I was trying to successfully do something that I had never been successful before in over ten years of trying:
Meditate every day for an entire month.
Meditate for 30 days straight.
And ideally, the goal was to meditate at least for a half an hour a day, but to be honest, if I could do it just once per day (no matter how long!) that would be perfect.
Here’s the strange thing: I liked meditating. I started when I was around twelve years old. But I quickly realized in my late teens that to truly reap the benefits (like anything in life), It would have to be a habit: something that I did every day without fail, or at least most days of the week.
Trouble was, despite loving it, I couldn’t get myself to do it regularly.
I could meditate for way longer than 30 minutes at a time. I had meditated in the Sahara desert for 5 days without food and I had done some other small retreats, so I knew 30 minutes a day would be cake.
There was one thing in particular that kept messing me up: I told myself that if I missed one day, or if I only went 5/7 days, it was a failure.
Then I would pull my hair, beat myself up, and start over again.
And I also wondered what was wrong with me. I mean, it wasn’t like I was trying to practice running for a marathon – I actually liked this.
But the more I tried – and the more I failed – to reach that 30 day milestone, ironically, the more I started to hate meditation.
I wish someone would’ve told me sooner that I was a perfectionist: the worst kind.
What I Wish I Knew About Perfectionism And Success
It wasn’t until quite a few years later, when I saw this trait manifest in many other aspects of my life (my relationship, my finances, pretty much any sport I ever tried), that I began to investigate.
Do these sound like you?
Rigidity & Control.
To the perfectionist, everything has to go just as we have planned. We need CONTROL. If we don’t have control, our neat, pretty, perfect little plans fly out the window and we go nuts. It just doesn’t work. Despite the fact that we understand that life is about change and we can’t possibly control everything, we don’t want to hear it or acknowledge it. Nope!
An Extreme Fear of Failure.
We hold ourselves to unrealistic standards and have unrealistic goals, and we tie our self worth to how well we achieve our goals.
Failure is obviously the scariest thing possible, because first of all, failure is catastrophic to perfectionists – even a small failure to the average person is a massive meltdown failure to us. Life is either success or failure. We’re either the best, or we’re not even going to bother trying. It’s stick to the diet 7/7 days, or just give up and quit.
This extreme fear of failure prevents us from learning: where failure is necessary. We’re so terrified by the idea that we may not be perfect – that we might not achieve 100% of the goal – that we often avoid things that even have a tiny, remote chance of failure.
This is a huge problem. Imagine if a child who hadn’t learned how to walk yet was a perfectionist?
“Oh man, I’ll never learn to walk!!! I quit!!”
But 100% of children are successful. Ponder that. Every single child learns to walk, despite failing for days, weeks and months – and they never lose that spirit.
Can you see how harmful perfectionism is to actually succeeding?
A close friend of the “fear of failure” thing is procrastination.
Obviously, if you think you’re going to fail, and failure means you’re emotionally going to get crushed or severely depressed, you’ll procrastinate because it’s been built into a huge beast.
Here’s the problem: we tend to procrastinate on even small things when we’re perfectionists.
(See also: This study on overcoming procrastination to get healthy).
Because we’ve built up failure to be such a big, nasty thing, small stuff like missing one day of eating right, or one day of walking, or one day of meditation is a big deal. And if you think you’re going to fail again, we drag ourselves and think, “mehh, I’ll get around to it soon.”
Insane Self Pressure.
“I’m going to make this happen no matter what!” is a statement I frequently tell myself. I tell myself I’ll stay up all night, work when all my friends are having fun, spend my weekends in a cafe working, and do whatever it takes to get to where I want to be.
Obviously this insane amount of rigidity and self pressure can make us pop.
What I’ve personally noticed is that I don’t often hold other people to the standard I hold myself to. I won’t expect a certain person to put in effort, but I’ll expect myself to put in the effort of the #1 achiever.
The self pressure we put on ourselves sometimes leads to meltdowns, breakdowns, panic attacks, or just overall anxiety.
“Must perform, must achieve, must be perfect” is kinda how the story tends to go. But what happens when that doesn’t work out?
