Ever noticed how the drive toward perfection that fuels our success also ends up running right over our happiness?
Call it the Perfectionist’s Dilemma.
Yes, the pursuit of excellence pushes us toward greatness. But as Dr. Marissa Pei points out, it typically leads us into a cycle of perfectionism, procrastination, and paralysis that never ends in happiness.
Pei is an organizational psychologist who’s gone from college professor to corporate consultant, executive coach, inspirational speaker, radio host, and author. Perfectionism, she says, is one of the eight ways we rob ourselves of happiness.
“I can speak to all of this,” she told me, “because I am a recovering perfectionist.”
Pei was working on her next book, The Eight Ways to Happiness, when she came up with eight “balancing tools” to help perfectionists rediscover our happiness. Obviously, we must start immediately and execute these tools perfectly. … OK, let’s just do our best.
BAKE YOUR OWN CAKE
Perfectionists typically crave external validation. We need some way to measure what’s “good enough,” so we go by what others say. Instead, we need to get to the point where we’re happy with the cake we’ve baked, and any compliments (or criticisms) that come later are just icing to go with it.
When Pei turns in for the night, she doesn’t think about what she didn’t get done. She simply asks herself if she did the best she could with the time and resources she had. Most nights, she said, the answer is, “Yes, I did. I baked my cake, and it’s good.”
NAME YOUR CRITIC
Perfectionists have an inner voice that tells us we should have done more, we need to do more, or otherwise questions our every move.
Give your critic a name and have a conversation with him or her. Pei’s critic, for example, is Rose. When Pei feels beaten up or like she’s focusing too heavily on criticisms, she puts Rose in her place.
“You got to be really tired,” she’ll say. “You’ve been criticizing me since 9 this morning. Take a load off. Sit down. Take a seat.”
She doesn’t throw her out of the car, she just doesn’t let her drive.
Stay Out of the Labyrinth of Poop
Negative thoughts, to put it bluntly, stink. And they lead to more negative thoughts, which ultimately leads to self-blame.
Most perfectionists have been given a belief system — what Pei calls “their BS” — that they once were responsible for someone else’s unhappiness. So if we don’t catch ourselves in the early stages of negative thinking, she said, we’ll end up blaming ourselves and get lost in a crappy labyrinth.
Fast From Complaining
Perfectionist are champion complainers because we’re always looking for what’s wrong. Pei actually has an app to help people fast from complaining. She calls this the “diet that is good for your soul.”
No matter how bad things are or how far we feel like we are from the Nirvana we expect for ourselves, our failure is temporary and unlikely to define us or our lives. In other words, It’s Not That Big Of A Deal.
“That’s also known as T-T-S-P, which is This Too Shall Pass,” Pei said.
If the average person has thousands of thoughts in a minute, Pei believes perfectionists have 50,000. All that activity can drive us crazy. Meditation is simply thinking about nothing. And not thinking allows us to reset and give our brains a rest.
For two minutes each morning, sit up and just breathe in and out. It will seem difficult when you start. But, Pei points out, “If you keep at it the same way you keep at everything else, you will get good at not thinking.”
In Chinese, eight is a homonym for good fortune, so Pei considers eight a lucky number. That’s why all of her lists have eight things. And that’s why she suggest a daily habit of naming eight things for which you are thankful. Specific things. You can’t say “friends and family.”
The payoff for the perfectionist is that it reminds us of where we’ve been and what we have, which makes it harder to obsess about what’s missing or what’s left to get done.
Open the Gift
Pei has noticed that her overachieving clients seldom take a vacation. If they do, they spend it planning their next vacation. They are on their phone, checking their email or calling in for meetings. They are focused on what went wrong in the past or what they need to do next, and they fail to find the happiness in the moment.
“The past is history,” she said, “the future is a mystery, and the present is a gift.”
Perfectionists need to stop and open the present — the gift of life.