THE BLOG
02/13/2013 10:51 am ET | Updated Apr 15, 2013

The 5 Keys to the Death of Perfect

Linda, a 42-year-old attorney with two young boys, felt guilt and disappointment both on the job and at home. She never quite felt that she was where she needed to be at any given time. For all of her significant accomplishments, she often ended up feeling like a failure as a lawyer and as a mother. When she was on the job, she felt like she should be caring for her children. When she was home with the kids, she felt like she was wasting her talents and abilities. The standards that she set for herself were impossibly high, creating a built-in form of sabotage.

She made little time for her own self-care and often felt exhausted. Linda ran from home to work and back home again. The multitasking took a toll on her physically and emotionally. She also began to isolate from her friends, as she could not justify taking the time to make plans. Linda gave up her Pilates class and no longer felt romantically-inclined. Her once-active sex life slowly began to slip away. Everything and everyone became a distraction that took her away from the demands of her children and work. She now suffered from headaches, sleeplessness, and displayed signs of depression. Linda's need to be perfect at home and on the job was making her sick and unhappy. She felt as though she constantly disappointed her family and coworkers. Mostly, she was cheating herself out of the potential to enjoy the rich life she had created for herself.

Her self-imposed demands to be a perfectionist came from growing up in a family where expectations ran unrealistically high, and rarely did she or anyone else measure up. Linda internalized these early messages and took them to heart and they were beginning to take a toll on her emotionally and physically. She needed to learn how to override these voices from her past and learn to savor more of her life experiences on a day-to-day basis.

Perfectionism is the belief that mistakes cannot be made and that the highest standards of performance in all aspects of their life must consistently be met. Some characteristics of a perfectionist include:

  • Sets unrealistic goals and standards.
  • Personalizes mistakes and perceives them as a lack self-worth.
  • Depletes energy levels by being preoccupied with the fear of failure.
  • Interprets comments and suggestions as criticism or as a personal affront.
  • Exhibits rigid behavior out of fear of making mistakes.
  • Gets frustrated with outcomes that fall short of perfection.

The challenge was for Linda to preserve her goal of excellence while setting standards in her all facets of her life that were realistic and attainable.

Strategies for Overcoming Perfectionism

1. Become more fully present.

When you are truly living in the moment, when you are with your children, you can really devote that time to them. The same is true for work. A simple abdominal breathing exercise can bring you back into the now.

Abdominal breathing can help rapidly change the responses of the mind and body. The body moves from the "fight or flight" response, or the arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, to a calmer state know as the "relaxation response," or the parasympathetic response.

Practice by taking five deep breaths twice a day, with an emphasis on the exhalation. Make sure the exhalation is complete, as the relaxation occurs on the exhalation. Notice how you feel after each round of five breaths. When you don't have time to do the round of five breaths, take just one or two deep breaths and then notice how you feel. You can practice these breaths while with your friends, family, or coworkers. No one needs to know what you are up to regarding your breathing. The chances are quite strong that you will observe a shift in your perception and that you are more in the present moment. Although not always a perfect system, the breathing strategy transformed her feelings of hopelessness into a greater sense of personal empowerment.

2. Develop mindfulness.

Deep breathing helps with the development of mindfulness. A brief meditation technique practiced twice daily can help accelerate your ability to be mindful and benefit you in countless other ways mentally, emotionally, and physically. Learning meditation is easy. The problem most people have is in the follow through. It might help to listen to some guided meditations on CDs or iTunes.

Ideally, I find that it is best to internalize the practice of meditation. That is, to practice on your own, needing no props or anything external. In other words, learn how to meditate or initiate a relaxation response and practice it regularly until it becomes a part of your daily routine. At first, this might take effort and commitment. However, after a few weeks of practice, the rewards start to become evident.

Some of the benefits of meditation include: greater clarity of thought, heightened ability to relax, decreased experience of stress and strain, lower heart rate and blood pressure, enhanced creativity, and greater mindfulness. When you experience these benefits first hand, you might find the meditation so significant and compelling for the quality of your life that you will create the time to continue this practice.

3. Learning the value of "good enough."

Learning to give yourself permission to do your best in your role of mother, daughter, partner, professional and knowing when your efforts were "good enough" is a great gift for anyone who suffers with the idea that things must be perfect. As far as I am concerned, we must come together and institute the idea of "the death of perfection." Perfectionism is harmful to our psyches because it is unattainable and makes us feel like we are "less than," even when we are doing our best. The notion of the "good enough mother" or the "good enough lawyer" does not mean that you compromise your integrity or commitment to your responsibilities, but rather that you embrace the multiple roles of her life fully and realistically.

4. Progress, not perfection.

Use an affirmation such as "progress, not perfection." An affirmation is a phrase or statement that either asserts the truth or conveys some positive thought that is within the realm of possibility. Other examples could be, "whole and integrated," or "healing, health, and harmony." Whatever simple, positive statement speaks to you is probably a good one for you to use.

To practice your affirmation, first take a few deep breaths to unwind. Then, repeat your phrase. It is as simple as that. You can repeat your phrase while getting ready for your day, in the car, while exercising, or whenever it comes to mind. Affirmations are particularly effective when you are in a relaxed state, as that is when your mind is most receptive to suggestion. This is what the practice of hypnosis is based upon.

Repeating the affirmation "progress, not perfection" will help you to create an attitudinal shift that will better equip you to accept your own limitations as well as those of your family members, friends, and coworkers. Over time, you might even notice a greater sense of compassion for yourself. The "death of perfection" is a radical notion that when embraced helps to liberate us in today's wildly demanding world.

5. Celebrate your accomplishments. Most move so swiftly from one accomplishment to another that we don't get to savor or appreciate what we have done. Instead, we focus on what needs to happen next, which can lead to feeling overwhelmed or depressed. Focus your successes and make sure you find a way to acknowledge your achievements, big and small. You need to be your best cheerleader. Not only does this build your sense of joy, but it is also contagious. When others see you appreciating your own accomplishments, they are likely to do the same, which then creates a more positive environment at home and work. Once Linda was able to let go of the idea of perfection, she became open to experiences and ideas that expanded her learning potential. She understood that disappointments and mistakes were unavoidable, and she now had some tools to help her to recover faster from these setbacks. The meditation and affirmation techniques she now practiced routinely allowed her to be more fully in the present. The old voices that reminded Linda of her inadequacies quieted down and were replaced by the more positive perspective that came with being in the moment.

Linda began taking greater pleasure in her time with her children, her man, and her work. The more present she became, the more she savored her days and experiences. Inadvertently, she was also teaching her children the value of good enough and self-compassion.

How do you embrace the notion of "good enough" in your multiple roles?

For more by Randy Kamen Gredinger, Ed.D., click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.