All or Nothing Thinking
When I think back in my life, I didn’t start anything I knew I couldn’t become one of the best at. In my major in college, Biology, the bonus courses that I took and really liked I went overtime to prove I was the best.
But there’s a dark side: we often want to look the best. So we’re driven by craving feelings of looking or feeling good, special, important.
When I started Judo and other hobbies I noticed the same thing. If I got beat, my interest in the sport waned. I realized that I just wanted to look good and craved the feeling of “being special.”
How often do we start some kind of health regime, and we do great the first week, and then Friday rolls around, it’s a friend’s birthday or some kind of social event.
One of our friends says, “oh, just live a little” so we cave, enjoy the night, and then have that massive guilt the next day.
Did I just mess up all my hard work? Why bother even starting up? I ruined it all…
This is classic perfectionism.
Depression when the goal isn’t met
Succeeding at achieving our insanely huge, unrealistic goals is great when it works.
But for perfectionists, it sucks way worse when it doesn’t work. We beat ourselves up for months or years.
Some of us quit passion pursuits for life.
You can see this lots in top athletes that are on a winning streak, and once they lose once, they quit like a little kid. If they can’t be the best, they won’t play the game. Some successful people that have success streaks without any failures commit suicide when they finally do fail.
Since we “live” for achieving and pushing ourselves to that next level, if we don’t get there, we stop.
Low Self Esteem
And since our self esteem is closely tied to our self-achievement, when we don’t achieve the things we like, as big as we’d like, or as fast as we’d like, we’re crushed.
We begin hating ourselves. We doubt if our dream or goal is even possible or realistic.
And over time as we internalize the story of “I’m a failure,” it can become a reality as we get more and more depressed and doubtful.
How Perfectionism Makes Failure Much More Likely
Wait, don’t I want to be ambitious with my goal setting?
Don’t I want to reach for some of these crazy goals, and aim for transforming my life in one year?
Totally – but there’s a difference between growing and getting better, and perfectionism which ruins your ability to progress without stress.
Check this out:
Perfectionism is linked to obesity. One study found significant positive associations with obesity, weight issues and binge eating. What’s worse was that the participants reported more feelings of powerlessness, more impulsivity, a higher degree of perfectionism and lower self esteem the worse they experienced these episodes.
Perfectionism is linked to eating disorders. Another study found that perfectionism is linked to obesity and binge eating in women. Whereas the people in the study analyzed a couple key characteristics like media exposure, weight stereotypes, “fat talk,” emotional eating, and more, these were all worsened by perfectionism.
And ultimately, perfectionism is linked to failure and low self esteem. One study done on 149 students found that when they failed or had a rough day, they were more likely to blame themselves and not cope very well with the “failure.”
So at the end of the day, it might seem like it makes sense to be that person that inspires the room with your huge goal, but if you know you’re a perfectionist, here’s what you can do about it (to ensure long term success).
What you can do about it
Obviously, no list of 5, 7, 9 or 21 tactics can fix a deeply ingrained personality trait. For me it’s taken years of practice and regular work on it.
Chances are, you won’t just wake up one day and not take life so seriously. Chances are you won’t wake up one day and stop being so competitive, stop setting huge, unrealistic goals, and stop beating yourself up.
But for us, it takes an overall mindset shift – a totally different approach to life. And here’s what I mean.
The Beginner’s Mind
Remember my analogy about kids?
I’ve heard this a few times from other successful friends, and it instantly resonated with me.
Kids are born resilient. They’re born bouncy. They fall down, get hurt, cry, and then get back up. They have to, otherwise they don’t survive.
Kids struggle to learn to talk for years, and make thousands of tiny mistakes before finally beginning to articulate their first sentence in life.
And ultimately, the most relevant example is how kids learn to walk or ride a bike.
When a child first crawls between 9-12 months, that’s all they do.
But then they push the envelope. And they try standing.
They always fall down.
And they try again.
And they fall down.
And eventually, they hang onto a piece of furniture or mommy’s hand, and they begin to stand.
