It’s the ultimate humble brag: I’m a perfectionist.
Chances are, that if you are, things aren’t working out that great for you. I know because I used to be one and in some areas of my life I still in am. And ironically, it is in those areas that I still struggle the most.
Over the past few years, I’ve learned that obstacles and struggles are inevitable, but the way in which I handle them is what matters. And as a perfectionist handling failures, I didn’t do a great job. And so, I don’t consider perfectionism anything to brag about anymore.
Bottom line: Perfectionism is debilitating.
In his book, Being Happy, Tal Ben-Shahar covers the differences between perfectionists and what he calls “optimalists.” There are several differences, but the take-home is that perfectionists use failure as feedback to mean they are no good and usually end up giving up, while optimalists use failure to signal that they need to adapt, grow and get better.
Is perfectionism holding you back in your physique goals? Your personal life? In professional achievement?
Here are some ways they might be, and some things to consider:
1) Perfectionists assume the path to success is linear and predictable.
As humans, we crave certainty. This is no more apparent than in the quest to get lean. We want ‘The Magic Meal Plan’ that will guarantee results. People always say, “Jill, just tell me what to eat and I’ll do it.” I can do that all day long–a fat loss meal plan is a click away on google–but a) the journey is not the same for everyone and there is no one single plan that is the answer and b) Your body is not a straight-up furnace. You don’t eat and exercise and get a very specific result. You make the best choices possible and then your body is going to do whatever it’s going to do, and your only job is to roll with the punches. Understand that fat loss is not linear, nor predictable and the more prepared mentally you are for that, the better off you’ll be. You’ll be happier, and more willing to put in the work to figure it out along the way. Life is the same way. There are zero guarantees. There are only choices. We can never predict outcomes, as much as we want to. And perfectionists assume they can control outcomes. This sets us up for failure.
The solution: Assume that things will NOT go according to plan, and that bumps, bruises and struggles are an inevitable part of the journey. In fact, embrace them.
2) Perfectionists fear failure.
This is normal human stuff. I get it. Failure doesn’t feel good. Pain doesn’t feel good. Letting yourself or others down doesn’t feel good. But that doesn’t mean it needs to mean that you suck. Often perfectionists are afraid of failure because of what they make it mean about them. I used to do this alllllll the time, and often still do. I hate confrontation. I avoid conflict. When I fail, I have a gut reaction that wow, I suck. But I also understand now that sometimes, you have to confront. You have to engage in conflict and you have to use failure as feedback to get better. It doesn’t have to mean you are bad. A failure doesn’t mean that you are a failure. They are 2 different things. Failure is simply a way for the world to clue us into the fact that our path needs some work, that we need to figure something out, that we need to recalibrate. Mess up on your diet? Good! Now you have the opportunity to LOOK INTO IT and figure out a piece of your fat loss puzzle. Did you eat enough protein earlier in the day? How about fiber? Where’s your water at? Are you stressed? Not sleeping? Etc. These are all ways that you can use mess-ups as feedback to grow and get better.
The solution: Use failure as feedback. Mess-ups, obstacles and struggles are there for a reason–to teach us. Look for the lesson in the struggle, and resist the urge to get caught up in self-reproach.
3) Perfectionists use an all-or-nothing, black-and-white approach.
I have written on the all-or-nothing approach to nutrition many times. It is a trap. It’s a trap where you have to be perfect on your eating or else you suck. And it’s self-inflicted because we hold ourselves to some impossible standard that not even the most successful fitness models and competitors can maintain. The pros cheat sometimes and they have to eat healthy FOR A LIVING. You have a job, kids, a home to maintain, relationships, friends, family, chores, etc. And yet, perfectionists refuse to throw themselves a bone because they need to be Superwoman. Doing the all-or-nothing thing with dieting only sets us up for misery in the short-term and failure in the long-run. All-or-nothing always ends up being … nothing.
The solution: Embrace the nuanced journey. There will always be gray between the black-and-white and honestly, gray gets results too. At some point, gray becomes the new black because black-and-white dieting is unsustainable. Throw yourself a freaking bone.
4) Perfectionism keeps us small.
Often perfectionists will get defensive if they encounter opposition. This was a biggie for me for many years. At the slightest insinuation that I was doing something wrong, I got super defensive and sensitive. I made it all about me and how the other person was wrong. Talk about a victim! I needed to get over myself! Perfectionists use any kind of constructive criticism to reinforce the victim role. And when we are a victim, we are closed off to suggestions, and can’t see that we might be able to do something different in order to grow. I say perfectionism keeps us small because when we operate from a perfectionist mindset, we often refuse feedback and can’t see that it might be us that can or should change. Not “other people.”
The solution: When you start to feel criticized or start to feel that knee-jerk defensive reaction bubble up, ask yourself, is there some truth to what this person is saying? Did I play any role in this situation? You don’t have to be a doormat and you don’t have to agree with everything someone says about you, but remain OPEN to suggestions and ask always if there is some way you can use it to grow and get better.
5) Perfectionism stalls our achievement.
Imagine having to wait for everything to be just right before taking a chance. I see this in business all the time, and I love this from Jeff Walker: “Perfectionism is an excuse to justify procrastinating.” I agree. Needing everything to be perfect is a cop out. A crutch. An excuse to not get things done. It’s a way to avoid making mistakes. It’s a way for us to try to control what happens, when that’s actually impossible. I prefer the “ready, fire, aim, aim, aim…” approach. But it takes courage to take a chance and let the chips fall where they may. It takes someone confident enough to take the blows, to handle potential negative feedback without crumbling and to roll with the punches. Perfectionists are fragile. Resiliency takes time, practice and lots of falling down.
The solution: Just take action. Like, right now. Stop waiting for everything to be just so. There will never be a “right time” to take a chance, to quit that job, to start that business, to dive into the fat loss process, to do that competition you’ve always thought about. Like I say with my Best of You Coaching gals, just Get Shit Done. #GSD. Done will always beat perfect because perfect never gets done :)
6) Perfectionists have a hard time appreciating the journey.
This is a dangerous place to be–unable to be grateful for where you are because anything less than complete and utter achievement is not good enough. This is the definition of the rat-racer. And we do this with our bodies all the time: “As soon as I lose 10 lbs, then I’ll be happy.” or “As soon as I win my pro card, then I can relax.” The problem with the rat-racer mentality is that it only allows for you to be happy when you attain a specific result, and even then, it’s not enough because there’s always the next thing. Perfectionists have a hard time appreciating the journey. They see it as an inconvenient means to an end. And remain dissatisfied until they reach their goal, only to set out to reach the next goal. Not being able to feel gratitude is a scary part of the perfectionist mindset. Those who are the most happy and the most productive are the ones who see the journey as part of their destination. And they are grateful for the struggle along the way.
The solution: Embrace the journey as part of the destination. It’s your OPPORTUNITY to learn, grow and get better. In fact, it’s where all the good stuff happens. Practice feeling grateful along the way and I think you’ll find yourself a whole lot happier in the process. Love this from Jeff Goins: “When you’re sweating and bleeding and loving every minute of it, remember: this is the reward.”
The journey is not about being perfect, it is about learning and growing. When you look at things that way, how can you not hope for struggles?
“The biggest mistake a man can make is to be afraid of making one.” –Elbert Hubbard
Perfectionists miss out on a lot because they are distracted by the need for a specific desired outcome. My advice, and my own practice is: let ‘good enough’ be good enough. You still get to strive and push and achieve greater success, but you also get to appreciate the journey, grow, learn and be happy too. Good luck! Ox, Jill
Related: Consider this the permission you’ve been waiting for