Tip #139: Stop thinking you have to be perfect.
The Why: The world through the lens of anxiety can seem very black and white, particularly in relation to the way we view ourselves.
One wrong thing said, one misdeed, one instance of accidentally not holding the door open for someone behind us, and suddenly we are the worst person in the world. We punish ourselves excessively for things most people would be able to brush off as a one-time incident.
Let me ask a question: who here has lain awake in bed at night thinking of something awkward or embarrassing they said or did a few days, weeks, months or even years ago?
I know I certainly have, it’s pretty much my nightly routine along with podcasts and brushing my teeth.
This is the lie anxiety will happily whisper in your ear: either we’re perfect all of the time and so are a good person, or we’re not perfect all of the time and so are a bad person. It’s black and white.
There’s a reason for this line of thinking that goes beyond simply being a perfectionist. Our anxiety makes us search every memory and every moment for things we’ve done wrong, or a bad reaction, or a person seemingly acting off with us because we already view the world negatively. Therefore, everything that happens around us is filtered into our minds through this gaze; we look for the danger, and so we find it.
Because of an anxious person’s amazing capacity to overthink everything, we begin to ruminate; the event going around and around and around in our minds like a horrifying carousel of social awkwardness. Once we have overanalysed and found the danger, our instincts and senses are completely alert and focused on the one thing. This is why it is so difficult to let go of these kinds of thoughts once they happen.
The combination of the above two factors is what gives an anxious person their need to be perfect; because any transgression (or supposed transgression) from what we consider to be ‘good’ causes us such great anxiety and pain that our brains tell us to avoid them at all costs. It’s a vicious circle. We have a great anxiety about any mistakes we make, and because we know the pain mistakes cause us, we attempt to avoid making them. This may not seem so bad, because making mistakes seems an okay thing to avoid on the surface. But eventually, because anxiety functions in the space of extremes, it leads to this way of thinking; we must be perfect, or we are nothing.
The First Thing You Can Do To Let Go Of Being Perfect: Be Realistic.
No one can be perfect, no one can avoid making mistakes, no one escapes life without at least a few scrapes and bruises. Why?
Because it’s how we learn, it’s how we grow. Mistakes are the fuel that lights the fire of personal development. We need to make mistakes to learn how to do things better next time.
Think back to when you last learnt how to do something; did you get it right the very first time? or even the second time? or even the third? If you did, well done, you’re a genius. But for the majority of us, things take time and practice. When you begin to ride a bike, you very quickly learn that you need to use your breaks, or you’ll end up crashing (usually you’ll learn this by not using your breaks, and thus crashing). You need to make errors to learn, sometimes the hard way, not to do them again.
Now of course, hurting or offending others is something to be avoided, but unfortunately, it’s not always possible or realistic. What you can do is apologise, and learn how to handle things better next time. You can’t keep punishing yourself for the past, not when there’s a big ol’ future out there to improve in. Punishing yourself is a waste of energy, improving yourself is a much better use of it.
The Second Thing You Can Do To Let Go Of Being Perfect: Follow The Three-Step Rule.
One piece of advice that’s helped me through this process is this: all you can do is what you feel is right, with the information you have at the time.
Sometimes we get things wrong because we simply didn’t know they were wrong, or would be perceived as wrong, at the time. We may take a joke too far, use someone’s pen without asking at work, put something in the bin and not in the recycling, and end up really upsetting somebody. But we don’t always know everyone’s humour, everyone’s boundaries, or someone’s level of care for the planet.
Once we’ve acknowledged and accepted that at some point in our lives, we’re going to mess up, the next step in letting go of the need to be perfect is how we deal with our mistakes. This is because having a plan in place to rectify a bad situation, should it happen, gives us a safety net.
When something goes wrong we’ll think: instead of freaking out and punishing myself, I know what I can do to make the situation right, resolving the issue and removing my anxiety about it.
So, the first step is to honestly and sincerely apologise for what you’ve done. You have to mean it (hopefully you genuinely do). Acknowledge their feelings, hear them out without interrupting, and try to understand why what you did hurt them. Definitely don’t immediately jump to your own defence, apologies are about listening at first, not talking.
The second step is to promise to try not to do it again. This will give the person the reassurance that you’re dedicated to not making the same mistake again. However, by using the word ‘try’, you’re still being realistic. Sometimes new habits take some time to form. For instance, I used to always leave my glass out rather than putting it straight into the sink which drives my mum up the wall. However, getting out of the habit of doing this took me a few tries, but saying that I promised to try showed her that I did care about how it made her feel, and that I was trying to improve. If I had promised flat out never to do it again, she would’ve felt even angrier and disappointed when she came in and saw my empty mug staring at her from the table.
The third step is crucial; don’t do that thing again. As we’ve discussed, sometimes breaking a habit that annoys someone does take some time, but eventually you want to get to a place where you genuinely never do that thing again.
