Don’t let perfectionism get in the way of happiness

Q: My friends tell me I’m a perfectionist. Maybe I am, but is that such a bad thing? I’ll admit I have high expectations and that my lifestyle seems to be wearing me down. How can I mellow out? 

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There is a saying: Would you rather be right, or be happy? To which I would add a corollary: You can be a perfectionist or be a human.

To clarify, there are two types of perfectionism. Healthy perfectionism means striving for reasonable and realistic standards, driven from the desire to achieve your potential. Unhealthy perfectionism means striving for excessively high standards, motivated by fears of failure and concern about disappointing others. The latter is exhausting, mainly because the individual never feels good enough.

Feedback from your friends indicates you may have behaviors in line with unhealthy perfectionism. This can show up in different ways. Are you a neat freak? Do you always compare yourself to others? Is your performance only measured by the approval of authority figures? Do you hyper-focus on other people’s faults? Are you too afraid of failure to try?

Unhealthy perfectionism is hard on relationships. If your expectations for your friends are as high as the ones you have for yourself, you’ll end up perpetually disappointed and push people away. The researcher Brené Brown states, “True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world. Our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” Notice if being a perfectionist prevents you from being able to ‘keep it real’ in your relationships.

It’s never too late to shift your perfectionist tendencies. Psychologist Carl Jung posited that healthy perfectionism comes out of the desire for wholeness, fullness and the human need for individuation and spiritual growth. These individuals measure against oneself and not others, sets goals they believe they can reach, throw themselves into what they’re doing and recognize the process rather than focusing only on the outcome. This last part is key: enjoying the process means riding the wave, playing with your edge and having a sense of wonder along the way. Let yourself forever be a student of life, learning from your experiences. Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi states, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Here are additional tips to encourage a flexible mind and spirit:

Notice your intentions. It’s often the kind, not the amount, of effort that truly matters.

Sometimes less is more. Giving yourself permission to do 20 minutes of exercise rather than the 60 minutes you originally planned prevents you from skipping it altogether.

Every effort is worthy of self-acknowledgement. Acknowledge your failures just as much as your successes. Acknowledging a failure doesn’t mean your whole life is a failure, it means you had the courage to face a risk. It’s also the first step toward feeling the freedom to actually be human. To be an engaged human means you will make mistakes.

Keep your attention in the now. Perfectionism is a product of the grasping mind. Find moments when you can embrace your present experience as it is rather than trying to control or change it.

Practice getting out of your head by using your body as a resource. Slow down your reactive mind through long, slow breaths. Move energy down into your heart and core and feel grounded through your feet on the earth through yoga and other physical activities. Let your mind drop into your breath, bodily sensations and muscular dynamics so you can have a break from overanalyzing.

You can live from your heart or you can live from your ego. Life becomes lighter when we realize our self-worth is not determined by having the upper hand. Our culture’s obsession with excellence can lead many to toil under a tyranny of ‘not good enough.’ Stop looking for the glasses that are already on top of your head. You are enough right now, as you are.

Dr. Rachel Allyn is a licensed psychologist in private practice. Learn more about her unique style of therapy at DrRachelAllyn.com. Send questions to Rachel@DrRachelAllyn.com.