As I sat down to write a new blog post for this week, I grappled with finding the perfect way to kick off this article.
“It must be catchy”, “It must grab attention”, “It must be interesting”, “It can’t be too boring”, I thought to myself as I mused over how I could best craft my introductory sentence. Luckily, I caught myself before wasting too much time in this contemplative state, and instead just started by writing down the first thought that came to mind and ran with it. But this single instance of delaying a start is just a minor manifestation of how perfectionism can be a pervasive and hindering force, holding you back from taking real action.
Maybe you already know you’re someone who has perfectionist tendencies, a self-proclaimed “perfectionist”, or maybe you never considered yourself the “perfectionist” type. However, labeling yourself (or someone else) a “perfectionist” can be problematic, in that it implies a binary identification. Either you are a “perfectionist”, or you are not. Some people may even label themselves as “perfectionists” with pride, as if it were a badge of honor. This is why in this article, I will describe it as a phenomenon rather than an a label (i.e. “perfectionism” or “having perfectionist tendencies”).
It should not define you, because in the end, it will hurt you – not help you. Here’s how.
Perfectionism tricks you into getting excited about the goal, not the process.
This took me a long time to realize. For the past several years, my brain and its perfectionist tendencies got me so excited about being a successful entrepreneur one day, and a successful author, and a successful documentarian. Oh and on top of that, being the “one” who achieves world peace, ends world hunger, and eradicates global poverty. What?? Crazy, right? This mindset can be counterintuitive because it causes you to be more averse to failure, and more prone to feelings of guilt and shame.
Think about it this way: Say you want to be a more athletic person so you sign up to run a marathon. If you have perfectionist tendencies, your brain might tell you (subliminally, of course) that if you run this marathon, then you can finally consider yourself a successful, athletic person. BUT, if you are someone who sets the marathon as a high-reaching target to become more athletic, and who is excited about the process of learning how to run, or build endurance, or maintain healthy habits of exercising more regularly, even if you don’t end up running the full marathon, then that layer of perfectionism subsides.
In the first scenario, if you practice and train enough that you can successfully run 15 miles in a decent amount of time, you will not be happy because you cannot run a whole marathon. Even though you are now more athletic, which was your original goal, you are still unhappy because your expectation was rooted in validation the belief that running a full marathon = “I am athletic”. In the latter scenario, you are more than happy to only be able to run 15 miles, because this is way more than you ever thought was possible for yourself, and you are proud that you have come this far.
Ask yourself: What underlying thoughts and beliefs are driving my desire to achieve X goal? What is it that I truly want to achieve? How can I get excited about the process of working towards a goal instead of just the end result itself?
Perfectionism breeds procrastination.
Like I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I noticed myself spending too much time trying to perfect the opening line, to the point where I almost gave up and considered just writing this article tomorrow instead (a day later than my usual deadline). Again, this was just one example, but I can’t even count how many times I have fallen victim to perfectionism and procrastinated starting that new project, blog, video, business, etc.
Before I even realized that perfectionism was holding me back, I put off launching The Actionable Mindset (TAM) for months. “What if it doesn’t work out?” “What if I lack the discipline to post every week?” “What if it fails? What if I grow bored of it?” “Who still reads blogs? It’s 2020!” These are just a handful of thoughts that crossed my mind as I often sat uselessly ruminating about whether or not to start a blog.
But once I acquired the little bit of wisdom – through other self-improvement podcasts and books – that the reason I wanted to start TAM in the first place wasn’t about any of that “fear of failure” nonsense going on in my head, I was able to dissolve those perfectionist-driven thoughts. I wanted to start a blog, not be super successful or make thousands of dollars, but to simply practice my writing skills by writing about topics that interest me. I also wanted to potentially help other people. Once I framed it as a fun learning experience, where I’d be happy if it could even help just one person, I was able to bite the bullet, launch TAM and begin writing. By not realizing this sooner, I procrastinated the launch for way too long.
Ask yourself: Are my perfectionist tendencies making me fear failure? Am I over-thinking something out of a need for the idea or the situation to be perfect in order to feel valid in starting it?
Perfectionism hinders gratitude.
Another hard pill for me to swallow has been that having this mindset of future-oriented goal setting, constantly fantasizing about what life could be if I only achieved “X”, is a curse for chronic unhappiness. By setting unrealistically high expectations for myself and my future goals, I had boxed myself into a lose-lose-lose situation in terms of being happy and having gratitude.
This is a vicious cycle. If you don’t run the marathon, which was probably already an unrealistic goal if you’re not a big fan of running, you might be unhappy for not achieving what you said you would. If you do run the marathon, greed might infiltrate your brain and tell you that it still isn’t enough: if only you could also complete a triathlon, you would be happy. And finally, because this goal was already too ambitious and unrealistic in the first place, you ultimately might have given up on it after only 3 days when you realized that you still hate running, feeling too defeated to find any sliver of motivation to keep going. The end result? Like the first example, you end up unhappy for not achieving your original goal.
In any of these situations, you experience a lack of gratitude. Perfectionism clouds your ability to be grateful that you started the process; that you even made the effort to run for 3 days; that you’re taking a clear initiative to work towards something or be a more athletic person. It clouds your ability to see that you didn’t fail at achieving your goal of becoming more athletic, you actually succeeded at starting it. Perfectionism also distorts your reality, in that it can trick you into thinking you failed even when you do achieve your goal, because it’s still not enough, leaving no room for gratitude of what you have accomplished.
Ask yourself: What do I have now that I didn’t have before, because I worked hard? What accomplishment, no matter how small, have I achieved in the past? How can I set mini-milestones in the future to allow myself to celebrate small wins and be more grateful for my progress?