How to Be an Imperfectionist: The New Way to Self-Acceptance, Fearless Living, and Freedom from Perfectionism
By Stephen Guise
Published June 4, 2015
Recommendation: Avoid | Ok | Get It | Must Have
Why Should You Read This?
- Easy to read
- Actionable and friendly tips to deal with bad perfectionist habits
Guise’s book reads like a good friend giving you advice. He’s a former perfectionist. So, he understands the everyday costs of perfectionism without the psychological examination.
He doesn’t go into your childhood or past experiences to decipher why you do what you do. He just sits you down and asks you to look at what perfectionism does to you. Are these beliefs helping or hurting you? Is perfectionism providing you with the benefits that you think it does? And then he describes imperfectionism as an alternative approach to living your life.
What’s It About?
- Discusses the downsides perfectionists face
- Emphasizes why being an imperfectionist is better
- Describes how to overcome 5 perfectionist traits
- Unrealistic expectations
- Need for approval
- Concern over mistakes
- Doubts about actions
Downsides of Perfectionism
Guise argues that perfectionism is something people secretly accept as a “positive flaw.” But realistically, perfectionists suffer from a whole slew of negative issues. They struggle to make decisions. They are intimidated by social situations. They procrastinate. They usually get depressed and have low self-esteem.
These are often due to 3 standards perfectionists follow:
- Context: a perfectionist demands location, time, or resources be perfect to take action. So, if you are not in the right location, have enough time, or sufficient resources you don’t do it. For example, your routine may be to jog around your block before work. But say you stayed at a friend’s, or got up late, or don’t have your running shoes, you don’t jog. But was the point for you to get exercise or mechanically follow a routine? So, unless you follow the routine exactly, any effort doesn’t count?
- Quality: the emphasis is on flawless execution or an error free product. Unfortunately, neither guarantees success or value. And isn’t this what you’re aiming for? For example, in gymnastics an athlete can flawlessly execute a simple routine. But the winner can be someone who made mistakes but had a more challenging performance.
- Quantity: this is like pole vaulting. Failure is if you fail to go above the pole. If you don’t hit the target, then it doesn’t matter. For example, if your goal is to exercise for 30 minutes, but you only do 20 to a perfectionist you failed. None of the calories burned or cardio benefits during the 20 minutes matter. The focus is on you missed 10 minutes.
Perfectionists don’t care about partials. Either it’s at least 100% of what you set out to do or nothing at all. This places enormous pressure and stress on the individual. This is especially true if their expectations are not realistic.
So, Why Be an Imperfectionist?
By contrast, an imperfectionist is someone who prioritizes doing over doing it perfectly. Guise argues that
“The primary benefits of becoming an imperfectionist are reduced stress and greater benefits by taking positive action in more situations. The more fearless, confident, and free a person is, the more they embrace imperfections in their life.”
An imperfectionist focuses on making progress more than the outcomes themselves. That isn’t to say they don’t care about results. But rather, they are more willing to carry out imperfect actions if it propels them forward.
Imperfectionists acknowledge when doing something they will have:
- Imperfect ideas
- Imperfect decisions
- Imperfect action
- Imperfect adaptation
- Imperfect results
The point is to do, learn, adapt, and move onto the next iteration. Success is often the product of multiple steps. If you get fixated on perfecting one step and don’t move onto the others, then you’re not moving ahead.
We know that perfect execution or a flawless product doesn’t guarantee success. But performing an imperfect step doesn’t doom the whole effort to failure either.
The next sections highlight how imperfectionists deal with various perfectionist challenges.
Dealing with Unrealistic Expectations
Perfectionists view anything less than their standards as unacceptable. As stated earlier, partial credit doesn’t count. Any mistakes, however minor or few, outweigh any success.
This creates problems because Guise argues our expectations drive our emotions. If you meet or exceed them, you’re happy. But if you don’t, you feel negative. With high standards, you’re likely to be in the latter. This in turn makes it a struggle to achieve things.
