Putting perfect aside
Deena Kara Shaffer
Is a fear or failing getting you down? Is the pursuit of “perfect” punishing? To understand the pitfalls of perfectionism, the impacts of fearing failure, and the gifts of focusing on the journey rather than the destination, I interviewed two experts for their insights. Ryerson University’s Dr. Martin Antony, Psychology professor and author of When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism (New Harbinger Publications, 2nd edition 2009), and Dr. Diana Brecher, clinical psychologist and innovator of the ThriveRU resilience initiative, shared their expertise to help reveal the gifts of so-called failures, including greater success and self-acceptance.
When I asked Brecher about the terms, “success” and “failure,” she said, “it’s almost impossible to know at what point one can judge whether we’ve actually failed at something, or succeeded. We’re all works in progress. If we define a setback as a failure, we often stop trying.”
By employing what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset,” we can emphasize process over final product. With a growth mindset, we’re more likely to view hurdles and mistakes as helpful feedback on our road to success. Brecher calls it “critical information about our progress that will help us succeed.”
“Failures can help,” explains Brecher, “if we are willing to learn from them. They teach us where we went wrong, or fell short of the mark.” And, she stresses, if we’re open and willing to try again with the new information bestowed by a setback, we’re likelier to succeed.
So why can it feel so hard to let go of how we want things to be or turn out? Brecher says, while “ideals can be motivating, they can also work as a form of self-sabotage if we’re never satisfied. Striving toward optimal performance is a worthy goal, but perfection is unattainable.”
“Having standards and wanting to do well,” says Dr. Antony, “can lead to positive outcomes, so long as they don’t become unattainably high, or become the gauge against which we measure our whole self.”
Antony points out that perfectionism can also manifest in “arbitrary ideals, where everything has to be just right and lined up perfectly.” Again, while being detail-oriented can serve us well, if taken too far, it can leave us bogged down, feeling like delegation is impossible, and that no one can do it as well.
Perfectionism can also show up in our relationships, Antony points out. We might be hard on others, like those we work with, or controlling in our close personal interactions. We might even try to change the behaviour of others.
Perfectionism can lead to procrastination, explains Antony, sometimes to the point of interfering with performance, like spending hours drafting a perfect email response yet never sending it. Another example is someone who feels like they always have to look perfect in front of others, deciding to stay home, potentially missing out on job interviews or meeting new people.
Antony says, “Like any trait, perfectionism comes from many places. Genetics factors in, as does learning from those around us—including parents and role models who are themselves perfectionistic, or the opposite. There are the beliefs prioritized in a family and culture, for example to ‘always do one’s best.’ And, perfectionism can be reinforced by feedback like, ‘you did such a great job.’”
When perfectionism interferes, Antony says, “cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help, by offering treatments that involve identifying and challenging one’s thoughts like, ‘I can’t make mistakes,’ and such beliefs as, ‘I am how I achieve.’
“CBT also invites practising behaviours like intentionally trying to do things a little less perfectly and seeing what happens. While the research is new, there are good reasons to believe that mindfulness can also help through taking an acceptance stance.”
Rather than being daunted, Brecher hopes perfectionists can open to reframing “failure as feedback, as fuel for future success. Failure teaches us a great deal about ourselves, including how not to repeat the same mistakes. To insist on perfection may mean to never try; to never try is to never fail; and to never fail is to ultimately never succeed.”
“Self-compassion is necessary,” says Brecher, “to forgive ourselves for not quite reaching perfection. It is how we can quell our self-critical inner dialogue, and become satisfied with good enough. There is, in fact, an inverse relationship between self-compassion and perfectionism.”
Antony suggests, “Do what you can to succeed, do what gives you a sense of meaning, but can you respond in more flexible, adaptive ways? After all, there is no path to success without failure. The only way to be a brilliant pianist is to be a bad pianist for a long time. Failure has a function. It is designed to teach us how to improve our skills and get better.”
Deena Kara Shaffer, PhD, is a learning specialist at Ryerson University, co-creator of the Thriving in Action initiative, and owner of Awakened Learning, resilience-based educational coaching and consulting. @deenakshaffer