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Stop Trying to Be So Damn Perfect All the Time

Yep, that's what we're suggesting: Let go of the drive to do everything perfectly, and let go of the self-recrimination that comes when you don't. It's the quickest way to becoming truly content — and reaching your full potential.

Yep, that's what we're suggesting: Let go of the drive to do everything perfectly, and let go of the self-recrimination that comes when you don't. It's the quickest way to becoming truly content — and reaching your full potential.


By Jennifer King Lindley, Redbook

As a child, Melissa Dinwiddie dreamed of becoming an artist. She filled the margins of her school papers with ornate designs and spent her book-fair money on fine-art posters. "The family story was that I would grow up and be an amazing artist," says Melissa, of Mountain View, CA. Then, at 13, she had a revelation — sort of. "I was in art class, and we were sketching trees. I looked around and, to my eyes, everyone else's drawings were beautiful and mine was a scribble. I thought, I'm obviously not an artist. I'll never be good enough, so why try?" She snapped her pencil case shut and didn't return to her passion for 15 years.

Like Melissa, many of us are held back by our fear of — the horror — being less than perfect. Maybe we go blank in an important meeting or yell at our kids on the playground, then spend the rest of the day (or week) beating ourselves up about it. For some, perfectionism soaks into every corner of our lives: We need stellar performance reviews and can't have a chipped nail. "Or it can be domain-specific. You may hold yourself to impossibly high standards in your work or your parenting, say, but not both," says Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, Ph.D., a professor of human development at the Ohio State University.

Either way, it's a recipe for stress — and something even more nefarious. "Sticking only with what you are already good at creates a very small life for people," says Sharon Martin, a psychotherapist in San Jose, CA. A perfectly curated dollhouse of an existence might be nice to look at, but on the inside, it's awfully cramped. We all deserve more freedom than that.


The Real Problem With Mistakes

First, let's agree: Messing up feels terrible, even for the most secure among us. Studies have found that "social pain" — what we all experience when we feel humiliated — may activate the same circuits in the brain as physical pain. Women may be particularly averse to mistakes; wired to maintain bonds, we are often people pleasers. "We look to other people's opinions to determine what we should feel about ourselves," says Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. "If we show flaws, we think others will love us less."

British researchers asked men and women to recount mistakes they had made at work. Men tended to tell tidy stories, brief descriptions that put them in a good light (they tended to think things like, My idea was probably ahead of its time). Women, though, told messy stories in which they blamed themselves and felt upset for years. And Harvard University research found that women were much more likely to switch majors if they didn't get an A in an intro economics class than men, who didn't take a less-than-stellar start personally. (Surprised?)
Sometimes our biggest failures — divorce, being fired — are watershed moments.

Motherhood, treasured though it may be, only feeds the perfectionism monster. Moms feel the pressure to live up to increasingly impossible child-rearing standards, notes Schoppe-Sullivan. Christi Cazin of Las Vegas put huge burdens on herself when her son was born: "I thought if I raised my voice or didn't hang on every word he said, I was somehow failing both of us. Every day I fed, hugged, bathed, and encouraged, but all I could focus on was the time I yelled after a tantrum."

Schoppe-Sullivan confirms: "As a parent, you are going to fail. A lot. If you view every failure as a failure of you as a mom, that's going to harm your mental health."

But (the perfectionist in you might insist) doesn't holding yourself to teeth-gritting standards help you excel? Consider that classic job-interview parry: "My biggest weakness? My perfectionism!" Actually, too often perfectionism and procrastination are sisters. "You are so worried about making a mistake, you become paralyzed," says Patricia DiBartolo, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Smith College. You type the first few words of a novel: I sound stupid! Backspace, backspace. Or, worried you might not finish, you never dare to lace up for a 5K. True, you didn't fail. But are you happy?


Finding Joy In Screwing Up

What if mistakes are not the center of an embarrassingly revealing story, but a plot twist on the way to something else? "We've somehow developed a belief in effortless perfection. If you see someone's success, you assume she must be naturally talented. You don't see the struggle behind it," says DiBartolo. We need to share our mistakes and dead ends, she says, until we get that they're common, not exceptional. In other words, it's on all of us to make success look hard, not easy.

That's a lesson attorney Heather Calhoun of Atlanta gained through her own life detour. "I'm a super-overachiever. I was high school valedictorian, received the Star Student Award," she says. Heather breezed through law school and at 25 was an up-and-coming lawyer in a busy firm. "Then I convinced my bosses to let me become a lobbyist, working on legislation on behalf of the firm's clients. I thought it would be so cool." She hated the job. "I felt like I had a scarlet 'M' for 'mediocre' on my forehead. I was exhausted and drained and miserable," she says. After six months, she swallowed her embarrassment and asked for her old job back. A decade later, she views that setback as a gift: "Everyone at work forgave me — if they even noticed in the first place. The world kept turning. Eventually, it gave me confidence to take more risks, because I knew I'd survived that one." Now she believes failure is a necessary evil in crafting a fulfilling life.
We need to share our mistakes and dead ends, she says, until we get that they're common, not exceptional.

