Why Being a Perfectionist is a Mistake

Posted on July 14, 2010


I just finished an insightful book called What Happy Women Know by Cathy Greenberg and Dan Baker. Over the next few weeks, I’ll take the scientifically proven data from this book and tell you what happy women know about relationships.

Happy women know that they don’t have to be perfect to be in a great relationship.

Lizards love perfectionism. You know why? Because “being perfect” brings with it the illusion of security and lizards LOVE anything that sounds like safety and security. If you’re perfect, you’ll find the perfect man and he’ll never leave you is what your lizard may tell you.

You’ll spend time and energy trying to get the perfect body, trying to find the perfect clothes, trying to land the perfect job, trying to be the perfect girlfriend or wife.

But perfectionism is a mistake in itself. Being perfect is an unrealistic goal. Sure you may tone up your abs and lose 5 lbs, or land a promotion that pays you six figures. However, I guarantee you that your lizard will find something else that it perceives as imperfect and that you will need to fix. (Remember, lizards live in fear and because safety and security is never a certainty, they will always find something to be afraid of).

That’s how perfectionism works. It tempts you to constantly find something that’s imperfect which perpetuates the self-destructive belief that you, as you are, are not good enough.

Happy women know that they can improve themselves without the burden of perfectionism.

So how does one set high personal expectations and standards without falling into the perfectionist trap? According to recent research, the trick is to focus on what you already do well, and build on that by taking turtle steps.

I’ve heard turtle steps discussed in Kaizen, in positive psychology, and in life coaching. Turtle steps are just baby steps that help you move like a turtle, slow and steady, to your big goal. They are steps that require some effort, but not that much effort. They are designed to be small enough so that you can take some action but not too much action, in order to keep you working towards your goal.

Let’s say you have a goal to start an intense yoga practice and one of your strengths is commitment. A typical yoga workout is about 90 minutes long-quite a daunting task for a beginner. Rather than throwing yourself into the hardest yoga class around, only to come out sore and discouraged by your lack of flexibility and determined never to return again (a perfectionist tendency), you could instead take turtle steps and build up to your goal.

An appropriate turtle step would be to find one pose (perhaps online or in a yoga magazine) you could do every morning. Another turtle step would be to set your alarm clock 5 minutes earlier in order to do the pose. The next turtle step would be to actually wake up when the alarm goes off and to do the pose each morning.

Once you established this practice, after at least 4 days, (because it takes four consistent days to establish a new habit), you could then add another component to your routine. Perhaps you could add another pose or hold your first pose longer. You would continue like this, so and on and so forth, until you were ready to spend 90 minutes in a yoga class. Even then, you wouldn’t choose the hardest class to attend. You’d choose a beginner class and then, once you were established, progress from there.

Happy women know that being a perfectionist is a mistake.

They see the self-esteem eroding issues with trying to reach unrealistic goals and honor and value themselves enough to set realistic goals. They are insightful enough to see the difference behind the lizard’s fear that claims one must be perfect and the strong woman’s commitment to high personal standards. And most of all, they know that their strengths are the foundation from which they can build better lives and that even as they are working towards self-improvement, who they are is good enough.

Posted in: Love 101