The next step is learning to walk. This one is a lot less fun because if you can’t walk, you fall down, and you often fall down hard.
Up they go, down they go, up they go, down they go.
Can you imagine a child perfectionist?
“Omg, I’m never going to be able to walk! forget this!! I quit!!! “And they quit. Can you imagine how ridiculous that would be if they just looked around another room full of kids the same age learning to walk? Some were already there walking easily, some were still falling, some were still crawling – but all of them learned to walk eventually?
Perfectionism inherently is deadly – it doesn’t lead to growth and improvement. It’s against the way of nature – being playful, learning, not taking life so seriously.
Eventually, every child is successful at learning how to walk. They forget the goal for a time, laugh, have fun, and keep trying until they get there.
And they all do.
Have the goal but forget it and have fun instead.
It’s important to have the goal, there’s no doubt about it.
But what’s more important is that you focus on the day-to-day, a concept that I call Master the Day.
Especially for perfectionists, we are extremely likely to become so goal obsessed that we let the present vaporize away before our eyes.
“Nothing matters until I get there,” is kind of the unspoken rule for us.
Unfortunately, this is what often drives us insane. Ridiculous goal setting without enjoying the process is what leads to that “Holy crap… how did I get here?” feeling that some of us wake up to in our 40s and 50s.
Here’s what I’d suggest.
A few weeks back I wrote an article on how to create healthy eating habits with this cool psychology study, and I recommended one key thing:
A. Stop doing the things you hate to get healthy, and instead, focus on things you enjoy.
It sounds crazy…
But here’s the basic idea: Chances are, you’re not going to do stuff you hate, even if you can get yourself to do it in the short run.
So if you hate running, don’t run. Go do yoga. Do zumba. Do a martial arts class. Do something else.
Habits more aligned with your interests are ones you are going to keep doing.
B. Ignore Achievement – Focus on Progress
One of the toughest things I’ve struggled with is fighting the feeling of “needing to achieve the goal” that I set for myself.
Lose those 30 pounds.
Boost my energy, sleep through the night, meditate a half hour a day.
There’s a bigger problem though: the more we emphasize the goal, the less we emphasize the process. And this is flat out a very fast road to unhappiness.
I have an alternative:
Overcome the feeling of craving success by just showing up every day.
Many of us perfectionists are achievers – we have to do something every day to feel productive, like we’ve taken a step to our goal. But focusing on the goal can lead to anxiety.
So here’s a principle that has dramatically changed my life.
Just do something every day.
That’s your goal for the day.
Whether it’s a 5 minute walk, three minutes of meditation, or ten minutes of yoga, as long as you do something every day you can cross off “I’ve done my goal” from your list for the day – guilt free.
(Side note: see this video on the three words that changed my life, related to this principle)
C. Remember that getting derailed doesn’t derail your progress.
I hear things like this a lot:
“I did so well for a week, and then on the weekend I went out with friends for a special occasion, ate like crap, felt so guilty the next day, and then decided that I messed up the entire week’s progress, so I quit. I repeat this over and over and over.”
Be logical. Let’s say you did 75% of making dinner. Obviously it’s not “ready” – but you still have 75% of a meal. It’s not like you’re going to starve or go hungry. 3/4 of the plate is filled.
The inner perfectionist will say, “That’s not 100% That’s like nothing! Incomplete!” But think about it for a second.
You still have 3/4 of a dinner made. Obviously there is progress. It’s not black or white. Not at all.
If you stick with a goal 75% of the time, it’s okay. You still did most of it – in other words, you’re still MUCH closer to the goal than you were before.
Fight the inner urge to think that if you weren’t 6/7 days adherent to your game plan, you won’t see progress.
Even 2/7 days with better habits than you had previously will give you permanent results for life.
What About You?
Sometimes this is influenced by the people around us, our close friends and family, and more.
But a lot of us forget that this is not a personality trait that makes us more likely to succeed, and it just increases loads of self pressure, anxiety, procrastination, and then self doubt when we do (inevitably) fail, no matter how small.
Have you dealt with perfectionism before? Share below and how you overcome it.