Do you have an inner critic that seems to pounce the second you come up short? As imperfect beings, there is absolutely no way we can show up flawlessly in every single arena of life. In fact, trying to be everything to everyone and letting perfectionism run the show can be deeply detrimental to our mental health.
This pandemic has made many of us confront our perfectionism, and the consequences that pursuit brings. Some of us are facing ever-growing to-do lists. Some of us have set unattainable goals like writing a book or being the perfect parent who never gets stressed out. For most, living through a pandemic means experiencing added stress, anxiety, and uncertainty on a daily basis. When life feels particularly out of control, we can sometimes overcompensate by setting unrealistic expectations and striving to meet unachievable goals.
While perfectionism may initially help you to feel more in control of your life, it can ultimately lead to disappointment when you don’t show up as the “perfect” friend, employee, partner, athlete, or parent at every turn. While we can’t perfectly erase your perfectionism, we do have tips to help you be a little more gentle on yourself today.
Healthy striving versus perfectionism
It’s important to first acknowledge the difference between self-improvement and the quest for perfection. While healthy striving can help you to reach your personal goals, perfectionism looks to the outside world for acceptance and approval.
“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life,” explains Brené Brown, researcher and author of The Gifts of Imperfection. “Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”
The truth is that perfection is simply unattainable, therefore the pursuit to be everything to everyone is painful. That’s why we’re here to help you shift your focus inward, as opposed to looking to others to provide you with a sense of value.
Reevaluate your expectations
When attempting to let go of perfectionism in your personal life, it’s helpful to evaluate the expectations you set for yourself and the underlying motivation for those impossibly high standards. What would it look like to cut yourself some slack? Ask yourself why you need to seem perfect. Is it a way of making you feel adequate in the eyes of others or that you are “enough?” Journal until you hit your core beliefs and triggers for anxiety around perfectionism.
Recognizing and releasing unrealistic expectations can offer you space to breathe, leading to a life of authenticity and fulfillment. What would it mean to let your true, imperfect self be seen? Are there areas of your life that you can alleviate the pressure, lower the bar you’ve set, or ask for help?
Take a gentle look at the intense pressure you are likely putting on yourself. Do you notice a cycle of pushing yourself to the brink, sacrificing your needs, and experiencing physical exhaustion and burnout? When you set out to live a “perfect” life, this can often come at the cost of your overall happiness and well-being. It can also come at the cost of the overall happiness and well-being of the people you love. Many of us project our pursuit of “perfect” on our loved ones—sometimes that’s through a desire for them to be perfect, or simply teaching them through our behaviors that less-than-perfect just doesn’t cut it.
Do something with low expectations
Try doing something where perfection isn’t the point. Pick something you don’t need to share, that’s just for you, through which you can express yourself and have a little low-stakes fun. That activity could be something like painting, drawing, making a collage, singing your favorite songs, or dancing. You’ll notice most of these ideas are artistic — that’s because they help us express ourselves. But plenty of other activities do the trick: try going for a run and not “beating your last run” or going for a walk and just enjoying it, not doing it for distance or burning calories. You can even mow the lawn without making perfect lines. Experiment with doing an activity that’s enjoyable with the intention of doing it poorly.
It can be difficult to let go of perfectionism in regard to things we care about, which is exactly why it’s helpful to practice forgoing perfect when it comes to things that are just for fun.
Fortunately, the practice of self-compassion is the antidote to perfectionism. Think of what you would tell your friend, partner, or child if they came up short. You’d likely offer understanding and compassion, so why not try to give those gifts to yourself?
Completely overhauling your internal dialogue won’t happen overnight, but, when possible, try offering affirmations and gentle-loving kindness to yourself when things feel overwhelmingly imperfect.
Perfectionism is fueled by future anticipation and judgment of the past. Staying in the moment and being mindful of what is happening right here, right now will help you to gain much-needed perspective.
Try taking a few moments to settle your busy mind, get still, and simply be with your breath. The hope is that staying in the present moment, even if briefly, will help to reduce anxiety and give you a more realistic look at life and your abilities.
Please remember that incorporating mindfulness exercises does not mean beating yourself up for not meditating “right” or practicing yoga daily. It’s not about doing it right or wrong. Instead, mindfulness is all about embracing the imperfections and providing distance between ourselves and that perfectionist voice. Instead of trying to shake our inner critic, we can take time and space to recognize and name it.
Consider a social media detox
You’ve likely heard the adage, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” If you’re looking for a glimpse into the day–to–day challenges of the human experience, an Instagram feed is not the place to find it. Spending great lengths of time pouring over others’ heavily filtered highlight reel of wins can quickly lead you to compare and despair.
While living in quarantine, many of us have greatly increased our daily exposure to social media feeds at detriment to our mental health. Instead of focusing on the achievements of others or seeking validation online, try tuning out the noise for a period of time to focus on the reality that is in front of you and see how it positively affects your overall mood.
Letting go for good
Being hard on oneself is so taxing. Letting go of the idea of perfection and lowering your standards is an act of self-love. We know it’s not easy, but making the choice to be the most authentic version of yourself is a highly rewarding way to move throughout the world.
When we drop the act and embrace ourselves, flaws and all, it can lead to opportunities that we may have missed out on due to fear of failing. While racking up accolades and external praise can give us a temporary high, knowing that you are good enough exactly as you are is key to quieting the perfectionist bully living inside your mind.