Do you lean towards perfectionism?

You may be the worker who stays late and checks everything repeatedly, cringes when you can’t remember someone’s name thinking I should be able to remember, feels extra pressure to “be perfect” when around the boss and verbally beats yourself up hours after delivering a presentation because it “could have been better.”

So what’s wrong with that? Isn’t that doing your best? What’s wrong with wanting perfection?

According to Tal Ben-Shahar, author of The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfectionism and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life, perfectionism includes…

— a desire to experience positive emotions all the time, like a constant high of positive feelings.

— a rejection of failure and acceptance of life’s ups and downs.

— a rejection of success because truly, nothing really is good enough.

Perfectionism takes a lot of energy to be alert for mistakes and ever-ready to fix the problems. And there are always problems because satisfaction doesn’t register. There’s always something to improve.

Perfectionism is nerve-wracking!

In today’s article…

You will get four habits that strengthen Mr. Ben-Shahar’s alternative to perfectionism called optimalism. When you are striving to improve, reach goals, appreciating the bumpy process with all the emotional highs and lows, you’re on the optimal side of perfectionism.

According to the Oxford Living Dictionary:

OPTIMAL- adjective. Best or most favorable; optimum; ‘seeking the optimal solution’

Here are four habits an optimalist develops to get rid of nerve-wracking perfectionism:

Habit One—Just start. Now.

Does this sound familiar? You need to read a book first before you write a blog. You can’t go to the networking event until you listen to the networking lecture your friend said was helpful to her but now you can’t remember where it is, so you’ll call her. You need to clean the closet, the toilet, the garage, etc. before you can start whatever you need to get done.

Fear of failing along with thoughts of, I’m not enough, I’m a fraud just go to town and suck the motivation out of you– and you haven’t started yet.

Here’s a habit to get you started:

My friend Kenn suggests choosing a ten minute, no more than sixty-minute goal Monday morning to accomplish within twenty-four hours. May sound small and insignificant, but it works. It is helpful to hold yourself accountable by sharing with at least one person the goal itself and the day, time and way you’ll let them know your progress.

Habit Two—Time matters. Keep your boundaries with time.

And be strict with that ten minutes to sixty minutes mentioned in Habit One. That’s right. You know the cliché too well: You can’t get too much of a good thing…well, yes you can!

Parkinson’s Law offers this wisdom about the significance of a deadline time boundary:

The amount of time that one has to perform a task is the amount of time it will take to complete the task. – Parkinson’s Law, Wikipedia

Be specific and deliberate. Choose an amount of time, set the timer and stick to it. Work on accepting standards of “good enough” and “excellent” rather than “perfect.”

You can do it.

Habit Three—Invite feedback by practicing openness to learning rather than being protective and defensive.

When in the optimalist mindset, defensive reactions are few. If they pop up, invite openness. Just know that you’re in the maladaptive perfectionist mode when you react defensively to a critique or comment related to—anything.

My favorite strategy is from Marshall Goldsmith’s book, What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There. Feedforward is a practice of asking people to make suggestions that you can work on for the future. So, if you’re working on increasing your sensitivity to employees concerns, you would ask your employees for suggestions on ways you can show sensitivity.

The beauty of this is the control you’re giving yourself to inquire. By asking others you’re also letting them know you’re making an effort to improve and value their feedback.

You can stop continuing a defensive line of thinking/listening/responding immediately because you’re conscious of your goal. It’s a matter of saying:  wait a minute…tell me again…I want to learn.

This is a juicy phrase to practice in relationships at both work and home.

Habit Four—Be creative and come up with freeing strategies to enjoy the process of growing/learning/achieving goals.

Eighteenth century British philosopher Samuel Coleridge, struggling with perfectionism had big time writer’s block. He would get so anxious he couldn’t start due to his mindset that his writing needed to be perfect.

How did he change his mindset and start writing? He told himself, Okay, I will write my best work at the end of my life…everything else is a rough draft. It freed him so he could go on to write.

It’s the same strategy that works for exercising goals, losing weight, starting a business, turning a team around. It begins with identifying the goal, the limiting belief, often embedded in perfectionism and creating an alternative that is believable.

Stuck? Have your friends help you lighten up and simplify the task at hand.

The takeaway is…

We all want to succeed.  It’s a wonderful thing to set improvement goals and strive for your best, stretching beyond your comfort zone and achieving more.

Yet, when the process becomes riddled with stress and anxiety, joy is less and satisfaction never comes, it’s time to step back and take a look at the way perfectionist habits are a drag.

Get rid of nerve-wracking perfectionism. Become an optimalist.  Keep the commitment to your best and layer some realistic understanding for human failings and painful emotional learnings.

Scratch perfect. Go for optimal.


Mary Franz LCSW, PCC  is a couple’s therapist, critical incident responder, and personal strategy coach. Need to talk about a personal or business relationship challenge? Visit her website and ask for a complimentary strategy session.