The Third Thing You Can Do To Let Go Of Your Need To Be Perfect: Know That Your Anxiety Will Lie To You.
When you have anxiety, everything can seem to be the end of the world (sometimes literally). This is why it’s important to take what your brain is telling you with a pinch of salt. Anxiety exaggerates and lies; it’s its modus operandi.
So, sometimes that awful thing you think you’ve done, really wasn’t that bad. It’s important to be able to tell the difference between genuine mistakes, and things only you are perceiving as mistakes. This can be an incredibly hard task.
Usually, it’s good to follow this rule; if the person you think you’ve offended or hurt, or others around you, say that what you’ve done is wrong, what you did was probably wrong. However, if no one has mentioned it, and the person you think you’ve offended is acting normally around you, it probably wasn’t.
If you still feel unsure or insecure, sometimes you can simply talk to that person about it to clear the air. Saying something like “Thanks for being patient with me the other day when I was a bit short” or “Sorry if the other day I came across as being x” can smooth over the cracks, and give you your sanity back.
The Fourth Thing You Can Do To Let Go Of Your Need To Be Perfect: Forgive Yourself.
Learning to forgive others is a beautiful thing, and the key to a happy existence. Anger is a horrible and toxic emotion to hold onto. But learning to forgive yourself is also vitally important, but can be difficult.
Forgiving yourself comes down to one question: would I forgive someone else for this?
Often when we’re struggling mentally, we can end up treating ourselves incredibly badly. We have a negative view of ourselves, so look for any evidence to back this thought up, even overlooking all the good we do to support the bad self-image we create. We hold ourselves to unattainable standards, almost on purpose, so when we fail we can say “I knew it, I knew I wasn’t a good person.”
Instead, we should hold ourselves to the standards we hold of our friends, our family, or our loved ones. Say that you accidentally step on a strangers foot at rush hour, you may want to punish yourself eternally for the pain you may have caused, but instead stop and think “would I forgive a friend for doing that?” The answer is: of course you would.
Self-forgiveness takes practice, it may not come easy at first, but following the above steps in this post will help you a lot on that journey.
The Fifth Thing You Can Do To Let Go Of Your Need To Be Perfect: Know This Truth
One of my favourite quotes of all time is this: “you can be both a masterpiece and a work in progress.”
Imagine a famous artist working on a portrait; at various points you may think “wow, that’s beautiful”, but the artist won’t be quite done.
The same is true of humans. You can be a good person, and still be unfinished. Your qualities that still need improvement don’t disqualify or lessen the great things about yourself.
There is another art analogy here; the practice of painting called Chiaroscuro. Chiaroscuro is the Renaissance practice of mixing light and dark colours, because the darkness made the light stand out more. People are also like this. Everyone is just a mix of both good and bad, light and dark, we exist as shades of grey (not fifty shades). So long as our good qualities outweigh our bad, and we work to improve ourselves, we’re not doing too badly.
The truth is, no one’s perfect. Let me repeat that: no one is perfect. Once again: no one is perfect.
Once more for the people at the back: NO ONE IS PERFECT.
Now repeat this sentence a few more times to yourself. Really understand what that means.
Perfection is impossible, its unattainable, and if you hold yourself to that standard, you will always fall short and be disappointed.
Does that sound harsh? Good, because if it sounds harsh it means that you were hoping you could strive for perfection, so feel uncomfortable with the idea that you can’t. If you feel uncomfortable right now, it’s because you’re in a perfectionist mindset. Now that you’ve acknowledged this, you can begin to get out of it. After all, you can’t fix a problem you don’t know about.
But, this doesn’t mean you can’t be good, that you can’t be great, that you can’t be inspiring, that you can’t be amazing. I truly believe you can be all of those things, dear reader.
Making mistakes doesn’t automatically make you a bad person; what matters is your attempt to rectify your errors, your dedication to improvement, and your intentions.
There’s a song by The Animals I love that goes: “Oh, Oh baby don’t you know I’m human, Have thoughts like any other one. Sometimes I find myself long regretting, some foolish thing some little simple thing I’ve done, but I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.” These lyrics summarise the point quite nicely; everyone feels they’ve gone wrong sometimes, but it’s about our intentions towards others and the world that shows who we really are.
Even the best people we know have messed up sometimes, and probably will do at various points until the day they die. As long as they haven’t caused serious physical or psychological harm to someone, we’ll probably not change our opinion of them.
So; set realistic expectations for yourself, know that everyone makes mistakes sometimes, don’t waste energy punishing yourself, put it into improvements, know that anxiety lies, forgive yourself and know that you can be brilliant and imperfect all at once.
If you can do these things, you can finally let go of the need to perfect, and start appreciating yourself for who you are, warts and all.