Do you struggle with perfectionism?
Learn why you never can be perfect—and how to avoid the chase!
Written by: Paul E. Wanvig, published in English: 3. April 2019
First published in Medium Magazine (Norway) 02.2015
Why is it impossible for human beings to be perfect and what are the consequences of this vain pursuit? Perfectionism has become one of today's major public diseases—"everything and everyone must be perfect!" In this article, you will find tips on how to let go of the perfectionist in you and how this will benefit all aspects of your life.
Once upon a time, I was proud to be a perfectionist. That was part of my identity. Everything had to be 100 percent. I strived continuously for things to get better, and even the greatest success was not good enough since everything could be even better. It was never enough. In December 2003, after suffering from burnout, I had a brutal awakening and finally realized what life is truly about.
Society often glamorizes perfectionism. We want to have a perfect body, and not only that, but also a perfect house, car, family, and job. Jobs and income often define social status. The higher and faster we climb the career ladder, the more valuable and "perfect" we are in the eyes of society.
We live in a world where our own and others' expectations cause us to often only exist. We rush from one thing to the other while we continuously respond to what's happening on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The boss pushes us to work overtime, the family requires us to be present, friends get upset that we do not have time for them, and sometimes we must also find time to shop, cook, and wash, as well as drop and pick up our children from school. The pursuit of perfectionism can suck the life out of anyone.
All of this is supported by the media as well as a giant self-help industry with countless seminars and books that provide us with tools and insights to "help" us become even more perfect...
I love being a fallible human—it means I accept my basic nature.
- Paul E. Wanvig
The paradox is that perfectionism in itself is a mirage—a castle in the air. Striving for perfectionism is striving for the impossible. What is perfect? How do we measure it? What does it look like?
For example, and most authors will recognize this dilemma well: The goal of writing the perfect book is probably the main reason why most drafted books are never published. There is no book that is perfect. Even after several rounds of edits and revisions, typing and grammatical errors are always found, and all content, of course, can be written better...
The first article I wrote for Medium magazine in Norway was published in 2009 and had the title "From disease and desperation to health and happiness." It took me over four weeks to write it. When I read it today, I'm not exactly proud of the content or language of the article. Today it takes me 3–4 hours to write an article like the one you are reading now. The big difference is that I have now realized what perfectionism really is and how to avoid suffering from it, which in turn has led to a comprehensive improvement in my quality of life. (I also, of course, have much more experience in writing).
To strive for the irrational goal of perfectionism makes many people frustrated, stressed, sick, and unhappy. This is probably the most serious disease we have in our society today, since it robs us of opportunities to become happier. The pursuit of perfectionism leads to chronic negative stress, which in turn can lead to both physical diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, and mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety (i.e., see References 1, 2, 3, and 4).
The depression epidemic
Another paradox is that the use of antidepressants has increased over the past two decades, while in the West we live in the most successful and richest time period in history! Use of antidepressants among Americans has increased by 400 percent since the early 1990s (Ref. 7). According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 13 percent of the American population used antidepressants in 2012, while 6.8 percent used them in 1999. Usage has almost doubled in a decade (Ref. 8). Even though we are richer than ever, we are unhappier than ever in modern history!
Karōshi—death after overworking
Japan is one of the most extreme work and perfectionist cultures in the world. As far as I know, Japan was the first culture in the world to have its own word for "death from overworking": karōshi. China has borrowed the term and calls it guolaosi (guò láo sǐ). To be considered a karōshi, the victims must have worked more than 100 hours of overtime the month before they died or 80 hours overtime for two consecutive months during the last six months before their death (Ref. 5). Typical causes of death in karōshi are heart attacks, strokes, and suicides.
In Japan, it is normal and expected that you are going to give everything to your job. A typical work week for the Japanese is often 60–90 hours. In this culture, there isn't much balance between work and leisure. For example, 70 percent of men and 60 percent of women aged 18–34 do not have romantic partners, of which 42 percent of men and 44 percent of women are virgins (Ref. 6). The government in Japan is concerned that sexual apathy and an astonishingly high number of singles, as well as widespread loneliness in the younger part of the population, will lead to a cultural disaster in the coming years.
