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Successful Imperfection

Learning from mistakes.

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Two Kinds of Perfectionism

Are you a perfectionist who thinks that making a mistake is unacceptable? Do you think that mistakes mean that you are a failure? Are you embarrassed about making mistakes? The fear of mistakes is a central feature of Maladaptive Perfectionism. The maladaptive perfectionist has these negative—often catastrophic—beliefs about mistakes. They think that if they make a mistake then they need to criticize themselves, they think they need to ruminate about their mistakes, and they believe that before they try something new they have to be sure it’s going to be perfect. This kind of perfectionism is linked to procrastination, anxiety, and depression. Is that you?

There’s a different kind of perfectionism—Adaptive Perfectionism. For example, you can set high standards for yourself, work very hard, and derive a lot of satisfaction from your achievements.[i] Adaptive perfectionism can help you persist, help you take pride in what you do, and help you achieve valued goals. You don’t need to criticize yourself or achieve the impossible if you have this kind of healthy, proactive, perfectionism. Bill works hard at his job and puts in extra hours. He tries to do the best he can, but he accepts that he won’t be perfect. When he does well on something he gives himself a pat on the back. He takes credit for it. But when he doesn’t do well he thinks, “I need to put more effort into this” or he thinks, “This is going to be a challenge." Bill has healthy high standards and is a bit of a perfectionist—but it’s adaptive for him. He’s able to get things done and he feels generally pretty good about his work.

One way of thinking of this is to recognize that having high standards doesn’t mean that you fail if you don’t reach those standards. You don’t have to make the “perfect” the enemy of the “good enough." Let’s see how you can change your maladaptive perfectionism so that you can still have high standards, stay motivated and not have to procrastinate and criticize yourself.

What are the advantages of perfectionism?

You may think that an advantage of perfectionism is that you will have high standards and stay motivated. You won’t settle for less. But having high standards is different from demanding perfection. High standards means exactly that—standards that are better than the last time. For example, I like to think of myself as continually open to learning something new. I am sure that my approach to doing therapy is different from what it was ten years ago. But if you are a perfectionist you confuse high standards with failing, inferiority, and humiliation. It’s not. It’s simply trying to grow and learn. And we can learn from our mistakes.

Successful Imperfection

A key to personal growth is to reinforce moving toward your goal. Getting better and improving often means doing things imperfectly. I like to think of this as “successful imperfection” which means engaging in positive behaviors that move you in the direction of your goal. For example, consider the following choices—which is better?

  • Imperfect workout vs. no workout
  • Doing some work on that paper vs. doing no work
  • Spending some time with a friend vs. spending no time with a friend

Successful imperfection is something to engage in every day. You don’t have to be perfect to make progress. Give yourself permission to do things imperfectly as you accumulate more accomplishments that move you toward your goal.


What do mistakes mean to you?

Some people believe that mistakes are fatal and final. It’s almost as if the mistake means the world is ending. Other people think of mistakes as “trial and error” or “I can learn from my mistakes." Which way of thinking is more helpful? If you think that you shouldn’t make mistakes then you will probably take very few risks, you will seldom try anything new, and you will avoid anything that you feel uncertain about.

If I make a mistake, then….

  • I am a failure
  • I can never learn
  • I should give up
  • I shouldn’t make mistakes

Or, do you think: If I make a mistake, then….

  • I am human—everyone makes mistakes
  • I am in the process of learning—mistakes are part of trial and error learning
  • I can try harder and persist and keep going
  • Of course I should make mistakes—no one is perfect, especially me.

Learning from mistakes

Let me give you an example from my personal life. Years ago my wife and I were in Portugal on vacation. I had been sailing for a few years and so I thought I would be a natural in learning wind-surfing. I was wrong. We went to the expert on the beach who was going to teach us windsurfing. Now this guy clearly was more interested in helping my wife than in helping me. To be honest with you, I think he would have been happy if I drowned. In any case, I had too much confidence that I would be good at this. I was really terrible, but my wife turned out to be a natural. She could stand on the board with the sail and sail back and forth. In contrast, I would try to sail, fall, and struggle to get up. Realizing that the people on the beach thought I was pathetic and hearing the instructor yell in his accent—“THINK BOB. THINK!”—I was determined that I would eventually learn. So the next time we were on vacation I took private lessons and kept building skills based on my failures.

Here is how I looked at it. I realized that learning a new skill involved mistakes, I was able to accept the laughter and the humiliation as something that comes with the territory, and I was willing to put the effort into repeating mistakes and learning from them. The more I practiced, the better I got. Not great, but good enough.

Everyone makes mistakes—but you can think about mistakes as learning experiences and as steps toward improvement. Or you can give up now. Every athlete loses in a game, every poker player loses a hand, and every investor loses on an investment. Losing is part of the process of winning.

Successful imperfection is a different way of thinking of mistakes or imperfection. You can normalize mistakes and keep engaging in positive behavior that leads you toward your goal.

Ask yourself whom you admire most and then ask that person the kinds of mistakes that they have made and the kind that they have learned from. Winners are not perfect—they are simply people who are honest about their mistakes and willing to do what they need to do to make things better.

To learn more about coping with mistakes, perfectionism and procrastination you can read my book, Beat the Blues before They Beat You: How to Overcome Depression.

More from Robert L. Leahy Ph.D.
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