The solution is to adjust your expectations, which are simply what we think things should be. Guise suggests you go with high general expectations and low specific ones. Perfectionists by contrast have low general expectations and high specific ones. This means in specific situations, perfectionists expect things to turn out perfectly. But when they don’t, they get disappointed and their self-confidence drops in general.
Imperfectionists, on the other hand, set low specific expectations. So, when you go to an event, you don’t expect much. If any success happens, this is better than what you expected. So you feel great, improving your mood and boosting your general self-confidence.
Another tactic is to go from the perfectionist’s “never enough” to the imperfectionist’s “not quite enough.” Because of their high standards, perfectionists are rarely satisfied. Any success is “never enough.” Imperfectionists, by contrast, decide what’s enough within the constraints of time, resources, and skill.
Guise also argues don’t wait for everything to be perfectly aligned. Lower the bar to action. An imperfectionist does what they need to do wherever possible. He argues that “If you’re willing to do in the sewer, you will never fail to do it again.”
A bit extreme but the point is progress comes in the doing, not in the waiting to do perfectly.
Again, focus on the process, not on the results. You have control over what you do but not over how the results are perceived. So, Guise says focusing on doing your best. The point is to actively do, take feedback, adapt, and not ruminate – which brings up the next issue.
Rumination is when you obsessively focus about what went wrong, constantly revisit the issue, and self-criticize without taking steps to fix it. This is a problem because you spend energy feeling like crap and not doing things for the better.
To overcome this, accept past actions. You can’t change the past. What’s done is done. Dwelling on it doesn’t change it. Rumination tries to change the past by thinking about it, but it’s a form of denial. If it’s something you can’t fix, the solution is acceptance.
Many setbacks, however, are fixable. But you need to answer if it was due to chance or failure or both. If things didn’t work but were due to chance, then persist. You may have the right approach but just had bad luck. Keep trying and see if your approach will work next time.
Failure by contrast is not random. It tends to be reproducible and predictable (perhaps not initially but with hindsight). If you continue to experience failure, try a different approach. Do what others have tried and see if that works.
If both factors play a role or you simply don’t know, then be persistent but try different strategies. Again, the focus is not on blame but finding a solution. Replace rumination with the appropriate corrective action.
Also, when you ruminate you often engage in self-criticism. Change negative self-talk by first seeking to understand why you are being that way. Are you being harsher on yourself than you would be on someone else? Are you are using words like “should”? Should sounds permanent, making criticism overly harsh. Change “should” to “could” which opens the door to improvement.
Finally, use timers to move you from rumination to action. Possible ones include:
- Countdown timer: when this runs out you must start your task
- Decision countdown: you must make a firm decision before the timer runs out
- Focus timer: for X minutes, focus on one task of choice
- Pomodoro technique: work for 25 minutes and then rest for 5. Repeat
- Work and play carousel: work for an hour, relax for an hour, repeat.
Addressing the Need for Approval
For some perfectionists, they have a strong need for approval. This acts as a barrier between you and executing on your ideas. You may lack the self-confidence or self-esteem to move on your own. Or have such a strong desire to be liked by everyone that you don’t move unless everything is perfect.
Guise suggests that the solution is to increase your self-confidence and this can be done in 4 ways.
- Use power poses. Amy Cuddy’s research suggests certain physical postures trigger production of confidence-boosting chemical changes. So, if you need a confidence boost, do a power pose. (Cuddy’s research is controversial as several groups claimed they could not reproduce her findings; but her latest research refutes those criticism (layman article, original science article))
- Fake it until you make it. Suspend your self-doubt for the moment to allow yourself to think and act like a confident person. Practice this enough and you eventually increase your self-confidence.
- Adjust your benchmarks. If you’re in the habit of comparing yourself to the best, you will always come up short. The reality is there is always someone better than you. But by the same token, there are people worse than you, so don’t view yourself as a failure either. Be aware of the message you send yourself when you compare yourself to others. Ask yourself what do you want to learn from the comparison?
- Perform an act of rebellion once a day. Guise says the pressure to conform makes you susceptible to perfectionist tendencies. To counteract this, you need to rebel against what’s your need for approval. He recommends things such as: posing confidently in public, singing in public, lying down in public for 30 seconds, wearing a fanny pack, talking to strangers, or walking slow. The key is to find an act that counters your need for approval to break its hold on you.
