While we live in a society in which academic and career achievement are prized, there are times in life when it’s okay to be naïve, inconsistent, or flat out wrong. Not only is it okay to be these things, doing so allows us to learn. It seems logical that in order to succeed at something, we have to first try, to practice, and accept a high probability of failure. In Emerson’s words, every artist was once an amateur.
When we crack open a fortune cookie at the end of a meal, it’s not the stale, folded up, cardboard-textured wafer that holds the appeal; it’s the message inside that we look forward to, tearing into it eagerly, searching for some deeper meaning, or maybe just good lotto numbers. My favorite fortune cookie message is one that reminds me not to be so hard on myself. It reads, “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” This is a message worth memorizing for those who struggle with perfectionism.
It’s okay to make mistakes even in areas you have had plenty of experience and practice. Humans are just that – human. We make mistakes and become better versions of ourselves because of them. We become more experienced, develop humility, are reminded of our humanity, and can then practice good judgment because of our imperfections. Understanding this doesn’t mean we ignore mistakes though. When clients come in struggling with perfectionism, they have already overdone it analyzing the situation and feeling shame.
There’s a difference between striving for your best and beating yourself up when you fail to reach your goals. Goals give us motivation. Done right, we realize a goal is an experiment external to our sense of self, something we can try-out and attempt to reach as a part of living life fully. Failing to reach a goal doesn’t equate to failure in life. Done right, goals help us feel a sense of satisfaction when we work towards, meet, or exceed them. Done wrong, we accept nothing less than perfection and can easily turn into people-pleasers, workaholics or procrastinators, and be crippled by anxiety or depression.
Often, perfectionism is seen as a badge of honor. We hear others humblebrag about their perfectionist ways. Perfectionism is not, however, a super-power. It develops as a compensation for insecurities and fear of the unknown. Brene Brown explained, “perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfectly, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment and blame.”
One part of the solution lies in just that: embracing feelings of shame, judgment, and blame. Feel these things when you make a mistake or fall short of your goals, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that they are universal human feelings. You are not alone.
Evaluating the appropriateness of these feelings helps, too. Many people find the 10-year question helpful. Will the failure you’re worried about right now make an impact in 10 years? Sometimes, the impact of a mistake is serious. Often, consequences aren’t as dire as we initially believe they may be. Have you convinced yourself that one mistake (or even a series of mistakes) will ruin your life? Have you blown a particular failure out of proportion? Will you really be fired or flunk out of school, is a relationship actually now beyond repair? Give yourself a reality check. Now would be a good time to remind yourself of the things you are proud of, the past accomplishments you have made, or the potential that you have to try again. Then, you can make a level-headed decision to move on and let go of the situation or get on track to fix it.
If necessary, make peace with your current stage of life. Be who you are now. If you fail to reach perfection at a developing skill, remind yourself you are not an expert just yet. Reframe the way you speak to yourself, and focus on mistakes as a process instead of final results. Realize that you are an individual, the factors determining your success are multidimensional, and you are no less worthy of love or acceptance than anyone else. Remember to give yourself love and acceptance.
It may also help to think back to the fortune cookie. It’s not the outside (the results, the imperfection, the nasty tasteless cookie) that holds novelty, it’s the message and meaning (who you are as a person, your willingness to try again, and the ability to trust life’s process) inside.