How to aim for progress not perfection

In a 2019 study of around 41,000 young people, researchers found that over the last 25 years, people across the US, Canada and the UK have become more perfectionistic in terms of: others having higher expectations of us, us having higher expectations of others, as well as us having higher expectations of ourselves. The rise of social media has been used to partly explain this effect and importantly, there are significant negative health outcomes associated with each form of perfectionism. So today, I want to talk about how to curb perfectionism and keep it under control so that it remains in service to you rather than you becoming a slave to it.

My name’s Dr Paul Brewerton, the strengths guy, Doctor of Psychology and Founder of Strengthscope. My podcasts land with you at the start of each week to get you off to the strongest possible start. I podcast about work, life and strengths and how you can get the most from each.

What is perfectionism?

Well, I said in my intro that compared to a few decades ago, we now perceive that others have higher expectations of us, that we have higher expectations of others, and we have higher expectations of ourselves – that’s actually three types of perfectionism: socially-prescribed perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism and self-oriented perfectionism – yikes!

Sadly, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts are associated with higher levels of each type of perfectionism. The more you show self-criticism and extreme concern over making mistakes and not being perfect, the more likely you are to be affected by these mental health outcomes. But wait! There seems to be a growing movement towards acknowledging this and doing something about it. More and more, I’m hearing people saying and reading people writing ‘aim for progress, not perfection’. Which sounds positive.

But how do you do that practically?

So first things first: often, when we’re compelled towards doing something in a way that isn’t helping us anymore, it’s because we’re acting out of fear. My observation is that perfectionism can be motivated by three different fears or anxieties: fear of judgement, fear of not getting love and fear of failure.

So, in facing into perfectionism, you first need to face into which fears are driving your behaviour. This is pretty heavy stuff and it may take a while to get there but ask yourself deep down, what might be leading to you trying to make things perfect? Is it one of these fears more than the others? Let’s take each one in turn.

Fear of judgement

Is it fear of judgement that’s dogging you the most? Fear of being judged by others, of not measuring up somehow? If so, here are some solutions. First, get feedback and lots of it. That’ll make you more resilient and less sensitive to criticism – ask people to tell you what they think…the reality is that they will probably be more positive than you think and will tell you that what you’re doing is good enough, you don’t need to polish or perfect it any more. You’ve heard of the 80/20 rule, right? Pareto’s principle…you’ll get 80% of the value from 20% of the total time you spend on something but the remaining 80% of the time you spend (trying to get it perfect) gives you only 20% more value.

Try to get good at knowing when you’ve reached a point that’s good enough and satisfy yourself that it is good enough, that any more is too much effort for not enough payback. Second, get even better at giving yourself feedback – in a compassionate and respectful way. Ask yourself what learning you got from something that went wrong rather than spending time and energy criticising yourself.

The reality is that you can’t know everything or be perfect the whole time, or any of the time for that matter…so look for learning and don’t beat yourself up. Be kind to yourself, like you’re you now talking to a six-year-old version of yourself. After all, we’re all still learning, we’re all still six. And third, switch off your socials from time to time, or at least recognise that insta perfect lives aren’t real, they’re filtered – what’s happening in your life right now is what’s really real in all its smoothness and all its crunchiness. Enjoy it, life is sweet, and savoury, and umami-ish.

I have another back catalogue podcast recommendation for more on this topic if you’re looking for some more inspiration and tips: Season 3, ep 2: Comparison is the thief of happiness. Check it out if you’re interested.

Fear of not getting love

The second fear I mentioned is the fear of not getting love. This can drive us to try and be perfect because we took on board from a young age that doing things perfectly would get us attention, affection and love from the people who we craved it from…most often our parents or caregivers. One solution here is to challenge that thinking and to be kind to yourself. Nobody’s perfect and nobody really thinks that anyone is perfect. Often, if you got given that lesson when you were growing up, it didn’t start as your thought, it was based on other people’s. So these ways of thinking get transmitted from generation to generation and you have the opportunity to challenge that and bring it to a halt with your generation if you don’t think it’s helping anymore. Secondly, try not to look exclusively externally for affirmation or validation, get it from you and tell yourself that giving it a go is enough, mistakes happen and that there’s always learning to be had. This ‘scripting’ that we’re given when we’re young as I said often comes from our parents – what they say to us and what they say to themselves.

I was with my Dad the other day – I know he has a perfectionistic driver that he gave to me because I worked that out, but I was just listening to him talking to himself (he does it loudly, you see). He does it with a hint of irony and playfulness in his voice, but kids are literal and I know I must have taken it all literally when I was growing up and hearing it. Anyway, he picked up the wrong book or whatever that he was going to show me and started saying ‘come on David, for God’s sake man’. That type of language, no matter how light and playful his tone, is big for a kid to pick up on and I have it in my head from back then as the right way to talk to yourself, to judge yourself, to set standards for yourself.

So check yourself and ask whether you might benefit from a new script or two! I have more on this at my podcast at Season 6, Episode 8: How to change the habits of a lifetime. Check that out for more.

Fear of failure

The third fear mentioned is fear of failure. Ask yourself if a fear if failure is what’s driving your desire to be perfect. Fearing failure can lead to us stopping short of trying new things and starting things that we want to do, just in case we fail. A solution here is a to cultivate a growth mindset, where you hold the belief that there is no failure, only learning. Carol Dweck is one of the best writers on this, do check her out.

Procrastination often comes from a worry that what you do won’t be good enough, so it stops you from starting, or from finishing something just in case it isn’t good enough; so you don’t do it and that way you avoid getting judged a failure. To get over this, tell yourself that getting things done is more important than getting things perfect. Don’t overthink it, just do it. And when it’s done, evaluate it kindly, like I suggested earlier. There’s lots more on this at Season 2, ep 5: Stopping procrastination. If you fear failure, know that you can trust yourself – you’re good enough, even when you fail. Trust that the strengths you have will be enough to get you through any challenges you may face. And that when your strengths don’t quite get you there, other people’s can help you too.

So there are my thoughts on aiming for progress and not perfection. I hope you’ve found them useful. If so, please like and share, and if you’re doing that on social, please accompany with a photograph of your real life, rather than one of filtered perfection.

Until next time, enjoy your imperfections, they’re what makes us human.

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