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The Tyranny of Perfection

The pursuit of perfection contributes to heightened anxiety, stress, depression, and diminished self esteem. At the same time we cheat ourselves out of the potential joy and satisfaction that could be gleaned from what we do accomplish.
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Hand writing Excellence with blue marker on transparent wipe board.
Hand writing Excellence with blue marker on transparent wipe board.

It was my father's 75th birthday. The invitation read "A Celebration for The King of Hearts." This was to be my mother's rendition of a lifetime achievement award for the rainmaker, the man who made something from nothing, the tour de force that was my father. Extended family and friends came from around the country to partake in this glamorous event. My contribution was to read a poem, a tribute I had painstakingly written--spending hours to ensure I would nail this homage. As I sashayed to the mic in a gossamer red silk swirly gown and never- to-be-worn-again stilettos, I stumbled. Nose plant. Torso flat on the thankfully thick aubergine carpet. A long silent pause followed with the exception of a single cackle from somewhere off in the distance. With as much dignity as I could muster I picked myself up--seconds lasting an eternity. Mortified and ego bruised, I carried on.

Courage and Vulnerability

Our lives are not a measure of our ability to be perfect. In fact some of our most meaningful contributions involve simply showing up and trying our best. It is an act of courage to allow for the vulnerability that goes with engagement. It sucks when we fail or make a fool of ourselves--but even worse is being unwilling to step up to the mic and share in each others lives.

If we strive for perfection in any aspect of life-we invariably set ourselves up for failure. Sometimes it's beguiling to pursue the illusion of perfection--whether it pertains to tributes, our bodies, beauty, work, parenting...That quest can easily paralyze us from taking action.

Aiming for perfect takes us further away from the fulfillment that we seek since nothing ever measures up to this impossible standard. The pursuit of perfection contributes to heightened anxiety, stress, depression, and diminished self esteem. At the same time we cheat ourselves out of the potential joy and satisfaction that could be gleaned from what we do accomplish.

Did I Make a Difference?

We're all familiar with the experience of shame, fear, and self-doubt--and none of us like having these feelings. Sometimes we choose to retreat and avoid taking risks even though our actions could make a difference or serve the greater good. It's easier to be safe and comfortable--but at what cost?

The bigger questions we need to ask are: "Did I make a difference?" "Did I move the needle forward?" "Am I serving a higher good?"

When viewed in this context we are more likely to experience delight and satisfaction in our accomplishments.

Here are six strategies to help you cut loose from the tyranny of perfection and discover greater happiness in your day to day life.

1. Self-Compassion

Be kind to yourself. This doesn't mean that you settle for mediocrity or that you don't examine the mistakes and problems of a given situation. You look at these things honestly and with compassion and an eye toward making it better going forward. Talk to yourself as you would a dear friend or as if you were mentoring your younger self.

2. Challenge Your Thoughts

Ask yourself, Is what I'm saying to myself true? Am I being helpful by saying these things to myself? Am I being fair to say these things? Would anyone else give me this feedback? Are you your harshest critic?

Focusing on flaws and coming down on yourself for small failures--allows negative thoughts to grow stronger in your mind. Mistakes will happen both when you're in growth mode attempting a novel task or when doing something routine. We are human and we will err. How we treat the failures determines whether we simply shut down or choose to persevere.

3. Reframe Your Thoughts

Reframe your thoughts, with more constructive and realistic ones. This can be highly motivating rather than stressful or diminishing of your self-esteem. For example telling yourself that you can and will do better next time is uplifting rather than detracting. Visualize yourself doing your best in every situation and then be willing to accept the outcome.

When negative thoughts roll in--catch them and reframe. With practice, you'll become more quickly aware when you're saying the negative comments. Then swiftly reframe wth a positive statement until this behavior becomes automatic. Some ideas about what to say to get you started:"I'm okay." "I did my best. Next time will be better." "I love myself unconditionally." Say whatever is meaningful to you--just keep it positive, constructive and real.

4. Ride the Wave of Emotion

Feeling shame, guilt, vulnerable, angry, or sad when you make a mistake, or feel you didn't perform at your best, is normal. Only when it becomes excessive is it a problem. Emotions come and go based on our experiences, thoughts, and behaviors. When you know that each thought or feeling that you have comes and goes like waves, then you are poised to "ride the wave" and normalize any feeling state as it arises. If an action needs to be taken to correct a problem then do what needs to be done. If not, take some deep breaths and know that no feeling state is here to stay. It will subside--whatever it is...

5. Celebrate your Successes

We are so quick to come down on ourselves when we fall short or perform poorly--yet when we do something well where is the payoff? We have to train our brains to savor the wins and joys in our everyday life. With practice, by holding a positive thought in mind for 10-20 seconds we can build the capacity for happiness.

6. Practice Gratitude

What I have repeatedly seen in my office over the years is that patients who pursue perfection struggle with bouts of anxiety and depression--because as we discussed they seek the unattainable. Building your gratitude quotient is one of the best antidotes for depression and anxiety and it is another sure fire way to ramp up happiness.

By writing down 3-5 experiences for which you are grateful in a journal and on a nightly basis you can grow your capacity for gratitude. The journal entries can be in list format and can be simple observations taken from your day: a good cup of coffee, a heart-to-heart conversation, a brisk walk, a deep sleep. In time you'll become more sensitized to other positive experiences. The object here is to notice good, even wonderful experiences as you move through your day--without going after the illusion of perfection.

After my tribute I thanked the silent audience and caught a sweet twinkle of appreciation in my father's teary eyes. As I cautiously walked back to my seat came an unexpected roar of applauds. Showing up, doing my best and exposing my vulnerability resonated with everyone. In the end we all know that life is messy and imperfect. What we really crave is connection and authenticity and that beats perfection hands down.