It took me a long time to fully realize that “perfectionist” is just a more elegant and self-righteous term used to describe a neurotic person who’s paralyzed by the thoughts they project about their own self image and future outcomes.
Being a perfectionist doesn’t mean that a person is actually perfect.
It just means that they’re fixated on the idea and expectation of being perfect, regardless of how good or bad they really are in real life.
The most intense perfectionists are almost always fearful daydreamers — living for the perfect fantasies they create in their heads but choosing safety, security, and therefore a pretty bland and boring life over the riskier, messier experiences we tend to face in reality.
The title of this article obviously suggests that I’m about to focus on why being a perfectionist is such a terrible thing, but before I go on, let me just point out that it’s not always so bad.
Believe it or not, perfectionism can sometimes be a great tool to motivate yourself to do better and rise above mediocrity — but then is that really called perfectionism, or just good old ambition?
Whatever you want to call it, it only works when, a) expected results are not impossible to achieve, b) it doesn’t hold you back from doing what you want to do, and c) it doesn’t compromise your sense of self-esteem.
In fact, I bet a lot of people would probably call themselves perfectionists when it comes to anything they’re really passionate about — whether it’s their job, their parenting skills, a beloved hobby, the way their yard looks, the way their hair looks, or something else.
Depending on how you interpret the meaning of “perfectionism,” there’s an ambitious, healthy side to to it and a neurotic, impossible-to-achieve side to it.
Unfortunately for me, I grew up understanding that the ultimate goal in life is to have everything work out perfectly, and that I was supposed to be perfect.
I can’t pinpoint it on one thing, but like all the weird psychological quirks people find themselves questioning as they become aware of them at some point in adulthood, I’ve figured out that I developed this type of mindset from a combination of experiences and interpretations I made when I was younger.
I’m a Gen Yer, so my parents and teachers and the media have bombarded me with messages to strive to do pretty much everything perfectly — get the best grades, wear braces for four years to have straighter teeth, practice piano religiously and do the conservatory exams, get that lifeguard job so I can make more money than my friends, hang out with friends regularly to be sociable, go to university to have a bachelor’s degree under my belt, get a prestigious job that pays boatloads of money, etc., etc.
There’s nothing ultimately wrong with growing up like this, and I bet anyone who grew up with loving, caring parents can relate.
Pop culture and objective societal values were at the other end of the equation, moulding my opinions of lifestyle goals that line up with what everyone else thinks is important and highly desirable.
Being fat is bad, having a lot of money is good, fame is what everyone should want, donating to charity means you’re selfless, being in a relationship mean you’re happy, and death is coming and it’s terrifying.
Are you nodding your head through this as you read on?
If you are, good — you’re normal.
This is why you are the way that you are.
Everyone takes in messages from the outside world and makes decisions to form beliefs about what they mean, only after being hugely influenced by what everyone else thinks about them first.
I used a photo of Barbie for this blog post because as strange as it sounds, she was one of my personal influencers of perfectionism (along with many other seemingly perfect women I looked up to when I was a lot younger, like all of the Spice Girls, Gwen Stefani, every female protagonist in my teen fiction books and the character Elle Woods from the movie Legally Blonde).
I also chose Barbie because it emphasizes the impossible truth of perfectionism.
Barbie never even existed as a real person, yet she’s still regarded as one of the most influential people ever.
She’s 100 percent imaginary, yet she was every little girl’s idol (at least for my generation she was).
I liked her because she was ridiculously pretty, ridiculously thin, ridiculously fashionable, and was successful at every job in the world.
I was like 5 or 6 years old when I started thinking and believing in these delusional thoughts.
In a way, that’s fine — kids are allowed to be delusional, because they haven’t learned much about life yet and their brains are still growing.
The real problem surfaces later in life when those experiences and interpretations start affecting you as an adult.
See my post about how your subconscious mind drowns you for more on this topic.
The beliefs you develop when you’re young about what’s acceptable and desirable and expected of you is what shapes your perfectionist mindset and makes you paint pictures in your head about all these ideas that aren’t even real.
Not only do these fake ideas keep you from moving forward but they also steal away the happiness you so deserve to experience every single day of your life.
I kind of came to a wild realization recently about this.
Giving in to perfectionism (by letting fear stop you or by beating yourself up over less than perfect results) is an egotistical act and a disservice to your highest self.
I haven’t written about this “highest self” concept yet in any of my blog posts, mainly because I’m still learning about what it is and I don’t want to come off as sounding too impractical and weird, but I think it’s appropriate in this case.
Your highest self is your real inner self — the spirit inside you (or God’s work on you if you interpret it that way) that’s responsible for your authenticity and those genuine interests in life you’re so passionate about, free from self-oppression and the pressure to conform to objective societal expectations.
It takes a high level of awareness to get there (let alone stay there), and the people who go about their everyday lives obsessing over trivial things like rush hour traffic and spilled coffee and fear of weighing in after a carb binge are the ones who’re living on much lower levels of consciousness.
Perfectionism blocks your ability to crank up your level of consciousness needed to dig deep into yourself and find what your highest self really wants, so you can go ahead and pursue it.
Perfectionism is a symptom of having a huge ego, but most people don’t see it that way because the idea of an egotistical person paints a mental image of some kind of self-absorbed narcissist — and obviously none of us see ourselves like that.