Managing Concern over Mistakes
In 2008 at the Big Ten Indoor Track Championship, Heather Dornidorn was favored to win the 600 m sprint. The problem was towards the end of the second lap, as she took the lead, she tripped, and fell. Though she recovered, she was in last place. So, she lost, right?
Except that she didn’t. As this video showed, she recovered and went on to win the race despite the calamity.
Guise cites this example to make the point,” … the girl who won made more mistakes than any of the girls who lost.” In other words, not making mistakes isn’t a guarantor of success.
Concern over mistakes generally increases your anxiety, creating a fear of action. As an example, Guise says a statistical analysis of basketball player free throws showed that home teams are worse at free throw in clutch situations. The reasoning is when the game is on the line, a home player feels intense pressure not to make a mistake. They worry about disappointing their team and fans and unfortunately, choke.
To address this, adopt the imperfectionist mindset. See and accept yourself as imperfect (a work in progress) which makes any success seem great. In contrast, the perfectionist sees anything less than ideal trash.
What aids the imperfectionist is the bias towards action. You activate this by viewing tasks as binary vs. analog. Binary looks at doing vs. not doing whereas the analog view is a continuum of performance. With the latter you open yourself up to self-criticism, since you can judge how well the task was done.
So, for an imperfectionist, things are simple. You’re successful if you did it and failed if you didn’t. Guise argues this simplicity is what crushes procrastination. Procrastination arises when your perfectionism combines fear with complicated objectives.
By making success binary and easier than failure, you succeed via progress. The imperfectionist emphasizes perfect progress and consistency. It’s not about hitting the target but more on making the effort. And as long as you’re moving forward, then you are succeeding. (Am not sure about the perfect progress part but agree with the need to make the effort).
In addition, Guises states some people feel that success should be chunky. You need an accurately-sized goal from the start in order to do something. For example, if you set a goal of 20 push-ups, then that “chunk” must be aimed for from the start.
Guise argues that success doesn’t work that way. It is the natural outcome of making progress. So, if you focus on completing a set of smaller goals, then you have a greater chance of continuing. You make progress and so success is inherently modular.
Overcoming Doubts about Actions
“A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” – George S. Patton
When in doubt, a common response is delay action until more certain. The problem is when a perfectionist delays action, they also project the worst-case scenarios. This triggers a need to do more planning, research, or thinking to avoid these outcomes. But it’s impossible to completely remove uncertainty. So, you have a never-ending cycle.
Another problem is even a perfect decision-making machine cannot make perfect decisions with imperfect data. And you can never have perfect data.
Guises proposes that you tackle the doubt by the following:
- Embrace the imperfection (uncertainty)
- Consider the risks and the consequences of doing the wrong thing
- Simplify your thinking to stop overanalyzing each option. If the activity is good, just do it.
Those who are successful didn’t get it right the first time. They got there eventually through struggling and learning. If you don’t act, you don’t learn so you never get better.
Key is to make progress. If you’re willing to make imperfect decisions, take imperfect actions, and perform under imperfect conditions, procrastination will disappear.
Cons: Gaps & Issues
The main problem is Guise’s solutions don’t cite any scientific evidence to back them up. Any references are mainly to describe the origins and types of perfectionism.
So, there is a confirmation bias issue. His techniques may work fine for him but it’s not clear if they are applicable to the audience at large. This is where the science could have backed up his solutions.
Another issue is his advice about performing an act of rebellion a day to overcome the need for approval. You need to develop a strong self-confidence to do that. Else if you experience embarrassment, this approach may backfire and make things worse.
Get it because it’s short and an easy read. He talks to you like a friend and offers a pragmatic view of how perfectionism hurts you. This makes it easy to follow his reasoning.
While the scientific evidence is lacking, his tips are simple and actionable. I also don’t have any major suspicions on why they wouldn’t work. His advice is reasonable and aligns with what I have read from psychologists.
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