Perfectionism is Toxic

Are you a self-perfectionist?

Do you hold yourself to impossibly high standards?

Do you feel that you can never quite live up to the standards that you / society / others set for you?

If so, you probably are suffering from an all-too common mindset issue, known as Perfectionism.

Perfectionism in all its forms has one golden rule in common: it’s a recipe for absolute misery, low self-esteem, frustration and downright shame in life.

Why is Perfectionism so downright toxic?

‘Perfect’ is Impossible, so it’s all Downhill From Here

‘I’m just going to beat myself up until I get 6-pack abs.’

‘I fell off the wagon with my addiction again, I’m worthless unless I never do it again.’

‘I’ll feel good about myself once I made (insert arbitrary amount) of money.’

‘Perfectionism’ Is, by it’s very definition, impossible to achieve. This means that we are left with one of two possible states: 1) neutrality – we managed to do everything perfectly as-expected, or 2) negativity – we missed the absolute mark and can never feel good about ourselves.

When I was growing up, I was raised to believe that getting straight-A’s on my report cards was the absolute, bare-minimum. My father even confronted me about an ‘A-minus’ that I received, asking me, ‘why did you get an A-minus?’

Perfectionistic standards that we were raised with in childhood were ripe for internalization. We internalize those standards so much so that they have become a part of our adult-level anxiety responses. We treat ourselves in the same way that our parents treated us. If you’re late for work one day or say the wrong thing at a meeting, you beat yourself up, as if to say to yourself, ‘why did you get the A-minus, idiot?!’

It’s a horrifically unkind – no, it’s a downright cruel way to treat yourself because you’ve given yourself an impossible standard to meet. Therefore, failure is assured in your perfectionistic aims, and self-mutilation and discouragement is a 100% certainty.


‘Perfect’ is the Enemy of ‘Better’

There’s an old saying that goes, ‘Perfect is the enemy of Good.’ I have my own saying that I think is more accurate, ‘Perfect is the enemy of Better.’

Try to ask myself, ‘Is it helpful for me to try to be Perfect, or is it helpful for me to try to get Better in incremental ways?’

I’ve been working with a guitar teacher for almost a year now, and as skills go, learning guitar is no walk in the park. The movements are wholly unnatural, it hurts my fingers and challenges my coordination in strange new ways. But here’s the great thing about it: it’s wonderfully humbling. Sure, I’m still bad at playing guitar by any professional standards, but compared to the day I started, I am much, much better! That’s what mastery is, owning your process and committing to getting better, slowly but surely, over months and years. For a detailed set of instructions for how to harness this technique, I highly encourage you to read Mastery by George Leonard.

So, you can’t get 6-pack abs tomorrow or even after a year of dieting, but can you lose 5 lbs a month? The perfectionists in the room will lose those 5 lbs, look at themselves in the mirror and say ‘Yup… still fat.. Wow, I suck..’

Hopefully by now you can see why this is a recipe for disaster. Someone who commits themselves to losing a mere 5 lbs per month is well on the way to achieving the body they desire. That’s exactly how 6-pack abs are made! Instead of congratulating yourself by losing a small amount of weight at a time, you apply that awful, self-demolishing lens of perfectionism. You lose motivation and reach for the cookie jar again. ‘It’s not happening, I’m still fat and I’ll always be fat. I might as well give up, what’s the point?’

Get it? You’ve given yourself a standard that is impossible to achieve, so you will never give yourself permission to encourage yourself to continue. Instead of giving yourself a positive-feedback-cycle, you’ve chosen an negative-feedback-cycle. You tell yourself ‘I’ll feel good about myself when I’m perfect,’ but ‘perfect’ is a standard that is impossible to achieve. You might have far-reaching goals, but it is that notion of perfectionism that keeps you from achieving those goals.


Perfectionism uses the Exclusionary Lens

As you experience life, you will likely encounter individuals that appear to be ‘perfect.’ Either they have the ‘perfect’ girlfriend, the ‘perfect’ body, the ‘perfect’ career or are ‘perfectly’ wealthy, etc. I’m sure you’ve seen such individuals at the gym. I’ve seen some guys with adonis-like physiques that I would kill to have. So, this is direct evidence that these people are perfect, and I’m not, right?

Here’s a quote from Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday not who someone else is today.”

Sure, there’s somebody with an objectively ‘perfect’ body at the gym, but you may very well be more creative, more intelligent or make more money than they do. You might have a neighbor with a seemingly ‘perfect’ relationship, only to discover that they were just keeping up appearances and are filing for a divorce next month. I say this not to encourage you to compare yourself with others, but to understand that it is important not to be so selective in your perfectionistic thinking. In your travels you will encounter people who are exceptional at one or two things. You should not value those things to the detriment of everything else that defines you.


Improvement is about Process, not Perfection

According to Mastery (see above), commit yourself to a regular practice and process of gradual improvement and nothing more. A Master is just someone who’s arrived at that stage through many years of practice. Own your practice, commit to the inevitable plateaus, errors and mistakes. In my over 10 years of martial arts practice, I can’t tell you how many fellow students I’ve known that threw up their hands and quit when they didn’t pass a belt test. Their egos were so overblown that they adopted perfectionistic standards and fooled themselves into thinking they were capable of living up to them. The slightest amount of failure was too much for these losers to handle. That’s what a loser is!  A loser is a perfectionist who can’t humble himself enough to handle failure or learn anything. I have a black belt in Kenpo and I’ve failed at least two or three belt tests. If you already know everything there is to know, then why bother to learn anything at all?

Keep in mind that top-performers in any field, be that a physical sport, or guitar, or in business, arrived at their level of success through exactly the same means. So I’ll leave you with this final tidbit of wisdom:


Perfectionism is the Ultimate Excuse not to do it!

Sure, you’ll fail and it’s brutally hard. Progress comes slow and far-between, so why bother? It’s genetic! You don’t have time! They were probably born that way!

These are all excuses we give ourselves. We paint high-performers with the label ‘perfect.’ That way, we don’t have to even try.

Don’t be perfect and don’t fall for the perfectionism’s lies. Don’t accept the excuses. Instead of beating yourself up about your lack of 6-pack abs, try to lose an inch off your wasteline. Buy yourself a new shirt or something to celebrate. Mess up on playing those same old chords and then give yourself a pat on the back for practicing. Hell, it’s how the masters got to be masters in the first place.