Are you a perfectionist? Do you always feel like everything has to be perfect and flawless? If you’re not sure, here are some examples that might resonate with you.
- If you make any mistakes, you feel terrible. Like a failure, or you feel guilty for making mistakes. Maybe you focus on the mistakes instead of the things that were done well.
- You’re afraid of not reaching your goals, and perhaps you procrastinate as a way to avoid tasks for fear of failure
- Sometimes you focus so much on the goal/destination, you forget to think about the journey and your progress
- You are afraid to fail, sometimes so much so that you won’t even try
- You crave approval from others and have a hard time with critical feedback
- You’re really hard on yourself
- You spend way too long on small tasks that should be quick (like writing a short email)
If any of these are familiar to you, you may be struggling with perfectionism.
You may even have told yourself to remember: progress over perfection.
I’ve told myself this many times. But it doesn’t always work. And I think it’s because when you’re trying to be perfect, nothing else will do.
Do we need to be perfect?
Or Is being good enough, sometimes, good enough?
Parenting is one of the main times we feel the need to be perfect. We’re bombarded with messages about the ‘perfect’ way to raise our kids. How to feed them, how to manage their emotions, how to make sure they’re in the right programs and have the best schedule.
We know it’s a fallacy. We know we can’t be perfect, but we try. And when we can’t meet our own expectations or those of others, we feel like we’re failing.
I came across a concept called Good Enough Parenting. It dispels the ‘perfect parent’ myth and argues that it’s OK to make mistakes and to have realistic expectations of our parenting abilities. The idea resonates with me, and many parents, because it takes the pressure off of feeling the need to always do everything, well, perfectly. Because we aren’t perfect parents, and I know we’re not perfect people.
Of course we want to be the best parent possible, and we want our kids to have the most wonderful childhood. But the idea of perfection in parenting is unrealistic. Because we’re human, and real life happens.
And honestly, what does being the perfect parent even mean? Does it mean that I’ll protect my children from every bad experience out there? I couldn’t do that, and even if I could, then they wouldn’t learn how to be resilient and handle situations on their own. Does it mean that I’ll always stay calm and emotionally regulated? Well then they’d never learn how to regulate their own emotions.
The idea of being good enough really is to drop the expectation that we’ll be perfect parents, or that our children will be perfect people. Because if we believe that problems should not occur, mistakes should not happen, then it follows that it’s someone’s fault if they do.
This way, instead of blaming or feeling guilty when life happens, as it always does in an imperfect world, we aim to solve the problem, manage the challenge, process the emotion, support the effort, console in a struggle.
So if we get on board with knowing and believing that perfection in parenting isn’t realistic or even desirable, and if I accept that some days will be great and some days will be good enough.
Can this concept of being “good enough” be applied to other aspects of life?
In this podcast episode, we talk to two guests about their experiences not just with trying to be good enough parents, but also trying to be good enough people.
Sometimes we feel like perfection is expected of us by society, on social media, by our boss or our family. And sometimes we put it on ourselves. Perhaps out of fear of judgment or embarrassment. Or if you’re a growth minded person, achievement oriented, if you want to give back to the world, if you have big dreams of accomplishing great things, it’s very likely that you also feel the need to perform at your best, to be the best, sometimes even at the expense of yourself.
Logically we can all understand this. We know that we can’t be any good to anyone if we’re not taking care of ourselves. We know we can’t be perfect in any role.
And I probably know that even at work, it’s unrealistic to expect perfection. But I do.
Sometimes it’s OK. And at some point we need to be brave and subscribe to being good enough, because otherwise we’d never get anything done, and we’d certainly not have the opportunity to learn and get better.
But in other instances, like when I was working with a patient, it was really hard to accept anything less than perfect. I gave everything to each patient and tried really hard to show up not just as my best, but as perfect as possible.
As the patient, we want our doctors and surgeons to be the best right? We’re looking up their 5 star reviews!