Your ego is your sense of self apart from everyone else — your self-image, your self-importance, your self-esteem, your emotions, your skills, and all of your experiences.
You’ve already done lots of things today to protect, support, and grow your ego.
We all have egos, because we’re all human.
Fear, shame, and self-criticism boil up when your ego is big and you feel like you can’t risk its safety.
Ego and the higher self are two topics that are really fascinating to study, and yet not many people do, so I plan to write more about them as I keep studying them.
But now that I’ve written over 1,100 words and haven’t even begun to explore how you can break free from perfectionism, I’m going to say something that you probably don’t want to hear.
If you truly do want to break free from your perfectionist mindset, you have to reverse your beliefs by learning how to embrace hardship and failure.
From what I understand, changing your beliefs is one of the hardest things to do.
And it makes sense.
Sometimes you know something is right, but your mind just doesn’t believe it yet, because it still clings to the beliefs you’ve known your whole life.
There’s likely a lot more to it than what I’m going to outline in the rest of this blog post, but if there’s anything I can at least hope to offer you, it’s a stepping stone system to freeing yourself from the debilitating effects of perfectionism.
This is the stuff that’s been working really well for me, and believe me — I’ve been paralyzed by my own perfectionist mindset in many instances and almost all areas of my life, so this is not some self help bullshit I just Googled and decided to regurgitate.
1. Start studying the life stories of people you admire who failed their way to success.
This is a nice, soft technique to start easing yourself into a harsher reality and shifting your mind to be okay with it.
I recommend picking up a few books on some of the greats, like Oprah Winfrey, Arianna Huffington, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Albert Einstein and any other successful person you look up to.
Even if someone famous you really admire isn’t typically known for failing much, you can still find a lot of inspiration in the struggles they went through.
I randomly decided to read the biography of Red Hot Chilli Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis a few years ago, and even though I have pretty much nothing in common with him, I was blown away by his story of drug addiction and can still hardly believe he’s alive today.
Consider it to be similar to studying for a test, except this is a test of reality.
You read the textbook, then you try to solve the problems for yourself.
2. Start failing more just as an experiment to see what happens.
Here’s the part where you take what you learned from your teachers and your books, and you put it into practice.
Without a doubt, this is the hard part.
Nobody like to anticipate that they’re going to make mistakes, or get rejected, or totally fail, but it’s a form of mentality you can teach yourself if you do it right.
Now, when I say “start failing more” I don’t mean deliberately sabotage yourself.
I mean take action, and be okay with seeing what will happen — mistakes and failures and all.
Treat it as if you were a curious and objective scientist conducting an experiment.
Hopefully all those biographies you read will have conditioned your mind a bit into realizing that the risk of failure is worth achieving your what you want.
3. Look for the positive in every failure.
Here’s the cherry on top of the icing, on top of the cupcake.
You MUST find a helpful lesson in every mistake or failure you experience.
If you don’t think you can do that, you’re wrong — that’s just your stubborn brain clinging to old beliefs that aren’t even real and taking the easy way out.
I know it, because I used to be the most pessimistic person in the world and I was used to treating myself as a victim.
I remember when I was 16, my mom forced me to take the National Lifeguard Service course so I could get a job as a lifeguard and be just like her when she was a teenager.
I loved swimming, but I despised anything to do with first aid and saving people, which is why I ended up failing the course because I just had no desire to make myself care or react fast enough to the lifesaving skits during our test.
I had a total meltdown in front of the instructor when she failed me, which was so not like me given how shy and reserved I’ve always been, and then I had another one that lasted all night at home.
I didn’t even want to be lifeguard, but I was a perfectionist with a big, dumb teenage ego and no idea of what my authentic self really wanted, so I let myself feel like the lowest scum of the earth and beat myself up really badly for it.
That was almost 13 years ago, and even though I redid the course and passed the second time, there were several positive things I got out of failing that stupid course the first time.
For one, I ended up figuring out that lifeguarding was so not for me, and got a part-time job at a home decorative retail store instead where made a lot of friends and a ton of great memories.
Even when life seems like it couldn’t get any worse, there’s always something good you can decipher from it.
Sometimes it does take years to realize it, though.
As harsh as it sounds, perfectionism is really just an obsession with fairy tale endings.
Life is hard.
Perfectionism makes it a thousand times harder.
That’s why I think it’s worth understanding it better, figuring out which of your own subconscious beliefs it stems from, and putting techniques into practice that help minimize it.
My hair is a disaster right now and I’m kind of behind schedule on some things I wanted to do, but I don’t care because I just pumped out an awesome 2,000-word blog post.
May all your failures be interpreted as positive, and your goals be within reach.
Photo via Unsplash.com
- 30 glorious snippets of wisdom worth knowing by the time you’re 30 (or any age, really) - December 31, 2016
- The divided self: Why we care way too much about what other people think - August 14, 2016
- What everyone gets wrong about “being authentic” - July 3, 2016
- 7 eye-opening ways to forget about your goals so you can let happiness flow - June 20, 2016
- Why you won’t do all the things you want to do this summer - June 13, 2016
- 50 everyday things you can give up to make time for more important stuff - April 30, 2016
- How to go from waking up miserable to exhilarated every morning - April 18, 2016
- How to align your mind to get exactly what you want - April 3, 2016
- Why we’re so bad at sticking to good habits (and what to do about it) - March 19, 2016
- 6 useful tips for dealing with an all-around bad day - June 30, 2015