Updated: Apr 28, 2020
Do you have extremely high standards for yourself and others? Is it hard for you to relax because you are trying to be so productive? Do you get mad at yourself when you make mistakes? If you answered yes to these questions, you likely struggle with perfectionism. The good news is that you can change some of these habits. Mindfulness and the “70% rule” are great antidotes for perfectionism.
Maybe you think that there is nothing wrong with doing a good job, and you are right. There are some positive aspects of being a person who wants to do the best. For instance, you are likely to be well prepared, are very thorough at work, and you often feel good about your achievements. Your supervisor or other leaders probably greatly appreciate that you are the organized one on your team and that you pay attention to detail. Many people in your life value the kind of effort that you are always putting forth, and see you as a star employee, parent, or athlete. Your coworkers, peers, and friends probably notice what a good job you do and how you are usually prepared for things and you are likely to get a lot of compliments.
The downside to perfectionism comes more from the inside, when your achievement is not enough, you blame yourself if things are not done correctly. You might playback an error over and over in your head because you expect yourself to not make mistakes. This causes unnecessary stress and uses up your energy. You likely find it very hard to let go of these mistakes and perceived shortcomings, making it harder for you to enjoy life.
Perfectionism can show up with the mental habit of what the late psychologist Albert Ellis called “shoulding” yourself. This was a humorous way to describe the tendency to make internal statements such as “I should not fail,” “I should do things the right way,” “I should do better,“ or “I should not make mistakes or I will be rejected.” These are rules that you have subconsciously formed for yourself and they drive your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. These rules likely came from your childhood. You might have heard messages that told you what you were doing was not good enough. These types of critical statements can lead to feelings of guilt, anxiety, and depression.
Perfectionism does not always result in productivity and high performance. Sometimes perfectionism can backfire and you end up not being as productive or efficient as you would like. You may not be able to complete projects as you constantly try to make them just right. It can also lead to a habit of putting things off or avoiding things all together due to a fear of failing. You might miss out on an experience because you do not want to make a mistake.
Perfectionism can also affect your relationships with others. For instance, you may not trust others to do a good job. You might have a hard time delegating to other people at work or at home because you feel others are not going to do things as well as you would or the way you want things done. You may build up some feelings of resentment over time as you feel that you are the one who takes on more of the burden at work or at home. It can also be hurtful to your friends, family or co-workers when they feel that you do not trust them to do a good job.
If these things are happening for you, notice what you are saying to yourself and decide if always trying to do better is affecting your mental health. The wonderful thing is that mindfulness can help you with the negative side of perfectionism. It can do so by keeping you in the present moment. When we keep playing a past mistake in our head, mindfulness gently brings us back to the present moment so that we can enjoy what we are currently doing. When we are fearful of making a mistake in the future, mindfulness lets us come back to the here and now. Adding the phrase “I am doing my best right now” helps us focus on our current task and allows us to relax our standards. We can enjoy today more when we let the past go and leave the future for another day.
Mindfulness also allows us to watch our thoughts as an observer without judgment. It allows us to just take notice and realize all the thoughts we are having and how those thoughts might be common thoughts that a lot of people have. Take a moment and notice the thoughts you are having about yourself. Do you speak to yourself harshly? Do you struggle with not forgiving yourself if things were not done just right? Turning those critical thoughts into kind and more self-accepting thoughts can go a long way towards allowing yourself to be human.
The 70% rule is a great way of applying mindfulness to your perfectionistic habits. This rule asks us what if we could adjust our acceptable level of how often we do a great job in the various areas of our lives? Since it is not humanly possible to do a great job 100% of the time, how about 70% of the time? The other 30% of experiences, you can chalk up to lessons learned (rather than calling them “mistakes”). With practice it will be possible to let go of perfection and to see that we have made a reasonable effort. We sometimes forget that being human naturally involves many slips along the way – it is part of the journey. It allows us to be more flexible. Mindfulness helps us to embrace being human with all of its messiness and struggle.
There are more applications for the 70% rule. For instance, imagine if you were kind to your children 70% of the time and the rest of the time you accepted you are just human doing the tough job of parenting? Imagine yourself saying the “right” thing in 70% of your conversations and the rest of the time you accepted there will be blunders? Imagine if you ran that 10-minute mile 70% of the time and the rest was considered running for enjoyment? If this sounds like a stretch, you might have to start with a 90% rule and eventually move to 70% or wherever you find yourself feeling more comfortable.
What steps can you take to embrace being more human? and becoming more flexible with yourself? Maybe start with a few of these:
Try to tolerate mistakes that don’t have serious consequences like not correcting every word you misspelled in a text message. Go ahead and send the message without perfecting it.
Alternate working hard with taking time to rest without thinking about things that are still on your to-do list. Try one of our guided meditations to help with this.
Take a step back and think about everything you learned when things have not gone well. Maybe you learned a different way to do something or became more patient or tolerant.
Try something new even if it takes you a while to “get it” (like learning a new language or playing a new instrument).
A great example of the 70% rule occurred at a conference that I attended a while ago. The speaker led us in a warm-up exercise that involved learning a lot of new names. She put people in groups and the groups had to rotate frequently, being introduced to many people at once. She asked that every time you made a mistake in learning someone’s name, you should smile and take a bow to embrace the mistakes humans make. So maybe instead of trying to be perfect, try to stay in the here and now, adjust your expectations, and take a bow!