How This One Toxic Habit Can Tighten You in a Stranglehold
Seven ways to free yourself and enjoy true happiness and success.
Posted May 03, 2020
There’s one particular habit many people bring to their quest for happiness and success. That one thing can backfire because it goes against the grain of human nature. In its clutches, that habit tightens us in a stranglehold, injects its rigidity into our bloodstream, choking the flow of spontaneous and flexible ideas.
Un-curbed, perfectionism causes us to set unrealistic goals, try too hard, and focus too much on our mistakes. It blinds us from generating our best work. Chances are, if you’re a perfectionist, even when others don’t demand perfection, you demand it of yourself and others. And it can be debilitating. According to the American Psychological Association, perfectionism has increased from the 1980s until now—the rise believed to be the country’s increases in pressure, stress, and anxiety.
The Case of Edith
Edith realized her perfectionism had trapped her personal happiness and career at the lowest rung in her company: “I always wanted to do things right the first time,” she said. “As a child, I didn’t ride a bike for so long because I couldn’t accept the fact that I had to fall down all those times to learn. I just knew there had to be some way I could get on that bike and ride off into the sunset the first time. I didn’t want to go through the hurtful steps along the way. I can’t swim for the same reason. The only way I could learn was if they cleared the pool so nobody could witness my being inept in something almost everybody else knows how to do. In my current job, I’ve only done the things I thought I could just step in and do well right away. I hate what I do for a living because I’m stuck in a boring job, and I keep getting passed over for promotions.”
Putting the Kibosh on Perfection
If you want to sidestep perfection, it’s important to realize that there’s no such thing and that aiming for it can be toxic. The first step is to distinguish between perfection and excellence. Here are seven obstacles that perfection throws in the way and what you can do about it.
1. Unrealistic Expectations. If you’re a perfectionist, you’re such a stickler that nobody—not even you—can meet your standards. When you hold the bar too high with friends or coworkers, it creates problems with interpersonal relationships. Contrary to what you tell yourself, most people and companies don’t expect you to be perfect. Perfectionism leads you to go overboard—far beyond what colleagues and business organizations expect. What you consider an adequate effort usually far outweighs the expectations of others.
Takeaway: Set realistic goals. Ask yourself what you can do to view your capabilities in a more realistic light and set reasonable goals. Your best work isn’t perfection; it’s your best work. That’s good enough and as good as it gets.
2. Inability to Make Mistakes. If you make a mistake, you are the mistake and, as with Edith, that can be too much to bear. You’re flooded with shame and embarrassment. Defeat is a frame of mind. When you call yourself a failure, you start to feel, think, and behave like one. And you take every possible measure to avoid missteps and defeat.
Takeaway: Loosen Your Grip. The writer Neil Gaiman said, “Go and make mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break the rules. Leave the world more interesting for you being here.” Think of failure as a personal trainer that gives you the resilience to face the next career challenge. Allow yourself to make mistakes along the way to triumph so your creative juices, fresh approaches, and novel ideas can flow freely.
3. Faultfinding. Perfectionism is your relentless faultfinder, quick to judge you, minimize your accomplishments, or demote you. Your faultfinder focuses on your mistakes and blinds you from seeing your strengths. On some deeper level, you might even believe that kicking yourself when you’re down increases your chances of success. But studies show that it’s the other way around.
Takeaway: Amp Up Self-Compassion. Coming down hard on yourself after a mistake or defeat reduces your motivation and chance of success. Instead of attacking yourself when you forget, slip up or fail, shower yourself with compassion. Self-compassion gives you the strength to get back in the saddle and stand up to your faultfinder. It helps you recover more quickly from a bruised ego and to forgive yourself, and it enhances your well-being. Practice pep talks and nurture yourself with the same loving-kindness you give to friends and loved ones. For one day, try replacing your “faultfinder” with your “favorfinder” and notice the difference in how much you can achieve.
4. Self-Condemnation. You berate yourself for minor missteps. You tell yourself nothing you do is good enough, and the flaws stand out from the shine. If you constantly focus on your shortcomings, you become blind to your strengths and talents, preventing you from generating your best.
Takeaway: Stop the Self-Abuse. Acknowledge your "tallcomings" alongside your shortcomings. There’s a reason “shortcomings” is in Webster’s but "tallcomings” isn’t. There’s no such word. Perfectionists tend to ignore their positive attributes and clobber themselves with negatives, creating a flawed view of themselves. It’s important to have a critical eye, accept constructive feedback, and recognize your strengths and limitations without dropping your head in your hands. Throw modesty out the window and make a list of your tallcomings to build your resources so you can jump everyday hurdles that are sure to come your way.
5. Narrow Perspective. Perfectionist thinking is flawed thinking. It narrows your perspective and limits possibilities, constricting your potential. When your focus is narrow (dotting every “i” and crossing every “t”) you build up negativity and eclipse possibilities without realizing it.
Takeaway: Broaden your perspective. A broad perspective allows you to build on the many positive things in your personal life and career. Avoid blowing disappointments out of perspective; learn to look for the upside of a downside situation; underscore positive feedback instead of letting it roll off; focus on solutions instead of problems; pinpoint opportunity in a difficulty; refuse to let one bad outcome rule your future outlook.
6. Fear of Failure: Success Is Built on Failure. As with Edith, avoidance of failure morphs into avoidance of success. You’re so afraid to try new or unfamiliar things for fear of failing that your focus becomes avoiding failure instead of the pursuit of success. Perfectionism keeps you in your comfort zone, which keeps you “safe” but prevents you from facing challenges and growing.
Takeaway: Stick Your Neck Out. Growth happens outside your comfort zone. Instead of fleeing from the unknown, strengthen your resilience by stepping into the unfamiliar and unexpected. Once you start to stick your neck out and accept failure as an essential stepping stone to success, you become willing to go through the required hurtful steps (they’re called “growth pains”) to get there.
7. Denial of Imperfection. You refuse to admit that you’re fallible and can’t entertain the thought of forgetting, failing, or making a mistake. You treat yourself as if you’re exempt from the human limitations that characterize everybody else on the planet.
Takeaway: Salute Imperfection. Remind yourself that all of us are flawed human beings, and you’re no exception. Even diamonds are flawed. The paradox is if you embrace your humanity, you have a better shot at success and happiness. When you can open your heart and accept the vulnerability of being authentic, you attain more success at work and in your personal life. You will make mistakes, say things you regret and hurt others. It’s inevitable. But you don’t have to let perfection eclipse your humanness. Practice being imperfect at something, let something go, or tell yourself there’s a limit to what you can do and see this practice as a strength, not a weakness. What edge can you go to in your personal life and career? What unpredictable bridge can you jump off to sprout your wings? What limb can you reach to get to the fruit of the tree?
Flett, G.L. & Hewitt, P.L. (2008). Treatment interventions for perfectionism—A cognitive perspective: Introduction to the special issue. Journal of Rational-Emotive Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, 26, 127–133. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10942-007-0063-4
Stober, J. et al. (2009). Perfectionism and the big five: Conscientiousness predicts longitudinal increases in self-oriented perfectionism. Personality And Individual Differences, 47 (4), 363-368. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2009.04.004