How to be perfectly imperfect: Here’s how to stop comparing and start living instead
One of the big problems with perfectionism is that it often disguises itself as ambition, drive and motivation. All of those things can be good. It’s good to strive for something. It’s good to have dreams, to work hard to achieve. But these traits can fast become obsessive, all-consuming and unattainable. Perfectionism has a wicked way of imposing impossible-to-reach standards upon us. Often when we meet one of the standards, another one pops right up to try us – kind of like the game Whac-A-Mole. And just like trying to hit faux moles at record pace, perfectionism can be exhausting.
It can be really, really difficult trying to be absolutely amazing at everything you do. If you want to shake off perfectionism, firstly you need to acknowledge it’s not good for you. Just like smoking or too much alcohol, researchers are all in agreement that perfectionism can be highly detrimental to your health. When you notice it’s getting too much, pause, re-prioritise and put your wellbeing top of your to-do list.
Think about it: what would actually happen if something you did wasn’t quite perfect? Chances are the world won’t set alight and your loved ones won’t all turn against you. Don’t believe me? Give it a go. Try it with something with low-level risk – like sending an email to a workmate without proofreading it, going out without brushing your hair or buying something without reading every single review ever first. At first, it might seem totally unnatural but it’ll help you see that you really, really don’t have to be perfect at absolutely everything.
Before bed, write down everything that went well that day and what you’re grateful for. I find this so powerful. It’s so easy to finish a day thinking “today was rubbish”, but every time I’ve challenged myself to write down what went well, I’ve been surprised at how many little positives I’ve found. It’s a good way of reminding yourself that although things might not be perfect, there’s still good to be found in every day.
Self-compassion guru Paul Gilbert has found that our brains have three different emotional regulation systems which we flit between to manage what we do and how we feel.
The first two are the powerful threat and drive systems. The threat system is the fight or flight mode that comes into play to protect us but can also lead us to overthink and panic. The drive system, which relates to perfectionism, is the system that motivates us towards the things we want (like a new job, a better car, more money, fitness goals).
In moderation, both of these systems have positive qualities. But if our brains spend too much time in either one, our mental well-being can suffer. For example, spending excessive time in our drive system can lead to addiction, burnout, stress, greed and being too hard on ourselves. Whereas, being too tuned in to our threat system can result in anxiety, worry and distress.
The best way to keep our drive and threat system in check is to tap into our third system: the soothing system. This system is all about being content – not seeking, striving or worrying about what we don’t have – and embracing the here-and-now.
It’s really hard to think positively when you’re stuck in a whirlwind of negative thoughts. So start by trying to find just one exception to the narrative your inner critic is taunting you with. For instance, when my narrative is telling me I’m unlovable over and over again, an exception to the rule could be that I’ve been loved and have friends and family who love me. Start to challenge your inner critic and show it who’s boss!