“Striving for excellence motivates you, striving for perfection is demoralizing.” ~Harriet Braiker
The last three months I’ve been trying an experiment. It’s something that I’ve never done before, and in a certain way, it’s been a huge challenge. However, in other ways, it’s been an enormous stress relief, and I would say a largely successful effort.
What I’ve done seems to go against conventional wisdom, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a wise choice.
So what exactly is this challenge? Well, I have actively gone out of my way to be average.
Yep, sounds a little weird, doesn’t it? But hear me out.
Over the past year, I’ve become more aware than ever of how much unconscious stress I put on myself to be above average. I’ve always known I have a type-A personality, but I didn’t know to what extent this was doing me harm. A large part of this realization came from journaling my dreams and discussing them with a psychotherapist, and another part came about through a mindfulness practice.
So for six months, whenever I felt like relaxing, and the little voice in my head would pop up and tell me I could be doing more in this moment, I would ignore it. I would decide to watch that extra episode on Netflix. I would choose to sleep in the extra fifteen minutes. I would leave the little bit of extra work until tomorrow.
What came out of this was unexpected. The more I ignored the voice, the more loud and aggressive it became.
Coming into contact with this part of myself ultimately did three things.
Firstly, it showed me that I had an issue with perfectionism that I wasn’t entirely aware of. Secondly, it showed me just how tricky and persuasive the little voice of perfectionism could be. And finally, and most importantly, it taught me how overcoming that perfectionist tendency could lead to less stress, more productivity, and greater well-being.
So, the moment of truth. How do you know you’re a perfectionist?
- You often feel weighed down by fear of your goals not succeeding
- You’re constantly looking for the ‘right’ moment to do something
- You have a persistent sense of dissatisfaction with what you’ve achieved
- You obsess over small mistakes that have little impact on the big picture
- You neglect self-care in favor of achievements
I came up with five psychological strategies to overcome this perfectionism. This has allowed me to take steps toward accepting the average parts of myself, and it’s helped me let go of a shocking amount of hidden stress.
I’ve decided to share these steps with you here so you can begin to accept who and where you are, and enjoy the journey a little more.
1. Rethink what it means to be average.
In our society, we often consider anything less than greatness to be failure. That’s not an exaggeration; it’s just the reality of our skewed notions of achievement that have failed to account for larger and more interconnected societies in which it’s increasingly difficult to stand out.
When we hear the terms “average” or “mediocre” we consider them dirty words, although they’re supposed to denote the middle of the pack. If you are average at something, that shouldn’t have any correlation whatsoever to your self-worth. Most people are average at most things for most of their lives. Does that mean that most people should feel bad about themselves?
Accepting the ways in which you are average doesn’t mean you can’t strive to achieve greatness in some areas of your life. All it means is that the desire to excel doesn’t need to be driven by the feeling that you are incomplete. It can be out of the love of competing with your past self, the need to serve your community, or even just the enjoyment of a challenge in the present moment.
2. Challenge the all-or-nothing fallacy.
Perfectionism is a direct result of the all-or-nothing fallacy, also known as black-and-white thinking. When we believe that our value is completely tied to our achievements, for example, we cannot help but obsessively strive to do everything the right way, because any mistake would undermine our entire self-worth.
We can also see this when we look for the one perfect moment to get started on something, when we put all our efforts into one project and neglect our health, and most toxically, when we try to evaluate our life against the over-generalized boxes of success or failure.
When you see this type of thinking emerge in your psyche, challenge it, and replace it with more nuanced explanations.
For example, I used to believe that I was either being productive or lazy. When I was being productive I wasn’t being lazy, and when I wasn’t being productive I was being lazy. I’ve started to challenge that idea with the more nuanced explanation that breaks are sometimes lazy and sometimes productive; they serve many purposes. They can be reinvigorating, rewarding, and sometimes need no justification.
3. Become friends with what you don’t know.
Another key trait of perfectionism that I saw in myself is a strong desire to control outcomes. We have this tendency partly because we have a heightened fear of things not going the way we want or expect.
