The Death of Perfect

Do you sometimes strive for perfection at home, at work, making plans or even just having a dinner party? Are you left feeling anxious or worried that you’ve not done your best?

I wrote this article for the Huffington Post a while back. I’ve reworked it a bit and thought it might be of value to you. The timing seemed so relevant given the concerns that have been coming up with friends, colleagues and clients.

Linda, a 42-year-old successful attorney with two young boys, felt guilt and disappointment both on the job and at home. She never quite felt that she was where she needed to be at any given time.

For all of her significant accomplishments, she often ended up feeling like a failure as a lawyer and as a mother. When she was on the job, she felt like she should be spending more time with her children. When she was home with the kids, she felt like she was wasting her talents and abilities.

The standards that she set for herself were impossibly high, creating a built-in form of sabotage. She made little time for her own self-care and often felt exhausted. Linda ran from home to work and back home again.

She began to isolate from her friends, as she could not justify taking the time to make plans and time away from her responsibilities. Linda gave up her Pilates class and no longer felt romantically-inclined. Her once healthy sex life slowly began to slip away.

Everything and everyone became a distraction that took her away from the demands of her children and work. She now suffered from headaches, sleeplessness, and displayed signs of anxiety and depression.

Linda’s need to be perfect at home and on the job was making her sick and unhappy. She felt as though she was a constant disappointment to her family and coworkers. Mostly, she was cheating herself out of the potential to enjoy the rich and beautiful life she had created for herself.

Her self-imposed demands to be a perfectionist came from growing up in a family where expectations ran unrealistically high, and rarely did she or anyone else measure up.

Linda internalized these early messages and took them to heart. They were taking a significant toll on her well-being, her work and her relationships. She needed to learn how to override these voices from her past and learn to savor more of the good in her life on a daily basis.

Perfectionism is the belief that mistakes cannot be made and that the highest standards of performance in all aspects of their life must consistently be met.

Some characteristics of a perfectionist include:

  • Sets unrealistic goals and standards.
  • Personalizes mistakes and perceives them as a lack self-worth.
  • Depletes energy levels by being preoccupied with the fear of failure.
  • Interprets comments and suggestions as criticism.
  • Exhibits rigid behavior out of a fear of making mistakes.
  • Gets anxious or frustrated with outcomes falling short of perfection.
  • The challenge was for Linda to preserve her goal of excellence while setting standards for her life that were realistic and attainable.
Does any of this sound like you or someone you love?

Strategies for Taming Perfectionism

1. Become more fully present.

When you truly live in the moment, when you are with your children, you can really devote that time to them. The same is true for work. A simple belly breathing exercise can bring you back into the now.

Belly or abdominal breathing can help rapidly change the responses of the mind and body. The body moves from the “fight or flight” response, or the arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, to a calmer state known as the “relaxation response,” or the parasympathetic response.

Practice by taking five deep belly breaths twice or three times a day, with an emphasis on a complete exhalation. The relaxation occurs on the exhalation. Notice how you feel after each round of five breaths. Even just a couple of deep breaths change your physiology, decrease anxiety, and ease you into the moment.

When you practice the belly breathing you’ll decrease your stress level and be able to be more fully present wherever you are and whomever your with, giving yourself greater mastery in your life and a heightened sense of personal empowerment—without having to be perfect.

2. Develop mindfulness.

Deep breathing also helps build mindfulness. A brief meditation technique practiced twice daily can help accelerate your ability to be mindful and benefit you in countless other ways mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Learning meditation is easy. The problem most people have is in the follow through. It might help to listen to some guided meditations on CDs or iTunes.

Ideally, I find that it is best to internalize the practice of meditation. That is, to practice on your own, needing no props or anything external. In other words, learn how to practice the meditation until it becomes a part of your daily routine.

Some of the benefits of meditation include greater clarity of thought and ability to focus, heightened ability to relax, decreased stress and anxiety, lower heart rate and blood pressure and enhanced creativity.

At first, the meditation takes commitment. However, after a few weeks of practice you’ll like discover that the rewards are so compelling that you’ll want to continue making this a part of your life.

3. Learning the value of “good enough.”

Learning to give yourself permission to do your best in your role of mother, daughter, partner, professional and knowing when your efforts were “good enough” is a great gift for anyone who suffers with the idea that things must be perfect.

As far as I am concerned, we must come together and institute the idea of “the death of perfection.” Perfectionism is harmful to our psyches because ultimately it’s unattainable and makes us feel like we are “less than,” even when we are doing our best.

The notion of the “good enough mother” or the “good enough lawyer” does not mean that you compromise your integrity or commitment to your responsibilities, but rather that you embrace the multiple roles of life fully and realistically and do your best.

Also, try being less critical of others and treating them with patience and compassion. This will improve your relationships and will likely reduce your fear of being judged by others.

4. Progress, not perfection.

Use an affirmation such as “Progress, not perfection.” An affirmation is a phrase or statement that either asserts the truth or conveys some positive thought that is within the realm of possibility.

Other examples could be, “Here I go again. Enough!” or “Stop! I’m doing my best.” Whatever simple statement speaks to you that breaks the obsessive thinking is probably a good one for you to use.

To practice your affirmation, first take a few deep breaths to get grounded. Affirmations are particularly effective when you are in a relaxed state, as that is when your mind is most receptive to suggestion.

Then, repeat your phrase. It’s as simple as that. You can do this while getting ready for your day, in the car, while exercising, or whenever it comes to mind.

Over time repeating the affirmation “progress, not perfection” will help you to create an attitudinal shift that will better equip you to accept your own limitations as well as those of your family members, friends, and coworkers.

Over time, you might even notice a greater sense of compassion for yourself. The “death of perfection” is a radical notion that when embraced helps to liberate us in today’s wildly demanding world.

5. Celebrate your accomplishments.

Most of us move so swiftly from one accomplishment to another that we don’t get to savor or appreciate what we have done. Instead, we focus on what needs to happen next, which can lead to feeling overwhelmed or depressed.

Focus on your successes and make sure you find a way to acknowledge your achievements, big and small. You need to be your best cheerleader. Not only does this build your sense of joy, but it is also contagious.

When others see you appreciating your own accomplishments, they are likely to do the same, which then creates a more joyful environment at home and work.

Surround yourself with people who are less caught up in the pursuit of status, material possessions, and money—people who appreciate friendship, family, and community.

Once Linda was able to let go of the idea of perfection, she became open to experiences and ideas that expanded her learning potential.

She understood that disappointments and mistakes were unavoidable, and she now had some tools to help her to recover faster from these setbacks. The belly breathing, mini-meditation and affirmation techniques she now practiced routinely allowed her to be more fully present.

The old voices that reminded Linda of her inadequacies quieted down and were replaced by a more healthy perspective of doing her best.

Linda began taking greater pleasure in her time with her children, her man, and her work. The more present she became, the more she savored her days and experiences. Inadvertently, she was also teaching her children the value of good enough and self-compassion.

How do you tame the harsh demands of perfectionism in your multiple roles?

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.

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