But Japan is not unique. Mexico is at the top when it comes to overworking, with the United States right behind. In China, over 600,000 people die every year from overworking (Ref. 5).
Do not fear perfectionism—you will never achieve it.
- Salvador Dalí
The path out of the hamster wheel
Most people I meet are in some way driven by the hunt for perfectionism. It may be a homeowner that wants to create the perfect home and a beautiful exterior facade—and wants to be present for the children, grandchildren, friends, sports teams, and everyone else. But it is not enough that you should be present everywhere; you should also beam with happiness, be in a good mood, and make sure everything goes according to plan always.
The same basic issue often also applies to students, physicians, engineers, business executives, unemployed persons, and retirees. It usually does not matter what you do or who you are—this troll exists anyway as an active "behavioral program" that operates by itself in the subconscious mind.
For my part, the journey out of the "hamster wheel" started after I was involuntarily burned out and had to ask myself if life was really all about working as a perfect machine, so that I could be considered a valuable person according to society standards, or whether it was about living a life where I accept that I am a human being, who by definition is fallible by nature.
I'm not an infallible person
I have never met a person who does not make mistakes—many mistakes! Have you? Irrespectively, most people unfortunately use far too much energy to avoid making mistakes. Afraid to make mistakes at work, afraid to say the wrong things, afraid of failing in the exam, afraid of not being good enough, afraid of not having the right clothes, afraid of asking the wrong question, afraid of getting asked questions about something we cannot answer, afraid of what people want to say, afraid of... and the fear continues indefinitely.
To try avoiding mistakes, we use much energy; the more perfect we can be, the less reason we have for fear of making mistakes. Thus, the infinite sprint in the hamster wheel is underway, put on autopilot by our subconscious behavior.
I have met many who have far above average talent and knowledge in several fields. But talent and knowledge are unfortunately not the most important factors for success. Over the last decade, I have learned from many teachers in the personal development and complementary medicine industries. Everyone has the basics needed to educate others in their field of study, but unfortunately, too many people get stuck in their own performance anxiety.
Imagine if, while I was hosting a seminar, I get asked a question from one of my participants that I cannot answer. What will they think of me then? Since I'm a teacher and expert of my topic, I should know everything, right? This leads to an eternal pursuit for more knowledge: reading more books, going on several courses, acquiring more education—because when I have enough knowledge and am perfect enough, I will start up my business. The problem is that most people will never feel perfect enough, no matter how much knowledge they get.
I want to be perfect—meaning that the basic nature of human beings is nonsense.
- Paul E. Wanvig
I LOVE making mistakes!
The first step out of the perfectionist's hamster wheel is to become aware of it and accept that making mistakes is completely natural and unavoidable. Why are you fighting against your own nature? Why not instead play with it and recognize that making mistakes is good? We are dependent on making mistakes to learn new things, to develop and grow in order to change things in life.
Is it possible to become a skilled tennis player without making thousands of mistakes first? Is it possible to learn to play the piano without first making mistakes? Is it possible to learn anything without making mistakes? Of course not! Mistakes are our greatest teachers. Our mistakes are something valuable that we should love with our whole heart!
Without mistakes, there is no growth or development. The more you try to avoid making mistakes, the more opportunities you take from yourself to grow, to change what you do not like about your life, and to be happier.
The only way I know how to get skilled in a discipline is to throw myself into it after I have learned the basic knowledge. It's only when a person begins to teach students that he or she starts to understand what it's really about being a teacher—through all the mistakes you make, experience and wisdom is what you harvest out of this. It's impossible to become an excellent teacher or therapist by just sitting in the classroom being a student.
Are all mistakes good?
