Do you feel pressure to do everything “right” all the time? Do you worry about making mistakes? Does fear of a misstep hold you back? It’s time to stop trying to be perfect!
Getting over perfectionism is tough. Some of us are hardwired over the course of our lives to fear mistakes. Often this is a holdover from our childhood when we received the message a mistake would result in a negative consequence.
What happens when we fear mistakes is that we’re constantly driving with the breaks on. We’re worried any misstep will cause our world to crash down around us. We drive ourselves into a frenzy overdoing or saying the right thing in all situations. We push ourselves at work and at home. Or, on the flip side, we find we can’t stop trying to be perfect, so we look at ways to numb ourselves—to silence our inner critic.
In reality, perfectionism by itself isn’t necessarily a problem. It’s important to set ourselves up to high standards, to push beyond our comfort zones, and really go for what we want. A desire to achieve excellence isn’t a negative trait.
Perfectionism becomes an issue when it counters our ability to relax and enjoy life. We see this often in college students and young professionals who end up burning the candle at both ends as they strive to get perfect scores or the top sales quotas in their department. At the same time, these young adults are often attempting to keep up with a rigorous social life—dating, friendships, and extra-curricular activities.
To keep up with it all, these perfectionists turn to drugs or alcohol. Either they rely on stimulants to keep them amped up and energized so they don’t burn out, or they turn to depressants in their downtime so they can finally chill out. This pattern is a dangerous mix.
Even if perfectionists don’t turn to hard addictions, they may fall into soft addictions: habits they rely on to escape the rat race. These soft addictions may include shopping, watching TV (Netflix binges), social media, gaming, food, and even exercise. Work itself can become a soft addictio, if we use it to escape and bury ourselves.
Now, of course, there’s nothing wrong with screen time, shopping, or enjoying a meal. Work and physical fitness are healthy activities in many cases. With soft addictions, the activity becomes dangerous because it’s not used to enhance your life, but to escape.
Essentially, trying to be perfect all the time burns us out and leads us to seek behaviors that are counterproductive to our ultimate goals.
The thing is, no one is ever really perfect, anyway! We all know perfection is an unattainable goal. It’s not realistic and frankly, it’s damaging.
What we’re really doing, when we dig into it, is avoiding mistakes because we’re afraid of looking bad. How freeing is it to imagine letting that go? Fear of looking “bad” is what prevents people from fully enjoying their lives.
Perfection has never been reached by anyone. No human has achieved complete perfection. No matter your religious belief or background, realistically we know perfectionism is either an illusion or divine. It’s not attainable by mere human beings.
As a matter of fact, in some Native American cultures, they had a way of representing the concept of human imperfection in their tapestry and beadwork. They often left a single thread or bead out of place, referred to as the “God bead.” This was to remind them, no matter how perfect their work, they will never achieve the divine.
Native Americans aren’t the only culture that embrace this concept either. The Japanese use the term wabi-sabi to describe the concept of imperfection in aesthetics. The idea that beauty is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, leading back to the teachings of the Buddha (and the three marks of existence).
The idea of perfectionism is very much built into a system. We’re trying to get ahead. Many of us have created this idea we need to win, push ourselves, and keep moving ahead, but we have no idea what (or whom) we’re trying to get ahead of. It’s a mythological peak we’re trying to climb.
The counter solution to perfectionism is learning to embrace mistakes. This is especially key for young professionals. Learn how to make mistakes all over the place!
It’s not about being destructive or self-damaging. Making mistakes can actually become an enjoyable exercise in creativity and learning. When we make a mistake, we discover freedom. Creativity, new ideas, solutions, and inventions are born of our mistakes.
Many amazing inventions, from the pacemaker to post-it notes were born from mistakes. Entrepreneurs and inventors are all fond of their “aha” stories to explain how they discovered their great idea. To come up with these concepts, they had to first face a problem. They had to make mistakes. Chances are, they went through plenty of trial, error, and practice before they accomplished their big goal.
Here’s the deal: mistakes are inevitable and unavoidable. So, there’s no reason to beat yourself up over them, nor is there a reason to be hypervigilant in your fight to be perfect. Instead, embrace the errors, bumps, and screw ups as a great way to learn something new.
With our graduate students, we talk about maximizing our human potential. There’s deeper meaning and greater engagement when we allow ourselves to face these learning opportunities openly. When we stop trying to be perfect we can look above the human foils and become our best self.
For more on maximizing your potential, please visit the Wright Foundation. We would love to welcome you to a networking event, where you can connect with other growth-minded individuals. We’re also excited to share many of our classes available online for download. They’re at a special introductory price, so don’t miss out on this great opportunity!
The Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential is a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.