I am a big perfectionist, often caught in all-or-nothing thinking. They are both (perfectionism as well as black & white thinking) severe cognitive distortions, probably the most frequent ones in the general population, and they hinder the quality of life to a great extent.
A thinking and mindset upgrade to properly manage these two distortions is mandatory, especially for unlocking a whole new productivity and happiness level in your professional and personal life. In this article, you will find the answer to how to successfully fight with your chronic perfectionism.
An illuminating concept that helped me deal with perfectionism and all-or-nothing thinking is called “good enough”. This model of thinking emphasizes that it doesn’t have to be perfect, it only has to be good enough. It completely changed my life.
Now I never go for perfect, I always rather settle for good enough, even if I still aim high.
The idea behind the concept of good enough is that it’s completely acceptable to be reasonably consistent with your goals and not following them 100 % of time to complete perfection; because the latter is simply impossible and only makes you unhappy and miserable.
- You don’t need a perfect job, you need a good enough job
- You don’t need a perfect spouse, you need a good enough spouse
- You don’t need to be filthy rich, you need a good enough financial situation
- You don’t have to eat perfectly healthy, your diet must only be good enough
- You don’t have to be a perfect parent, you have to be a good enough parent
- You don’t need a perfect life, you need to fight for a good enough life
The main driving force behind perfectionism is usually a desire to be loved and accepted. You think you can achieve that by being flawless. Perfectionism usually develops if you’re raised by overly critical parents or parents who have low capabilities for emotional care and loving support. To simplify, with perfectionism you usually want to show other people that you are good enough to be loved.
But perfectionism is a very bad surrogate for love. The main problem is that you strive for perfectionism in your achievements to show other people how good you are, but new achievements don’t equal a greater capacity for loving yourself and others. That’s why you always want more and more.
No matter how good the achievements you have, you never feel loved enough. Additionally, there is always somebody better than you and that can quickly humiliate you for not being good enough – ever. Thus you become extremely greedy.
No matter how much you earn, you want more. No matter how good your partner is, you are more focused on their flaws and you want better. No matter how successful your career is, there is so much more you could do.
One cheat meal and your otherwise good enough diet seems like nothing. Even though you just bought a laptop, you know that in 6 months there will be a new model, and the one you have won’t be good enough anymore. A greedy soul that’s never ever satisfied.
If you’re a perfectionist, you’re an obsessive “maximizer”. You want the best in everything. That may lead to greater achievements, but it may also lead to a miserable life (achievements ≠ happiness). Wanting the best all the time is impossible, and that kind of a distortion can only lead to being clinically depressed.
The characteristics of perfectionists and maximizers when it comes to choice-making are the following. According to Barry Swartz and his book The Paradox of Choice, they:
- Have a big fear of missing out on things
- Always compare their decisions with those of other people
- Spend too much time and energy even on small decisions
- Are generally unhappy with their outcomes and constantly want something new
Rather than a maximizer, be a satisfier. Absolutely aim high and have big goals, but also learn to be satisfied with good enough. Learn to recognize and be aware of your greed, and curb it with the new better mindset and by developing a greater capacity for self-love. Learn the difference between happiness and achievements. Become aware when things are good enough for you.
Here are the characteristics of satisfiers, they:
- Have fear of missing out on enjoying high quality of life, in other words being happy
- Accept the good enough concept
- Don’t obsess too much about their options
- Can easily move on after making a decision
- Are generally happy with their choices and outcomes
Don’t constantly beat yourself up with perfect. It’s good enough, now move on.
Slipping from time to time will make you more disciplined
Life is not meant to be perfect. You need imperfection in your life. If everything were perfect, there would be no room for improvement, there would be no room for effort and for the capacity to grow. Without flaws, life would be boring as f*ck.
You need some level of stress so that you’re stimulated to go forward and your brain synapses can grow. You need a little bit of imperfection that drives you towards your new accomplishments. That’s all good and necessary until it’s too much and it becomes toxic.
A benevolent man should always allow a few faults in himself.
And you can’t be constantly 100 % disciplined. You need to slip from time to time. You need a cheat day. You need to reset yourself. Like you take a break during the day, so you need to take a break from your consistent effort from time to time. Progress is always achieved in the form of one step back, two steps forward.
There are no straight lines in nature, and there is surely no straight line on the path to success. So don’t strive for perfection, but see everything together with flaws as perfect. Imperfections enable progress and help you on the way towards your goal by enabling you to not be too tough on yourself and go crazy.
When you slip, just remember that tomorrow is a new beginning. Don’t beat yourself up for your slips and mistakes, but calculate them into your doing and decision-making. They are part of the equation. What matters in the end is that you make many more good than bad decisions.