The reality is, even surgeons can’t be perfect, no matter how hard they try. At some point they were good enough, or something goes differently that day and things just happen.
What is perfectionism?
Experts tend to define perfectionism as “a combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluations.”
There are different aspects to perfectionism.
- Expecting yourself to be perfect
- “self-oriented perfectionism” — which occurs when “individuals attach irrational importance to being perfect, hold unrealistic expectations of themselves, and are punitive in their self-evaluations”
- Expecting others to be perfect
- “Other-oriented perfectionism” beliefs that it is important for others to strive for perfection and be perfect. Other-oriented perfectionists expect others to be perfect, and are highly critical of others who fail to meet these expectations
- Thinking others expect you to be perfect
- Socially prescribed perfectionism”- individuals believe their social context is excessively demanding, that others judge them harshly, and that they must display perfection to secure approval.
Perfectionistic tendencies have been linked in research to a long list of clinical issues: depression and anxiety (even in children), self-harm, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, insomnia,
When we think of perfectionism, we tend to think mostly about the ‘excessively high personal standards” part. If you’re in a job interview and they ask you, what’s your biggest weakness, “Well, I’m a bit of a perfectionist.”
We don’t tend to think of the other side of perfectionism, overly critical self-evaluations.
It’s a good thing to want to excel, and perform and reach your goals, whatever they might be. But perfectionism isn’t defined by having high standards. It’s defined by having a critical voice. Perfectionism isn’t a behaviour. It’s a way of thinking about yourself.
In fact, if you’re a perfectionist, you’re actually LESS likely to excel. Because perfectionists are often falling short of expectations, they also experience more guilt, more shame, and more anger. It’s more likely for a perfectionist to avoid situations and challenges, they’re more likely to have poor coping strategies when things go wrong and they give up more easily.
So if we want to try our best, be our best, how do we manage, while still understanding that sometimes we can be good enough, without being perfect?
How to stop being a perfectionist?
I think the answer is self-compassion. What if we’re always striving for better, whatever that looks like for us (maybe better in a new career, or better at taking care of ourselves), what if we’re always striving for better but give ourselves self compassion if we fall short?
I know that if a friend made a mistake, or wasn’t perfect, I would be much more compassionate, supportive and understanding of their humanity than I would of my own. What do they say, “we’re our own worst critics?”. What if we could instead, be “our own best friend?”
It sounds easy right? Just be kind to ourselves, be compassionate towards yourself, the way you would to your best friend.
Of course it’s not easy.
How to move towards self-compassion
Think about what you value in life, responsibility, openness, and respect. Perhaps you value performance, or hard work, discipline, leadership.
In the long run, our subjective perceptions and self-criticism of whether we live up to these values have an impact on our self-worth. And that determines whether the voices in our heads are kind and supportive or destructive and devaluing.
Unfortunately, what we think of ourselves also influences how we behave. That often means we live out a self-fulfilling prophecy, never measuring up to being good enough.
I’m not saying we need to change our values, on the contrary, your values are integral to who you are. But we change the impact those expectations have on us.
Let’s say you value working hard. And you needed to take some time off. Self-criticism is feeling like you’re not good enough because you took time off. Self-Compassion means offering patience, kindness, and nonjudgmental understanding to yourself knowing that taking time off doesn’t mean you’re not a hard worker.
It’s about realizing that we can’t function at 100% every day. Some days will be 70%, or 40% or even 0%. And if those 40% days or 0% days add up, we need to ask for help. We need to have a plan to get back up. We need to help ourselves with self care, or accountability to a support group or a spouse or a therapist or someone you trust.
Kristin Neff, researcher and author, talks about self-compassion as a practice of goodwill, not good feelings… With self-compassion we mindfully accept that the moment is perhaps painful, and embrace ourselves with kindness and care in response, remembering that imperfection is part of the shared human experience.
- One strategy is acknowledging your emotion. When you catch yourself thinking a negative thought like “I’m such a horrible person for getting upset”, try acknowledging the feeling “It’s okay that I felt upset”.
