Advice |  Perfectionists: Lowering Your Standards Can Improve Your Mental Health

Advice | Perfectionists: Lowering Your Standards Can Improve Your Mental Health


Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, PhD, is a New York-based psychology and neuroscience professor and health-tech entrepreneur.

I am a recovering perfectionist.

No surprise because the cards were against me. As a firstborn, I was more likely to hold myself to extremely high standards of impeccability than my younger siblings. Then I was drawn to detail-oriented, high-achieving careers – becoming a classical musician and later a psychologist and scientist. These professions are known to attract perfectionist types.

The standards that perfectionists hold themselves to are unrealistic, overly demanding, and often impossible to achieve. And when perfectionists fail to achieve perfection? We struggle with harsh self-criticism and are less able to bounce back and learn from our mistakes. It’s also unlikely that we’ll celebrate our accomplishments or be proud of having bettered our personal record. For a perfectionist, it’s all or nothing – you can be a winner or you can be an abject, worthless failure with nothing in between.

Women can be particularly vulnerable to the slippery slope of perfectionism. From childhood and beyond, we work hard to become Little Miss Perfect. Often we succeed and are heartily praised for our outstanding accomplishments: grades to beauty, gentle manners to being a killer on the volleyball court – and later in the boardroom. But these accomplishments quickly go from outstanding status to mere status quo. The bar for success is continually being raised.

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The research is unequivocal – there are few benefits to perfectionism. The relentless pursuit of perfection can lead to low self-esteem, depression and anxiety disorders, high stress about failure, and even suicidal tendencies. As a result, perfectionists often end up getting much less than they aspire to because they hold back, procrastinate, and even stop taking on challenges altogether – because it’s better not to have entered the race than to have spun. in ignominy.

Excellence is a healthy alternative

But there is a healthy alternative to perfectionism. It’s called excellenceism – working towards excellence rather than perfection. A term coined by Patrick Gaudreau, a psychology professor at the University of Ottawa, excellence involves setting high standards, but not beating yourself up for not achieving them. An excellencist is open to new experiences, takes unique approaches to solving problems, and is okay with making mistakes – as long as they can learn from their mistakes to strive for great results.

Interestingly, Excellencers often show higher levels of healthy anxiety compared to non-perfectionists – with more self-awareness and higher intrinsic motivation, greater progress on life goals, and more feelings of well-being. to be positive. What they don’t show are the burdens of perfectionism – higher rates of burnout, intense procrastination, long-term depression, debilitating anxiety and suicidal tendencies.

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Excellence takes the best parts of perfectionism and lets go of the toxic parts. It opens us rather than closes us. The rate of return analogy shows us how. Most of us assume that hard work pays off. Research often confirms this intuition: study more and your grades go up; spend extra hours on that quarterly report and your boss is more impressed. With difficult goals, as the input of time and energy increases, the result of success also increases proportionally. This is the area of ​​increasing returns – one unit of work = one unit of improvement. Simple math.

But unfortunately, the calculation is not so simple. It’s not just the amount of effort that counts. The quality too. Also, the amount of effort can backfire, and when it does, we reach the point of diminishing returns – spending more time and effort becomes ineffective and produces smaller and smaller improvements. Worse, diminishing returns can escalate into diminishing returns, where spending more time and effort makes things worse. It’s like adding extra hours of training in the gym, on top of the recommended diet, only to find that you’ve overtrained and are so exhausted that you can’t even do the basics anymore. This is where perfectionism tends to land us – in the areas of diminishing and diminishing returns, where more effort to achieve elusive perfection simply makes us less productive and less creative.

That’s why, whether it’s writing a story or doing something that’s maybe a bit more boring, like proofreading, perfectionists unexpectedly produce lower-quality work than what’s expected. they are actually able to do. Perfectionists take more time than non-perfectionists on repetitive or boring tasks, create more inaccuracies, and work less efficiently. The obsession with perfection affects scientists the same way. Highly perfectionist scientists create lower quality, less creative and less published papers.

The excellent, on the other hand, tend to strike a balance between the perfect and the merely ok, as they can be excellent without being perfect. They more often operate in the zone of increasing returns because they aim for high but achievable standards and invest sufficient, but not excessive, effort to achieve their goals. And they know when to take a break. They are not stuck on the exhausting treadmill of perfection and end up being better able to achieve their goals and solve difficult problems in innovative ways compared to their perfectionist peers.

How to be an excellent

If you’re like me, you weren’t born great, but you can train yourself to be one. Start small and try three steps.

1. Choose an upcoming activity where you tend to be a perfectionist. It can be personal or work-related, or it can be about your appearance. For me, it’s accommodation. I feel deep down that if I’m not perfect Martha Stewart, I’m a failure.

2. Make a list of what perfection looks like to you. To my hosting perfectionism, perfection is a spotlessly clean home, delicious food ready for everyone’s arrival, all prepared by a wonderful caterer or cooked fresh by myself. No ready-made sides from the grocery store for this perfectionist!

3. Look at the list and choose something that you will agree to be less than perfect. Maybe it’s just one thing, maybe it’s several. But pick something you can really give up. Do not worry. I started training myself to ditch the perfectly clean part of the house and the ready-to-eat items when everyone else hits my list. Then observe what happens: how did it happen? How do you feel? How do others feel? When I tried this experiment, I started cooking with my guests instead of for them, and it made my meetings more successful. Everyone, including me, had more fun.

Practice these steps first in one and then in several areas of your life. Soon you’ll find that shooting for a really good result gets you to something that’s still great – and without the burdens and exhaustion of perfectionism.

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