As the new year begins, we set new goals and intentions to make changes. We start off with gusto and enthusiasm. We envision ourselves as this totally changed person and see the journey there as a bumpless one. And then, as the weeks wear on, we slip up and miss a day or two. We skip a day and tell ourselves that it won’t make any difference. We start to question why we wanted the goal and if we could have really reached it anyway. Often, we end up reverting back to our old ways of being and giving up on our new goals as we act as if we never set those goals to begin with and hope that no one notices.
As a recovering perfectionist, I find that, our view of our personal reality can limit our ability to reach our goals. Instead of taking a missed day or a ‘slip up’ in stride and starting over the next day, we can get down on ourselves, losing focus and motivation. You, too, may have experienced something similar in your journey to make changes. In his book Being Happy, Tal Ben-Shahar identifies two types of personalities along a continuum that we all experience: Optimalists and Perfectionists.
Optimalists accept reality as it is and accept failure as feedback on the journey to success. This identifies Optimalists as having a Growth Mindset and viewing failure as something to learn and grow from.
Perfectionists fight against reality and expect that the journey should be a smooth one with no failure along the way. Perfectionists do not see failure as an option and define a ‘happy life’ as one of experiencing a constant stream of positive emotions. Anything that is a challenge on the path toward success is viewed as negative and an unwanted obstacle. This can close perfectionists off to possibilities presented by the obstacles along the journey and it identifies perfectionists as having a Fixed Mindset, not able to see that success can come from failure.
Optimalists expect bumps in the road and detours as part of the process. They acknowledge that negative emotions are part of the experience of life and they accept that life will include sorrow, pain, and disappointment. Perfectionists tend to set goals that are impossible and have difficulty feeling satisfied. No matter what they accomplish, there is always something more to achieve in order to “be happy”, thereby rejecting the possibility of happiness for themselves where they are. This can be illustrated as that ever-dangling carrot that is always just out of reach.
Perfectionists experience anxiety related to the possibility of failure and reject reality for the fantasy of perfection, defining happiness as being dependant on success. The opposite is actually true: Happiness causes success. People who experience positive emotions have higher levels of creativity, enhanced resilience, better physical health, stronger immune systems, and a higher degree of success. When we increase the levels of happiness in our lives, we are thereby increasing our chances of success. (Shahar 2011) Living with a perfectionistic mindset can put a limit on the positive emotions that we experience as we are judging ourselves and comparing where we are to where we thought we would be or how we expected the journey to go.
Optimalists take on challenges with the intention to learn and grow and without the constant fear of failure. This attitude toward failure and success has a great impact on levels of self-esteem and self-confidence and it highlights a lack of self-compassion on the part of the Perfectionists.
In her brilliant book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene’ Brown states, “Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. Perfectionism is at its core about trying to earn approval and acceptance.” Perfectionism can paralyze us due to our own fear of failing or presenting ourselves as imperfect. We then become addicted to our perfectionistic thinking patterns in an attempt to control our fears when we are really fueling them. Brown advises, “It is in the process of embracing our imperfections that we find our truest gifts: courage, compassion, and connection.”
Our imperfections are what make us unique and relatable. When we can embrace that the journey will have challenges, we are more equipped to overcome those challenges without giving up.
As you move forward with the goals you have set, be kind to yourself. Try on an Optimalist mindset regarding failure and attempt to see slip-ups as opportunities. Keep learning as you take each step toward who you want to be. And along the way, remember to take a look back at how far you have come rather than only looking forward at how far you still want to go.
Finally, try to think of a FAIL this way: First Attempt In Learning.
Keep trying. I will be trying right next to you. It won’t always be easy, but the things worth working for often aren’t. You got this.
Talk again soon.