Many of us remember the thrill of getting a new bike. We may even recall the letdown we felt when a sloppy turn caused us to ding it up. What if we had experienced those moments in our lives differently? What if we hadn’t beat ourselves up for an error in judgment, and instead celebrated how those dents made us more careful, empathetic or relatable?
Changing how we respond to mishaps is easier said than done, especially if you’ve been taught to strive for perfection, says David Gennis, a licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical director of behavioral health at The Pavilion at Southern Hills Hospital, an HCA Healthcare hospital in Las Vegas.
“We have to remember that we can experience a heightened level of anxiety or stress as a result of our perfectionist traits,” Gennis says, noting that even psychologists like him struggle with this challenge. “I joke with my team of clinicians that we should refer to ourselves as ‘Overachievers Anonymous.’”
Gennis has a long-standing connection to perfectionist tendencies. Before earning his doctorate in psychology, he was a competitive gymnast. “I felt so down on myself when I would fall or miss the move,” he remembers of his competition days. “But it taught me valuable lessons about resiliency, because when I would literally fall on the ground, I would have to pick myself back up and get back on the apparatus.”
Perfectionists can elevate the work of those around them by encouraging order and attention to detail, Gennis says. “However, those same positive attributes taken to the extreme can create a certain level of destructive stress,” he adds. “Seeking to be free from all flaws is an unattainable and unrealistic notion, and it can be an unhealthy pursuit.”
If you struggle with perfectionism, try these tactics to experience more pleasure as you navigate an imperfect world.
Recognize the dangers of perfectionism.
When perfectionists don’t meet certain thresholds, they can develop low self- esteem, anxiety and even depression. They often find day-to-day activities less satisfying because they put too much pressure on themselves to be exemplary in all aspects of their lives.
Extreme perfectionists can even become isolated by their attempts to control and “perfect” the lives of those around them.
You can fight these feelings by acknowledging that life is hard, and no one can control everything or everyone. Everyone messes up at times. “We’re all constantly learning and practicing how to be better humans,” Gennis says. “Be open-minded to different ways to regulate your emotions so that you can feel fulfilled even when you aren’t perfect.
Practice acceptance—and forgive yourself.
When you make a mistake, acknowledge the fact that you did the best that you could at that time given the resources you had. Remind yourself of the times you’ve successfully managed life’s twists and turns. “Taking a moment to celebrate your positive characteristics will give you the emotional energy to manage difficulties,” Gennis says. “Work hard not to ruminate on things you can’t change. Concentrate your energy instead on what you can do differently moving forward.”
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Let’s be honest, you won’t be good at every- thing you try. Enjoy an activity for the pleasure it gives you, not for your proficiency at doing it. Pat yourself on the back for trying something that’s hard for you.
Seek support when needed.
“If anyone is feeling a little down or anxious about life, don’t feel any stigma about asking for support from a mental health provider,” Gennis says. “There are many resources out there to empower individuals to be happier and experience more joy in their lives.”