrible about that?
Margaret: I might make a mistake. And I might embarrass myself in front of the students.
Dr. G: Ah! So what if you did? Why would that be so horrible?
Margaret: I don't want to make a mistake.
Dr. G: I know and that's good. That keeps you motivated. But, what I'm hearing you say is that, not only do you not want to make a mistake, but that you must not ever make even one mistake.
Margaret: I’m a physician. I can't afford a mistake.
Dr. G: But, Margaret, how in the world can you pull that off? How can you go through your professional life, much less even a single day, and never make a mistake? Sounds impossible to me. Even doctors are imperfect, fallible people. Aren't they?
Margaret: Of course. But we’re taught in medical school that God forbid you make a mistake!
Dr. G: Well, that's a shame, because that sets up the anxiety you suffer. Think about it. You've taken an admirable desire to do the very best you can with each of your patients. And then you've convinced yourself that you absolutely must, or need to be, God's gift to perfection. With that “must be perfect” expectation banging around in your head, you bring on this misery every time you go to battle. Do you see?
Margaret: I do.
Dr. G: And what does this demand for perfection get you?
Margaret: My anxiety.
Dr. G: Yes, and little, if any, happiness and pleasure in your work.
Margaret: Sad, but true.
Margaret’s diagnosis: a virulent case of runaway perfectionism. In her mind, she started with a strong desire to do well, which was appropriate, and motivated her to give each patient her very best. But, she went beyond this desire to believing that she must—absolutely must—perform perfectly, never overlooking one scintilla of data or making even the slightest mistake. To her, it would be a horrible crime to err, a sin so grievous she would be humiliated in front of her students and deserve damnation for at least half an eternity.
Further discussion revealed that Margaret not only approached her work as a perfectionist.
Dr. G: I’ll bet you hold these perfectionistic expectations in other areas of your life as well, not just at work. Right?
Margaret: I’m sure.
Dr. G: Well, like where?
Margaret: I get nervous when I meet up with my girlfriends for a night out.
Dr. G: What's your attitude about that?
Margaret: What if I do something stupid?
Dr. G: In other words, I must do well and look good, or else.
I'm happy to report that Margaret worked hard in her therapy. Over several months of intensive attitude adjustment, she gradually let go of the perfectionism that blocked her ability to experience her life as a happy person. As she did, her anxiety dissipated and her ability to experience happiness increased many-fold.
Margaret can be a role model for you. Like her, you can practice the following mindsets:
• Get real. Accept that you are a fallible human being, one who, by your nature, cannot ever lead an error-free existence.
• Instead of demanding you be perfect, demand that you be imperfect. It makes more sense for you to think, “Being human, I must error,” rather than, “I don't care that I'm human, I must not error.”
• Strive to do well. But, when you don’t, still unconditionally accept yourself. When you error, habituate this idea: “I'm sorry I errored, but I'm human; now, what can I do to learn from this mistake without beating myself up?”
The bottom line: be perfect at being imperfect. When you do, you will enjoy the happiness trifecta:
• You will still strive to do well, for giving up perfection does not cause you to give up your desire to do well.
• You will find yourself more relaxed, peaceful, and able to enjoy the ride. In other words, free from anxiety, you'll be on the royal road to relaxation and happiness.
• You will feel pride in your successes and accomplishments without shame and embarrassment about your less than sterling moments.
Below are five practices that can help you loosen the grip perfectionism has on you. The degree to which you use them will be the degree to which you claim your happiness birthright. But, remember: breaking any habit and building a new one takes time and effort.
1. Identify three situations in which you fall into the trap of thinking you have to do perfect. For each, write what anti-perfection message you will give to yourself so as to confront the situation without perfectionism.
2. Use your mistakes as opportunities to learn and improve. When you make a mistake, say to yourself “I’m sorry I goofed, but I'm human. Now, what can I do to be less likely to make that mistake in the future?”
3. When you do find yourself making a mistake, remind yourself to nevertheless unconditionally accept yourself. Remember that your mistakes are merely your oranges, not your whole crate.
4. Purposely make one mistake a day. Wear a tie that doesn’t match your shirt; praise President Obama at a gathering of Republicans, or announce your admiration for Newt Gingrich at a Democratic rally; loudly request ketchup for your scrambled eggs at brunch in your favorite restaurant. Observe that no cataclysmic consequences befall you. Be careful, though; do not make mistakes that put you in danger, break the law, or violate your own ethical or moral standards.
5. Notice when others make mistakes. Note the “normalcy” of this and remind yourself that you are not a special case such that fallibility is forbidden to you.
You can have the best of both worlds: in one, you can strive to do well, working to create mini-masterpieces across the canvas of your life; in the other, you can be realistic, refusing to expect yourself to be perfect and forgiving yourself once you error. In combining the two, you merge passion with peace of mind, a formula for happiness if there ever was one.
Make the effort to let go of your perfectionism. You are worth it. You will see the results. Until the next blog, live with passion.
Russell Grieger, Ph.D. is the author of several self-help books, all designed to empower people to create a life they love to live. These include: Unrelenting Drive; Marriage On Purpose; and The Happiness Handbook (in preparation). You may contact Dr. Grieger for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.