Perfectionism often makes life challenging. No matter what you do, you feel you could have done better or do more. Maybe guilt sinks in when you don’t have at least 20 grams of protein at a meal or you feel the need to do two-a-days when friends tell you they worked out twice today. With all this self-induced pressure, it’s no wonder research links perfectionism with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other mental health conditions.
Now, as our lives shift toward isolation and anxieties increase in response to the coronavirus, we may feel any hint of a need to do things perfectly — hit every deadline, still work out as much as we typically do, eat “clean” meals, talk to our parents every night and bake sourdough bread — reaching a peak.
“We almost always feel pressure to do it all and be it all: a friend, employee, boss, partner, son or daughter, sibling,” says Rachel Wright, a licensed psychotherapist. “Now this pressure has become more extreme because the only way to do this is through digital communication, which makes it harder to set boundaries.”
We’re trying to prove we are working as hard as always even though our supervisor isn’t down the hall, stick to our healthy habits and check in on loved ones while caring for children or aging parents. It’s a lot to handle.
This is why right now is also a great opportunity to embrace a “good enough” mindset.
THE DOWNSIDE OF PERFECTIONISM
“There is no such thing as perfect,” Wright says. “If you are a perfectionist, you are working toward something that is unattainable. And it will just continue to be a horrible experience since you can never have it.”
This impacts our mental as well as our physical health. Perfectionism is linked with chronic headaches, high blood pressure and even heart disease. It also affects those around us, making us critical of them as well and often behaving rudely or impatiently. This can escalate even more when you’re in close quarters for long periods of time.
Why make yourself and others miserable? Our lives have shifted; why not shift your mindset to be more compassionate and patient so you can better adjust?
ASSESS WHAT’S MOST IMPORTANT
The first step is to ask yourself, “What is doing my best? What does that look like?” and consider all aspects of your life: your relationships, habits, work and whatever else matters to you, Wright says.
Keep in mind that your personal best will look different from someone else’s. Doing your best to exercise right now won’t look like a triathlete doing their best to exercise. For you, maybe it’s moving your body in some way for at least 30 minutes each day. Obviously that’s not as structured as “lift weights Tuesday and Thursday and run Monday, Wednesday and Saturday”. But any activity is better than none, and moving your body in ways that feel good help you do it more often and give you a mental boost.
DROP THE “SHOULDS”
It also helps to drop the word “should,” Wright suggests. “’Should’ expresses an external obligation, something we think we need to do. We rarely use ‘should’ when we want to do something,” she explains. In addition to “must” and “ought,” “should” can cause feelings of guilt and make us act on fear or anxiety, rather than staying true to ourselves.
On the other hand, phrases such as “I want,” “I wish” and “I’d prefer” express intrinsic motivation. That’s when we have a desire to do something because it’s interesting, enjoyable or fun. It also leads to better performance, more creativity and less anxiety and depression.
“If you catch yourself saying ‘I should’ or ‘I should have,’ it’s a good opportunity to look at what is going on,” Wright says. “Usually it’s a societal rule or a personal rule, and those aren’t facts. Rephrase your sentence, and it will completely change the message behind it.”
If you still struggle to embrace a “good enough” mindset, give yourself a break. It would not be normal to change overnight. “Ask yourself why you feel you have to be perfect,” Wright recommends. “Then, consider that, if perfect doesn’t exist, what are you actually striving for?” Come up with something more concrete. So, rather than, “I should home cook my kids an organic meal every night”, maybe what you actually desire is, “I want my kids to have at least one vegetable at dinner.”
Go through this exercise with every aspect of your life if you need to. “It’s a muscle to learn how to treat ourselves with kindness. The more we flex that muscle, the easier it gets,” Wright explains.
If you keep practicing this while we’re all at home, you may find it’s so easy and beneficial that you continue to live with a “good enough” mindset when life returns to normally scheduled programming. “You’ll start to see the effects of what it does and see how much more you can show up for others. That in itself will give you encouragement and motivation to continue,” Wright explains. “When we start to be more compassionate to ourselves, we become better people and that compassion comes out onto our loved one, too. We can’t hold them to perfection, and we become more patient and loving.” And that’s good for all of us, anytime.