How to Overcome Your Perfectionist Tendencies

Not comparing yourself to others opens the door to enjoying what you are doing
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Reprinted with the kind permission of Toni Bernhard.

Here is a story that I tell in my book How to Wake Up:

When I first started teaching, I compared my performance in the classroom to that of my colleagues. I even graded myself — a solid B+. Although I had many colleagues who rated lower than a B+ on my scale, I didn’t give them a second thought. All I cared about were those whom I thought were better teachers than I was, and I judged myself negatively for not being in what I considered to be the A range. This was a source of much suffering for me. I even considered leaving my position.

One day I shared my unhappiness with my friend Guille who had no connection to the law school. She looked me straight in the eyes and said drying but sternly: “There can only be one Beatles. That doesn’t mean other people shouldn’t make music.”

It’s amazing how a casual comment made by someone at the right moment can be life-changing, but at another moment, the same comment can go in one ear and right out the other. Thankfully, this comment from my friend was life-changing for me. Now, years later, looking back at her casual remark, the truth of it seems obvious. At the time, though, I was a perfectionist.

If I couldn’t do something that rated 10 out of 10 — or at least close to that — I didn’t want to do it at all. Being a perfectionist was an ongoing source of suffering and unhappiness for me. I demanded it of myself at work. I demanded it of myself during my leisure time, whenever I’d engage in artistic endeavors or in activities that are supposed to be fun, even if I wasn’t that good at them.

Unfortunately, many of us have been conditioned to hold ourselves to impossible standards. This is a stressful mind state to live in, that’s for sure. Our belief may have been instilled in us by our parents or other influential people in our lives — even by the media.

This leads us to engage in a comparing mindset, where we rate or grade ourselves in comparison to others in almost everything we do. And you know what happens then: We almost always come up short in our estimation. (Most of us don’t realize that the very people we’re comparing ourselves to are doing the same thing we’re doing — and coming up short in their own eyes!)

I’m not suggesting that we can’t learn from others, but we need not believe that nothing less than perfection on our part will do.

When my friend Guille made that comment to me, it was as if she had snapped her fingers and brought me out of a trance — a trance that meditation teacher Tara Brach refers to as “the trance of unworthiness.” (See her book Radical Acceptance.) After Guille’s comment, I felt okay about the quality of my teaching. As an unexpected bonus, my teaching improved. I’m sure it was because I stopped striving to be perfect. I told myself: “Continue to prepare really well, then relax when you get to the classroom, and just do your best.”

I wish I could say that was the end of my perfectionist days, but Guille’s comment hasn’t always carried over into other aspects of my life. And so I’m a work-in-progress on the “recovering perfectionist” scale.

Neuroscientists, the Buddha, and habits of the mind

I’ve been encouraged in my effort to change this stressful habit by modern neuroscientists, who, echoing what the Buddha said over 2,500 years ago, tell us that our habits are not set in stone. The mind is pliant. We can change the way we think and act. We can, in effect, rewire the brain.

One way to rewire your brain to overcome your perfectionist tendencies is to stop always comparing yourself to others. Instead, start forming a new habit in the brain, such as becoming your own unconditional ally. To me, this means never siding against yourself.

Changing a habit takes practice. The first step is mindfulness — that is, becoming aware of a painful habit, such as always comparing yourself to others. The good news is that every time you stop engaging in this habit, it gets easier the next time, because you’re forming a new habit — one that won’t be a source of unhappiness, or even misery at times.

Two ways to overcome perfectionism: mindfulness and self-compassion

First, work on not letting the comparing mindset take hold. When you become aware that you’re comparing yourself to others over something you’re doing, stop this stressful habit by bringing yourself to the present moment. To do this, take a couple of conscious breaths, and switch your attention to the sincere effort you’re putting into the activity — and maybe even to how much fun it is!

Second, a little compassionate self-talk can help here. I use it when I start evaluating myself against some perfectionist standard. I’ll silently say: “Stop it. You’re enjoying what you’re doing. It doesn’t matter if you excel at it.”

Bottom line: The comparing mindset feeds our perfectionist tendencies and almost always leads to negative self-judgment. We all know how painful it is to judge ourselves negatively, but we can change this habit.

No matter what activity I’m engaged in, when I’m able to stop believing the thought: “If I’m not as good at this as the Beatles were at music, it’s not worth my effort,” a tremendous burden drops away — the burden of holding myself to unrealistic standards.

Zen master Shunryu Suzuki said, “We should find perfect existence through imperfect existence.” I’m thankful that — slowly but surely — being perfectly imperfect is fine with me.

© 2018 Toni Bernhard.


Toni Bernhard is the author of the award-winning  How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers, now in a revised and updated edition (2018). She is also the author of How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow and How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide. Before becoming chronically ill, she was a law professor and dean of students at the University of California—Davis. Her blog, “Turning Straw Into Gold” is hosted by Psychology Today online. Visit her website at www.tonibernhard.com.
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