- Another strategy is to disconnect our shortcomings from our self-worth. Our mistakes, our shortcomings are not a definition of who we are as people. If you dropped the ball at work on a project, that doesn’t make you a bad employee, or a bad person.
- And the third strategy I’ll talk about here is to let go of labels and judgment. It’s easy to assume things like “I’m a fast talker. I talk too fast in presentations”, which sometimes precludes the possibility that you’ll act a different way. This is once again about treating yourself as you would others, and just a future-focused way to give yourself the benefit of the doubt.
If we’re practicing self-compassion, could we be at risk for becoming complacent?
So if we’re not able to be perfect, but we want to strive to be our best and at the same time, not get complacent. When do we push harder, and when do we settle for good enough. When do we stop and rest and when do we pick ourselves up and keep going?
I thought a lot about this, because this is one of my values, personal growth. I don’t feel satisfied with ‘good enough’ if I’m not learning and growing and improving.
What I realized is that it comes down to how we define self-compassion. And how we contextualize why we need it.
If we think of self compassion as being kind and understanding to ourselves. You’re not ruthlessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies and mistakes.
Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter problems, you will lose once in a while, you will make mistakes, reach your limitations, fall short of your ideals.
And if you think about caring about yourself, you want to change and grow and improve in ways that allow you to be more healthy and happy. To have better relationships and more fulfillment. You strive for these things not because you’re not good enough but because you want to support yourself in a caring and loving way.
So if you contextualize why you need compassion on a long day when you’re supposed to exercise and instead you decide not to, if it’s because you need the rest to function and you’re taking care of your needs – whether physical or emotional, then it’s compassion. If it’s because you’re giving yourself an excuse then perhaps it’s more like self-indulgence, which I think can lead to complacency.
Remember that being compassionate to yourself means that you want to be happy and healthy (physically and mentally) in the long term. In many cases, we can confuse compassion by thinking that giving ourselves comfort may harm well-being (such as eating junk food, sitting around on the sofa). But giving yourself health and lasting happiness often involves a certain amount of effort (such as exercising, cooking healthy meals, managing stress).
“I’m stressed out today so to be kind to myself I’ll just watch TV all day and eat a quart of ice cream.” is not self-compassion, it’s self-indulgence.
And while we all self-indulge sometimes (cookies are a particular weakness for me), we need to just be aware of the difference.
What I’ve learned is if we’re living life fully – whatever that looks like for you – whether that means that you’re accomplishing something, learning something, taking time to recover or for self care – if you’re living life fully, and offering yourself self-compassion along the way, then that’s good enough.
Because self compassion is being your own best friend. The one who offers you a hug when you need it or a shoulder to lean on. The one who also signs you up for a 10 K run and supports you while you’re training and high fives you when you cross the finish line. The one who calls you out when you’re self sabotaging and bigs you up when you’ve had the courage to face something head on.
We shouldn’t strive for perfect because instead of making us better, it will actually hold us back.
Maybe the conclusion here is not that we’re aiming to be good enough. But instead that we accept ourselves, flaws and all. And we support ourselves in striving to be our best, recognizing that we’ll make mistakes along the way.
And what about not getting complacent? Well, it turns out that self-compassionate people actually have more intrinsic motivation in life — trying hard because they want to learn and grow, not because they need to impress themselves or others. Self-compassionate people are more likely to acknowledge their past mistakes or limitations or shortcomings or circumstances with emotional stability, while also taking responsibility for them and moving forward in a more effective way.
By the way, I don’t think we should strive for good enough either. I feel like I should change the name of this philosophy – maybe excellent, wonderful, even great.
Oh well, I gotta finish up and work on the next episode so I guess this one will have to be ‘good enough’.
Thank you for being here with me on this creative journey. Honestly, I’ve been getting messages from people who have listened and enjoyed various episodes and the podcast in general, and it means so much to me. I couldn’t do this without you, so thank you.