Don’t beat yourself up for your slips and mistakes, but calculate them into your doing and decision-making.
Don’t make good enough be an excuse for not giving your best
The good enough concept is a potential cure for a perfectionist, not a handy excuse for a lazy person. If you aren’t as motivated as you should be, if you are underachieving in your life, the new better mindset might be going from good to great rather than settling with the good enough. The good enough concept in such a case may even further hinder your ambitions and the will to act. You need to use the right tool for the situation you are in.
It’s not hard to know which tool to use – good enough or from okay to great. Deep down you always know if you are miserable because you aren’t giving your 100 % or because you’re greedy. What you should do is assess where you are based on the life success metrics, measure how fast your progress is, assess how much you trust the process and especially how realistic your expectations are.
Looking at life metrics immediately tells you what is the source of unhappiness.
Find a progress pace that is respectful and realistic – not perfect, but good enough. Make sure you are constantly improving and growing (the kaizen mindset), but also that you aren’t caught in a greedy perfectionist’s mindset that’s never satisfied with anything, where nothing is good enough. Find the middle path that works for you.
Aim high, but define good enough very clearly
It’s not enough to just know the good enough concept. You have to define what an ideal situation is for you and what is a good enough situation. You must have a clear definition of good enough to shut up your inner critic when you’re unrealistically assessing your current situation and your progress.
Defining how much money would be an ideal situation for you and going after the number is great, but also define how much money is a good enough situation. Being rich is probably ideal, but what about owning a house without debt and having savings for 6 months of expenses, would that be good enough for you?
You can make a persona of your ideal partner, the perfect partner, but you also ask yourself what flaws your spouse can have and still be good enough? Cheating is probably unacceptable, but what about them having a bad day from time to time?
Having a magazine cover body, being able to run a marathon, deadlifting 200 kg (400lbs) and no health problems would definitely be the ideal health situation. But what is a realistic good enough health situation for you? Realistically, there are body weaknesses you have to accept, you have to be okay with being ill from time to time, there are sports you are good at and bad at, and so on. Considering all that, what is a good enough health situation for you?
Please sit down, take a piece of paper or open a notepad on your computer, and define what is currently good enough for you in different areas of life – health, key relationships, money, career, competences, enjoying life etc. Really do the exercise, no excuses. Not doing the exercise is definitely not good enough. ;)
Emotional accounting combined with the good enough concept
I trust that you’ve done your homework above and defined the good enough situation you can happily live with. You have your minimum that should bring pure happiness and satisfaction in your life. Good.
Unfortunately, that’s not enough to fully employ the good enough concept. That’s because your perfectionist mind is like a crazy monkey that tries to attack you at every single opportunity.
So regularly talking back to your perfectionist inner critic is the key. You do that with emotional accounting. To perform emotional accounting, all you need a simple table (you can download the template below). The table for doing the emotional accounting has a few columns. Here they are:
- Toxic thought going through your head (automatic thought, self-criticism and perfectionism)
- Type of negative feeling it’s causing and the intensity of it (emotions)
- Performing a rational response to the toxic thought (self-defense with using the good enough concept)
- New intensity of the negative feeling (outcome)
You simply go from column to column. First you learn to identify toxic negative thoughts and cognitive distortions (I’m not good enough, I don’t earn enough, the Joneses have a better car etc.). Then you try to identify what kind of negative feelings the negative thoughts are causing you (anger, sadness, self-hate etc.).
In the next step, your greatest tool is self-defense, talking back to your inner critic with a rational response and a more realistic situation. That should lead to a big release of negative emotions. The good enough concept can help you with the rational response.
Here’s an example:
- I make so many grammar mistakes. I guess I am a poor writer. (pure perfectionism)
- Negative feelings: Anger, frustration (intensity: 8 out of 10)
- Rational response: Even if I still make quite a lot of grammar mistakes, I have great ideas for articles, my style is improving and so is my grammar, and I get a lot of positive feedback on my articles. I already am a good enough writer and I’m becoming better and better. I am proud of my progress.
- Negative feelings after the rational response: Anger, frustration (2 out of 10), feeling proud
As the first step, I suggest you use the template you can download below. You will soon become such an expert in identifying negative thoughts and performing emotional accounting that you will easily do the exercise in your head, like I do it now all the time.
Here you can download the template:
How much is just good enough to be happy in life and successfully move forward?
It may be hard to perform emotional accounting the first few times, but I promise you that it can completely change your life. Combining emotional accounting with the good enough concept can really help you successfully fight your perfectionist nature.
The best battles are the ones you win over yourself, and now you have the tools to fight your inner perfectionist critic. Good luck with your fight.