In part, this is because perfectionism creates stress, and when we are stressed we start to become more susceptible to cognitive biases. For example, we may believe that if things don’t go the way we anticipate, everything will fall apart, we will lose out on opportunities, or we will be criticized by others.
One way we can counteract this attitude is by becoming more comfortable with the unknown. You can only ever influence a certain amount of any situation you’re in, whether that’s work, money, or relationships.
I have become more comfortable with the unknown by journaling about my fears over time. By seeking out counterexamples of when your fears haven’t been true (and they often aren’t), you can see how worries about the future are exaggerated by the brain, and you can start to gain more control over your emotions.
It may also help to practice setting a wide range of goals, with varied levels of difficulty. Meeting the easier goals should fulfill your need to be in control and achieve, and working toward the more difficult goals will simply be a challenge to be creative, go above and beyond, and enjoy the uncertainty of things that are out of your control.
4. Become friends with what you don’t love.
Likewise, perfectionism is largely tied to the relationship you have with what you don’t accept about yourself.
You probably know that acceptance is at the root of love. It’s therefore not surprising that people often advise you to love yourself when you’re dealing with internal conflict. Well, it sounds simple, but it’s never that easy, unfortunately. So I’m going to propose something more manageable: become friends with what you don’t love.
If there are parts of yourself or your experience that you can’t accept or bring yourself to love, just befriend them. Ask what purpose the things you don’t like serve; become familiar with them the way you would a friend.
Ease into the changing relationship you have with these harder-to-accept parts of yourself, and over time you’ll see a shift in your perspective that calms your anxiety around them.
For example, I used to have an antagonistic relationship with my anxiety. The fact that I wasn’t always cool, calm, and collected, was something I found hard to accept, and it created internal conflict and (obviously) more anxiety. When I was able to see that anxiety was just a part of my brain was trying to help me, I was able to accept it. And over time I even started to appreciate this quirky part of myself.
5. Reassess how you measure your success.
If your perfectionism is driven by the belief that you’re not successful enough, then it’s not necessarily you that needs to change. It could be that the way you’re measuring success needs to be reassessed.
For example, it’s common that we compare ourselves to others, and while we’re often told to focus on ourselves, making social comparisons in specific situations—such as workplace evaluations or in competitive sports—does have some (albeit limited) utility. If we didn’t make these comparisons, it would be difficult to see how we were improving and in what roles we could most help the group.
When you start to generalize this idea to the rest of your life, however, that’s when it becomes a problem. If you start to tell yourself that so-and-so’s life is better than yours or that he or she is more successful than you, that’s almost always a generalization. What makes a life better? What does success mean? Are we talking about financial achievements? Free time? Deep relationships? Take a closer look at how success could be more effectively defined in your life.
My own definition of success used to be based on how well I compared to people in my life in standardized measures (money, relationships, novel experiences etc.) Now I see success as how well I’m able to find meaning in the present moment, stay motivated for the future, and spend my time working on something that helps me, the people I love, and the rest of the world.
All of the elements of my definition may not be relevant to anyone else, but because they are more fluid and flexible, and can grow with my personality, they prevent me from falling into the habit of perfectionism.
To bring this all full circle, consider this: You can be average in one area and successful in another. This doesn’t mean you don’t have value, are not worthy or love or respect, and don’t deserve some down time every once in a while.
Being average is normal, and it’s not an indicator of worth. You have inherent value just as you are. And if you should want to obsess about a project or be a little bit of a perfectionist every now and then, that’s fine. But be driven by the love of the creative process itself, not the anxiety that you can never do enough.
What experience have you had with perfectionism? Have you used any of these strategies to find more peace of mind? Let us know in the comments—we’d love to hear from you!
About Benjamin Fishel
Ben Fishel is a transpersonal psychotherapist. He has a background in neuroscience, counseling and existential psychotherapy and is on a mission to help people improve their mental health with cognitive science and spirituality. Ben offers online therapy worldwide (with the exception of Canada & the U.S.). You can book a FREE 15-minute call to see if you’d like to work with him—and don’t forget to follow him on Facebook for more of his essays.