Perfectionism & the Search for Happiness.
Originally published in Elephant Journal | April 12, 2016
Do you constantly expect too much of yourself and everyone around you?
Do you feel not quite good enough, good looking enough, or successful enough on a daily basis?
Do you always carry the fear of being judged?
I am a recovering perfectionist too, so I understand. For perfectionists, there are false summits everywhere and disappointments around every corner. Your partner will never get it right and you will never be fully understood or appreciated. Even as I write this, my fear of judgment comes to the surface. I start to notice myself thinking, “What if this blog just sucks? What if people don’t like it or resonate with it? What if it doesn’t accurately reflect my knowledge or actually help anyone?” Once I notice those voices, I realize my perfectionist persona is still a part of me and needs to be kept in check, gently.
At its best, perfectionism will keep you less than content for the rest of your life, and at its worst it can lead to major depression and eating disorders. It isn’t your fault. We fall prey to perfectionism all too easily in this culture. Expectations are too high from day one and consumerism demands it. We do need to take control back, however, and learn to lead perfectly imperfect lives that actually represent the infinite capacity we all have.
My new favorite movie is one called Hector and the Search for Happiness. I highly recommend watching it if you haven’t. In this movie, Hector (a psychiatrist) decides to travel around the world researching what makes people happy. He does this because he has become unhappy himself and is starting to see his unhappiness reflected everywhere around him. On his journey he identifies 15 key components to happiness, and the first one is: “Making comparisons can spoil your happiness.” Making comparisons is perfectionism’s fertilizer; it is how it thrives and grows, through our constant scrutiny. If we are constantly comparing ourselves to others, our relationships to others, our houses to others, our income to others—how could we ever be content?
In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert dives into the topic of perfectionism as well, and points out that “the most evil trick of perfectionism is that it disguises itself as a virtue.” Many people run around thinking that their perfectionism is a special talent or skill that makes them more effective in life. Look at how good I am at this! See? “They wear their perfectionism like a badge of honor, as if it signals high tastes and exquisite standards.”
The problem, one that many psychologists and Elizabeth Gilbert agree upon, is that underneath the veneer of perfectionism is actually an incredible amount of fear and insecurity. Perfectionism is actually the constant and painful core belief that: “I am not good enough and will never be good enough.”
Working through this core belief is more difficult than just saying, “Okay, I guess I won’t do that anymore. Silly me, comparing myself to others!” I wish it were that easy; it would have saved me many years of trial and tribulation as well. But having a core belief of “not good enough” usually starts at a very early age and needs some deep care and attention to grow beyond, many times needing the support of a trained psychotherapist to do so. These types of insecurities will wreak havoc on your social life, relationships, marriages, work life, and so on.
Many people wonder what the difference is between setting goals, having healthy expectations, and being a perfectionist. The differences will become clearer once you start attending to the perfectionism. You don’t have to give up your inspirations, motivations, and standards when you give up your perfectionism. As a matter of fact, your magic and success in life will exponentially increase as your perfectionism decreases, because it means there is more room for the real you to emerge.
Some ways to start healing your perfectionist tendencies:
1) Start noticing when it’s happening.
Perfectionism is so sneaky that many times we don’t even notice when we are in its grip. Pay closer attention and see if you can notice patterns emerge. Do you have to spend excess time in the morning getting ready or picking out the right outfit all of the time? Do you have slightly OCD tendencies that revolve mostly around appearances? This is about increasing mindfulness of your subtle patterns and how they play out day-to-day.
2) Make mistakes once in a while—on purpose!
Do you ever send an email without checking and re-checking the grammar? Try it with an email to someone close to you for starters, and just let it be. It is okay if the comma isn’t there, or if it’s in the wrong place! See if there are other areas that you can do it too. You don’t always have to be the A+ student.
3) Realize your perfectionism is the opposite of your happiness.
Start to notice the moments when you are truly happy, deep-down-no-bullsh*t happy. What are you doing? I bet you are not in the middle of a perfectionism fit. I bet you are lost in the moment, fully engaged in what you are doing, and seeing beyond your limiting beliefs.
4) Give yourself little tests everyday.
When I was younger I realized that my perfectionism was expressing itself in little neurotic ways. The presentation of my bedroom had to be a certain way, because that reflected who I was, right? So, if my room looked good, I was good; I was good enough. I forced myself to start little tests to loosen the grip. I would leave my room without making my bed. I would leave some dishes in the sink, dirty! I would let the picture on my wall hang at an odd angle. Just because these things were happening, didn’t mean I was wrong, or bad.
(And don’t worry, if you want to keep some of those personality traits of “having your sh*t together,” you can bring them back once you have increased awareness and you can discern the healthy differences.)
5) Get some support.
Whether it’s your partner, your best friend, your parents, a support group, or a therapist, find a place where you can start to talk about this and get some help. It isn’t easy fighting the perfectionism fight alone, and it is very vulnerable. It will help if you can start sharing your beauty and vulnerability with someone close to you to help you shift the “not good enough” message. There is a difference between needy and vulnerable, and discernment between the two is very important.
6) Be gentle with yourself.
If the core belief behind perfectionism is “I’m not good enough,” we need to be gentle with ourselves when we start battling our perfectionism. It is easy to start beating ourselves up when we notice the patterns emerge that are no longer serving us. What we need is to be more kind to ourselves—to heal that wound, letting ourselves know we are loved and safe and wanted.
7) Find a supportive mantra.
When I started noticing my harsh, perfectionistic mantras, such as, “You are not good enough,” “You need to do better,” and, “Why are you so ineffective with your time?” I realized I needed a healing mantra. Find one that works for you when you notice your internal judgments emerge. Ones I have used before are: “I am more than enough,” “Perfectly Imperfect,” “Om Mani Padme Hum” (the Tibetan Buddhist mantra for compassion), and “Lightness and Love.”
8) Notice the little things.
Perfectionism is like having blinders on and we lose greater awareness, sensitivity, and objectivity. Try to slow down and notice the little things that make you happy. On my walk this morning I found myself thinking ahead about all of the things I needed to do and started judging myself for my lack of productivity. I noticed the thoughts, laughed a little with my awareness, and then took time to feel the sun on my face, see how beautifully blue the sky was, and appreciate the time I had to be outside and take care of myself.
This path beyond perfectionism can be a challenging one, but it is well worth the work. The world beyond perfectionism is actually filled with ease, love, and lots of self-nurturing.
To learn more about your personal flavor of perfectionism, you can check out this perfectionism test on Psychology Today.