Why Being 'Perfect' Won't Make You As Happy As You Think (And 6 Things That Actually Will)

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why perfectionism won't help you find true happiness

I think of them, affectionately, as perfectionistas. Those people who begin a sentence with, “I know nothing’s perfect, but…” But what? There is no “but.” Nothing’s perfect.

Linked with suicide, addiction, anxiety, anorexia, depression, high blood pressure and early death, according to a recent study, perfectionism is on the rise.

Social media may be driving the upswing as we constantly compare ourselves with others. It’s no surprise that, with teens spending as much as 9 hours a day on social media, and the average daily worldwide social media use estimated at 135 minutes, we experience a desire for the perfect lifestyle, including all the perfect houses, jobs and people we see on-line.

Perfectionism, the relentless striving for flawlessness and excessively high performance, sets the high bar by which we consistently judge ourselves and find ourselves wanting. At the same time the perfectionist worries about how others evaluate them.

I’m anticipating your question, the same one my clients pose: “What’s wrong with trying to be as perfect as possible?”

As it turns out, there’s plenty wrong with trying to be perfect.

When you’re attached to perfection, it’s almost impossible to finish anything, because it’s never going to be perfect. Making decisions is fraught with difficulty because you never know whether your choice is the “right” one.

Self-criticism and shame go with the territory — you think you’re imperfect, it’s obviously your fault because you’re not good enough and you’re a bad person. You avoid situations in which you might make a mistake or misstep, so you never try anything new. You don’t let anyone know when you make a mistake because it would be too shameful.

Among the most unattractive aspects of the perfectionista persona are the dual tendencies to speak only of your successes and to expect perfection from others.

What’s a perfectionista to do?

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Here are 6 ways to move away from the rigid constraints of perfectionism and toward true happiness:

1. When you have to make a decision, stop maximizing and start "satisficing."

Always looking for the next best thing, you have trouble choosing a dress, house or partner. You imagine doing more research or comparison shopping with unearth the best whatever.

Popularized by psychologist Barry Schwartz, when "satisficers" make a decision, they choose from a few selections instead of looking in every nook and cranny to find all the possibilities. It may seem difficult at first, but with practice you will find that, not only does it take less time, you'll be happier with your choice.

Do you know many people who say, “Yeah, my husband’s great, but I really think if I kept going out with more guys, I could have done better?” For most things, there is not one “right” choice.

2. Set appropriate goals and limits in order to finish projects.

You think tweaking one more thing will yield perfection, but you know the trap. Think about plucking your eyebrows or cutting your bangs to perfection and how crazy that can get — you keep going and going until you’re penciling in brows or begging your stylist to do something with the wreck you’ve made of your hair.  

Look at your goal — whether it’s in terms of time, quality or another dimension — and ask yourself whether it’s rational and realistic.

For example, at some point I must stop writing this article and send it to my editor. Ironically, it will not be perfect. I have a time I plan to let it go, and that’s it. It’s realistic because I’ve looked at the time I’ll be able to put in between now and then. I’ve spent a set amount of time reading about the subject, and, while I could always read more, then I’ll never finish. It feels so good when it’s finally done!

As we say in the coaching biz, finished not perfect.

3. Change your thought process to allow for self-praise instead of self-criticism.

When you do not win first place in the art show, get the perfect job or run the perfect marathon, you point the finger at yourself for how bad you did, and what a bad person you are.

David Burns, in his “Dare to be average” work, has recommended focusing on your process instead of your outcome. Whether you’re training for a marathon or doing a marathon of job interviews, the key is to focus on what you’re doing and whether you’re sticking to your plan, the process.

Don’t focus on the outcome, such as how fast you ran in the marathon or whether you landed a new job this week. Notice what you’re doing right instead, like the friend you made at mile 18 or sending out four resumes a day.

And relish the parts you enjoy, too! If you feel on top of the world because you ran a marathon or totally connected with the person who interviewed you, recognize that these are occasions for joy and celebration.

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4. Dare to be average in that new activity you’ve longed to try.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard people say they do not want to try a yoga, dance or exercise class because they don’t know how to do that type of yoga, dance or exercise. Of course if you’ve never repelled you will not know what you’re doing. But how are you ever going to learn anything new if you don’t try?

If your balance isn’t great in your first yoga class, so what. Are people going to laugh at you? Will they think you don’t belong in the class? If you don’t learn the tango move the first time, is the teacher going to kick you out? Will people refuse to partner with you? Possibly yes, to all of these, but probably not.

Try not to allow this type of irrational thinking to keep you from growing. And what if someone does laugh as you flop instead of flow in your first vinyassa class? Is that sooooo terrible? Does it make you a bad person? Of course not! You’re a work in progress, and sometimes average, like the rest of us.

5. Share your hits and misses.

No one relishes talking about the botched date, the miss at work or their dark and twisty thoughts. Balance this against the fact that no one likes a person who never has problems with the boss, the kids or the spouse.

You imagine people won’t like you because you aren’t perfect, but quirks and eccentricities are exactly what we love about people. We also love people who make mistakes, don’t always get what they want and who regularly screw things up. It allows us to share our own misses.

And while it’s fine to celebrate successes, know that you’re more than your wins. Failure makes us human, and talking about failure allows us to get the support we need and increases our empathy toward others.

6. Stop expecting others to be perfect.

I know you don’t really expect people to be perfect, but, asking why the dishwasher wasn’t loaded the “right” way or why the grade is a 98 instead of 100, and not being able to hire someone to do something around the house because they won’t do it the [perfect] way you would... come on now!

It’s like saying no one else knows what they’re doing, no one tries hard enough and no one is getting it right. Others can feel your distain. It’s unpleasant.

Once you stop harping about these things, you’ll notice it doesn’t really matter how the dishwasher is loaded. Accepting the imperfections in others helps us accept our own, and vice versa.

Reign in your perfectionism by trying some of these strategies. You are almost guaranteed to be happier because you will finish projects, make decisions, praise yourself more, criticize less, try new things and get more social support when you’re in a jam.

Most important, you may get the love you need when you stop annoying the crap out of the people closest to you by demanding they adhere to your excessive standards of excellence.

As Wabi-Sabi teaches us: Nothing lasts… Nothing is finished… Nothing is perfect. Tell that to your inner perfectionista.

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Judith Tutin, PhD, ACC, is a licensed psychologist and certified life coach. Connect with her at where you can request a free coaching call to bring more passion, fun and wellness to your life.

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