This is an important question to ask in this context. To search or make mistakes for the sake of it will only lead you into another hamster wheel. The key here is to learn from the mistakes we make and avoid repeating them. The mistakes help us ask the right questions, so we can consciously fill the void (or knowledge gaps) with relevant information and experience. If you make the same mistake over and over again, this means you do not want to learn the lesson it has to teach, which then only creates more frustration.
If you are looking for perfection, you will never be satisfied.
- Leo Tolstoy
Here are some tips to get you out of your perfectionist hamster wheel.
- Accept that you are a human who makes mistakes and not an infallible, functioning machine.
- Start the day repeating the following mantra in front of the mirror: "I love being a fallible human! I open my arms to the mistakes I'm going to make today—for they are my biggest teachers! I'm curious what my next mistake will be!"
- Eighty percent is always good enough; Pareto's principle also applies here to the fullest. He said that we use 20 percent of the resources to achieve 80 percent of the result, and 80 percent of the resources to hunt for the remaining 20 percent. The perfectionist always goes for 100 percent, while the one who has jumped out of the hamster wheel has realized that 80 percent is good enough, since there are so many other worthwhile things in life to use the rest of the resources on.
- When you make a mistake, use the "interruption handling technique" to free yourself from suffering the emotional states described in my book "Beyond Positive Psychology A Journey from Burnout to Enlightenment" and self regulation methods described in the article "Find inner balance in your life through the art of self-regulation". Then find out how to avoid making the same mistake again.
The art of being a human being
It requires courage to allow yourself to be a living person, as opposed to the perfect machine society wants us to be, that only exists. But the prize for this is unbelievably large. Before I had burned out, I was like a functional machine (i.e., the functional achiever described in my book, "Beyond Positive Psychology – A journey from burnout to enlightenment") who thought I was indispensable and had a need to control everything, because I was the only one able to do things well enough. In the days after I went to the ground, I realized that the world went on just as well without me. I saw that I definitely was not indispensable to anyone.
This led to frustration, self-pity, and depression at the start. Eventually, I realized that happiness and meaning never would come to me as long as I defined my own value and my needs from someone other than myself. Before, I lived my life based on society's idea of what life should be and what it should involve. Today, I know that basic and genuine happiness and meaning can only come from knowing what I desire for myself and living to my own satisfaction.
Take, for example, writing this article. I have used the morning to write it, and now it's lunchtime. Could it be better? Of course! I could easily use a week or two to perfect it. Would that give me more meaning and happiness? No! Would it give you drastically higher value to read it? No! Eighty percent is and will be good enough.
The ideas I put forth are for inspiration to create a better life. Now it's up to you if you want to try this out or not. I respect your free will to choose what is right for you.
I choose to use the remaining 80 percent of my resources to live and not try to persuade you or perfect the article. For the rest of the day, I will enjoy life together with my dear wife in our charming garden. The sun is shining, and I rejoice in the life that I'm allowed to live!
1) Life events, stress, and illness. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3341916
2) Stress and health: Psychological, behavioral, and biological determinants. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2568977
3) 50 common signs and symptoms of stress. http://www.stress.org/stress-effects
4) Psychology Today: Why stress turns into depression. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-practice/201303/why-stress-turns-depression
5) BBC: Can you work yourself to death? http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20160912-is-there-such-thing-as-death-from-overwork
6) Washington Post: Japan has a worrying number of virgins, government finds. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/09/16/japan-has-a-worrying-number-of-virgins-government-finds/?utm_term=.e03c546a88d1
7) Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Antidepressant use in persons aged 12 and over: United States, 2005–2008. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db76.htm
8) Percentage of Americans on antidepressants nearly doubles. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2467552#joi150128r28
9) The rise of all-purpose antidepressants. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-rise-of-all-purpose-antidepressants
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Paul E. Wanvig is a Neoteric Shaman, entrepreneur, journalist, author, speaker, bio-hacker, spiritual teacher & encouraging optimist dedicated to helping you and your family live a Fulfilled Life and ending the stress and burnout epidemic by Utilizing the Best of Modern and Ancient Scientific Practices, Medicine and Technology.
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