Scary as that sounds, consider this: "Imperfection is how we connect. We are attracted to authenticity," says Julie Hanks, Ph.D., author of The Assertiveness Guide for Women. That's why we feel comfort when someone else's house is cluttered too, or another person has similar parenting meltdowns. Christi has learned to focus on the things she does right as a mom, making her less stressed and more joyful in her relationship with her three kids. She blogs at Mama Needs More Coffee, and she doesn't want other moms to spend as many years getting to her hard-earned Zen state, exemplified by nuggets like this: "I don't obsess that I just made hot dogs for dinner. Again."


Letting Go of Perfection Won't Happen All At Once

Over the years, Melissa had secretly yearned to return to art but believed that if she couldn't do it masterfully, she had no right to even try. Then, after her wedding, she decided to decorate the leftover votives with colored paper to give as holiday gifts. "I felt like a total fraud when I first walked back into an art store," she says. But soon she was spending hour after hour making intricate paper cuttings, so engrossed she didn't look up. "To make it less scary, I told myself I was just procrastinating on real work," she says.

Eventually, friends started commissioning her designs. Today, Melissa is an artist and creative consultant and the author of The Creative Sandbox Way: Your Path to a Full-Color Life. She makes a point of posting her mistakes on her website and social media to show that they are a rich part of the creative process. (The botched projects often get the most enthusiastic reaction.) "I still sometimes have those inner voices that tell me, You're not good at this. I have learned to use those voices as a beacon, drawing me out of my comfort zone toward what I should try next," she says.
Giving up on perfection means accepting there will be lots of dropped stitches in the fabric of your life. Every one of us will screw up royally — what we can control is how we react. "Sometimes our biggest failures — divorce, being fired — are watershed moments," DiBartolo says. "You often look back and recognize them as the moments you started to thrive in ways you hadn't."

Not risking mistakes may be the largest mistake of all. What big chances or wild dreams might you miss out on because you fear messing up? Don't let your greatest regret be not having tried.



The Imperfection Guidebook

Consider the actual worst-case scenario. You screw up a couple of slides in your presentation. Not great — but not likely The End of the World. Do a reality check, advises Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., author of Better Than Perfect. "Ask yourself, Is my assessment accurate? Is my boss really going to fire me? What's more likely? She might be disappointed, or she might not be." Keep a written log of your mess-ups and their consequences — proof that imperfection is never as horrible as you imagine.

Take up something you are bad at. For anyone with a fear of looking foolish (most of us), psychotherapist Sharon Martin recommends exploring a hobby you've been interested in but afraid to try, like knitting (a humbling pastime indeed), improv, or Zumba. This will build your tolerance of mistakes in all parts of life: "You learn that they are just part of the process of learning."

Share your mistakes with others. "You will start to see that errors are common and people are not judging you as negatively as you fear," says Martin. "Likely your friends will say, 'That happens to me too! Let me tell you how I screwed up!' " (Check out the Whisper app, where people anonymously share blunders and yearnings. You're in good company!)

Try self- compassion. You forgot to hit the grocery store on the way home, and your kids have peanut butter crackers and aging bananas for school lunch. Instead of berating yourself with visions of their classmates' homemade bento boxes, talk to yourself as you would a friend who made the same mistake, advises Martin: It's no big deal! Everyone does that! You are still a great mom!

Find meaning in the process. If you're wracked with anxiety about always getting an A-plus result, you will sweat and swear your way through everything. So ask yourself why else you are working so hard. If you are getting ready for houseguests, don't stress about hospital corners; think about how much you'll enjoy time together and how even small efforts will make them feel at home.

Change your math. If you believe you must do everything 100 percent, choose a nonessential task and shoot for 80 percent instead. (Skip a few chapters of that book club book, or buy premade pie crust.) See that the results are still good and you will realize how much time and energy you waste on minutiae, trying to perfect inconsequential details. That's energy you could be using for more satisfying things.
Body,body,mental-health

See more at: Redbook
  1. Best Celebrity Body Positive Moments
  2. The Emotional Side of Caregiving
  3. How to Take Care of Yourself — and Everyone Else

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Health Magazine: Stop Trying to Be So Damn Perfect All the Time
Stop Trying to Be So Damn Perfect All the Time
Yep, that's what we're suggesting: Let go of the drive to do everything perfectly, and let go of the self-recrimination that comes when you don't. It's the quickest way to becoming truly content — and reaching your full potential.
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