"I need to exercise every day."
"I am only going to eat healthy this year."
"I will learn and master a new language/hobby."
“I'm going to ace all my exams/courses and graduate first of my class"
"I should devote all of my free time to my loved ones."
These examples sound all too familiar to many of us who have vowed to better ourselves in one way or another. We often start steady and motivated, only to find ourselves giving up a few weeks down the line. We may fall back into old patterns, cradled by a sense of shame and failure, and stay in this latent state of discomfort until we make another decision to shake things up. And the cycle repeats itself.
The problem here is not in having goals; it's always good to look for ways to look after ourselves and improve our lives. Instead, the issue lies in how we formulate these goals and the reasons behind them.
The global culture of unrealistic expectations
In a global culture obsessed with appearance and performance, success is often equated with achievement and a general standard of what our lives should look like. Think of it for a second: if you have decided to lose weight or get into shape, for example, is it because you aspire to a healthier lifestyle or because you're comparing yourself to some generic standard of beauty and body shape? If you want to get promoted or become a star student, is it because you wish to invest in your self-development or because you have succumbed to the social pressure of always getting ahead? While striving for improvement and excellence is healthy and desirable, it's essential to take a few steps back and ask yourself about your underlying motivations.
More often than not, the reason why so many of us seem incapable of adhering to self-improvement practices can be summed up in one word: perfectionism.
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism often gets confused with excellence and can also be misunderstood as a desirable quality. While aspiring to outstanding or above-average outcomes is a healthy motivation, things take a turn for the worse when people fall into the trap of perfectionism.
Perfectionists differ from ambitious or motivated people in that they set unrealistically high standards for themselves or others and cannot tolerate anything short of flawlessness. It's not about having a perfectly organized workspace or spending extra time on a project to ensure you deliver a quality result. It's the relentless pursuit of better, faster, higher objectives. It's a rigid mentality that leaves no room for nuance: you are either perfect or a failure; you either have it all right or all wrong.
The thing about perfectionism is that it can stem from a desire to avoid rejection, criticism, or painful feelings like shame and inadequacy. But, what ends up happening when we fail to meet the impossible standards we have set for ourselves, is that we fall victim to the all-or-nothing mentality and find ourselves suffering from the harrowing emotions we tried to avoid in the first place.
Why is it a problem?
Have you ever heard the quote, "The best is the enemy of the good"? It is from Voltaire, an 18th-century French philosopher. A recent example involves Winston Churchill, who famously said, "Perfectionism is the enemy of progress." The premise behind these statements is simple and true: perfectionism prevents you from accomplishing your goals.
It can sound counterintuitive, but let's think about it for a minute: say you have decided to follow a new diet. You start fine and then find yourself craving food that is not indicated in your meal plan. If you can't curb the craving, you are soon devoured by shame and remorse (pun intended). This can lead you to indulge in other "forbidden" foods or maybe even throw the entire idea out the window and give up on your diet. You feel like a failure and lose hope and motivation to improve your dietary habits. Do you see where the problem is, here?
When your outlook is so rigid that you cannot accept the possibility of faltering from the line (in that case, by eating something you weren't supposed to), the entire endeavor suffers. This happens because you left no room for mistakes and adopted the typical black-or-white pattern characteristic of perfectionism.
One of the most prevalent manifestations of this faulty mindset is something most of us have struggled with at one point or another: procrastination. Contrary to popular belief, procrastination is not due to laziness or ineptitude. It is, in reality, rooted in the anxious fear of not being good enough. You avoid doing something because you are afraid of failing before even starting. And, this avoidance feeds into your distorted belief that you are no good or can't perform well enough.
Another issue with perfectionism is that people link their sense of worth to their achievements. This belief is wrong and dangerous; you are a worthy, lovable human being. You have qualities and flaws, and your worth as a person is not quantified by your efforts, accomplishments, physical appearance, bank account, or any external factor. Please take a moment to acknowledge this and appreciate that you are simply trying.
How can I spot perfectionism?
The following elements can give you a good indication of whether or not you might be struggling with perfectionism.
Handling failure: Think of the last time you didn't get the expected result. What was your immediate reaction? While feelings of disappointment, sadness, or anger are common and healthy in these instances, there are differences in magnitude and outcomes. Did you feel overwhelmed by these emotions? Was their intensity appropriate to the situation? Did you lash out or escape the situation altogether?
Guilt vs. shame: A simple way to differentiate guilt from shame is that guilt involves the awareness of having done something wrong and appears as a direct consequence of one's actions. In contrast, shame is the belief that your whole self is wrong without there necessarily being any triggering action on your part. People with perfectionistic tendencies are often trapped in a vicious cycle where shame pushes them to strive for irreproachable results.
Listen to yourself: Many perfectionists suffer from the presence of an inner critic. You know the cliché of that parent or teacher who always seems to find fault in what you do? Now picture them living in your head 24/7, endlessly feeding you harsh criticism and using all the mistakes you ever made as weapons against you. Nobody deserves to be treated like this, and the first step in learning to be gentler is being aware of the way you speak to yourself.
Stepping into self-compassion
As you uncover the roots of your perfectionism, you begin to gain a deeper understanding of yourself. This is also the opportunity to start breaking these painful patterns that have held you back in the past. The following suggestions are steps you can take to adopt an alternative, more sustainable perception of yourself and your goals:
Ask yourself, "Why?": As mentioned at the beginning of our article, it's important to understand the deeper reasoning behind your goals. It is more likely that you will stick to something if it is motivated by a genuine desire for improvement than by a fear of inadequacy.
Build realistic objectives: Make sure that the goal you are setting for yourself is realistic and appropriate. Learning to set SMART goals is an acquired skill that comes with practice. You may also find it helpful to check our article on managing expectations.
Learn from previous setbacks: As ominous as it sounds to some of us, failure can actually help down the line. By analyzing what went wrong, you get the chance to learn more about yourself and use this experience as data to build a goal more suited to your individual needs.
Use your resources: There is no shortage of articles, videos, and even entire books, dedicated to coping with perfectionism. You may also find it helpful to have an accountability partner, someone to encourage you in meeting your set objectives, be a sounding board, and support you on your journey.
Breaking free from the shackles of perfectionism is no easy feat, as it pervades every aspect of our modern lives. In a world where the alternative to perfection is often discarded, it can be difficult to pause and truly appreciate who we are. The first step of the process is understanding our relationship to perfectionism, why it can be harmful and counterproductive in the long run, and getting a clear picture of the motives behind our aspirations. As time goes by, it becomes possible to build a healthier, more sustainable relationship with yourself in that regard, and thank yourself for the journey. You truly deserve it.